May 31, 2010
Lena Horne has died at the age of 92.
In the period when Jim Crow was blatant and legally enforced, Horne became one of this country’s most important jazz singers, beginning in the 1930s and continuing into the 1990s. She both experienced racism and used the position she staked out for herself to denounce it.
Horne first became known for her singing and dancing as a teenager, when she landed a spot in the dance chorus at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She later performed on Broadway where her talents won her roles in a number of movies in the 1940s. She became best known for her performance of the title song in the movie “Stormy Weather,” which became a signature piece for her and a jazz standard.
Though her relatively light skin opened some doors to her, Horne later recalled that her early movie roles were generally limited to a song or two that could easily be cut from the films when they played in the South, in order not to provoke racist opposition to a black actress in something other than a subservient role.
From nearly the beginning, she was known as someone ready to speak out for what she believed in. As a performer in the USO during World War II, she noticed the racist treatment of black soldiers and spoke out against it.
During the McCarthy period, when her film and television appearances were sharply curtailed, she refused to turn her back on her friendships with black communists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois.
She became an active participant in the Civil Rights movement, taking part in numerous marches and protests. She later took a stance in favor of militant self-defense by black people.
In the 1960s, things opened up a bit for Horne, as the black mobilization pushed open doors in the society. She was able to land a couple of larger parts in film, and had additional success as a singer, recording for several record labels and putting a one-woman show on Broadway that ran for 14 years.
Even at the age of 80, Horne remained outspoken, saying, “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me and I’m like nobody else.”