When Lena Horne signed a long-term contract with MGM it was a very big deal. The year was 1942 and prior to that no black actor had ever been privy to such a lucrative contract with any major studio. More importantly, no black actor had ever wielded as much power in regards to the roles they would play. You see, not only did Horne sign a multi-year contract, but she did so under the stipulation that she would never be cast as a house servant or a maid – refusing to play the racist stereotypes that maligned her people since the inception of film. Yes, Horne certainly did do some major barrier breaking with this deal but, unfortunately, that didn’t mean she single handedly defeated racism. Her roles were still severely limited, usually to a single, stand-alone musical number. And to appease southern theaters that refused to show films with black performers, the films were re-edited with Horne’s segment left on the cutting room floor – her blackness literally erased for the comfort of white audiences. This kind of “limited acceptance” is perhaps the defining characteristic of her career but beyond that it’s something she turned into a lifelong fight – a fight against racism in all its insidious forms.
The beautiful Lena Horne
Born in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1917, Lena Horne had performance and activism in her blood. Her mother was an actress in an all-black theater troupe that toured across the country. The Horne family, her father’s side, was an established upper-middle class black family that placed strong emphasis on education. Many of her family members were college graduates who held high-ranking positions within activist organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League and worked to empower the black community. Much to the Horne family’s chagrin, the young Lena decided she was more fascinated by the world of show business than by the idea of becoming a scholar, and at the age of 16, she dropped out of school to pursue her own path. Little did her family know that path would lead her to become one of the most prominent faces of the civil rights movement.
In 1933 the 16 year old Horne began working on the chorus line at the famed Cotton Club in New York City. Her commitment to her work and natural beauty impressed the Cotton Club managers and soon she was given a chance to perform solo. Established artists such as Adelaide Hall and Cab Calloway took notice of the young songstress, offering advice and mentorship. Calloway even had her featured in his performance short film Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party as an uncredited dancer. She then began taking voice lessons and in 1934 made her Broadway debut with a small role in the all-black Dance with Your Gods. The next year she became the featured singer for the Noble Sissles Society Orchestra and sang at some of New York’s most prominent ballrooms and nightclubs, honing her craft as a songstress. Two years later she left the Orchestra and went solo.
Horne in her natural habitat
Horne returned to the Broadway stage in 1939, appearing in the musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939. The next year she joined the immensely popular Charlie Barnet band. The band was an all white ensemble until Horne came along. And as we all know, becoming the first anything can be a difficult ordeal, especially if that first something happens to be black. The band toured the country and as the only African American member of the band, Horne faced the humiliation of racial prejudice. The Barent band played at many white-only establishments. Although Horne was deemed good enough to sing and dance for white audiences, her black skin excluded her from just about anything else. When it came time to sit down and enjoy a drink or two while smoozing with the patrons, Horne was simply told “no.” The experience was incredibility ostracizing to the still young performer and after a year of the demeaning treatment she had enough. In 1941 she quit the band and returned to New York.
Upon her return, Horne began singing at the Cafe Society. This would become a turning point in Horne’s life. The Café Society was not only the first racially integrated nightclub in the United States, but it was also established with goal of showcasing African American talent in a safe and inviting atmosphere. The club prided itself on catering to both black and white audiences, treating all their patrons with equal respect and dignity. Basically, it was the OG of black safe spaces.
During her six-month tenure at the Café Society, Horne took an immense interest in African American History, culture, and the greater politics surrounding her heritage. She formed a quick friendship with the actor and activist, Paul Robeson.
Horne with her friend and mentor, Paul Robeson
At first it was a friendship like any other. Horne confessed her sheer exhaustion not only with the stress of show business but also to the added pressures that arose from the racism she faced working in the white establishment. At first, Robson simply listened and acted as a kind of mentor. But soon he began talking politics and told her she could help by joining the fight against racism and recommended researching groups such as the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. To quote an interview Horne did with Democracy Now, Lena said about her friendship with Robeson:
“Paul taught me about being proud because I was Negro. I had always had this pride, this fierce, sterile, almost, kind of pride, because my grandmother had said, “You must be proud.” But she never told me all the horror of her background. One didn’t talk about it, you see…He (Robeson) he sat down for hours, and he told me about Negro people and what — you know, I’ve read it in some books and never learned it in school; they don’t teach it in history books. I couldn’t know anything unless I really had moved up by then from the South and had been with Negro people who were terrified, you know, and couldn’t do anything about it. And he didn’t talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that’s why I was always loved him.”
Needless to say, the friendship sparked a fire inside Horne, and in the coming decades she would become one of the most prominent figures in the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans. As I said earlier, it was in her blood and now her blood was boiling.
After her tenure at the Café Society ended, Horne went west and gained an entirely new audience at the Hollywood nightclub scene. She sang at the famous club Felix Young Little Trot. It was a regular hangout for Hollywood’s elite, and gave Horne the opportunity to hobnob with many of the industry’s power players. Not long after, she signed a contract Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
During her time under contract with MGM, Horne’s only major roles came from films that had an all-black cast. She starred opposite Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in the musical Cabin in the Sky directed by Vincente Minnelli. Because the film had an all-black cast, it was considered quite the risk for MGM to produce as many southern states refused to carry films that featured black performers. Despite the risk, the film was a critical and financial success, making more then double its budget. She was then loaned to 20th Century Fox to appear in another all-black musical, Stormy Weather, which centers on the career of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. It was another hit. Despite the two back-to-back hits, Horne’s black heritage still limited her success in Hollywood.
As I mentioned before, Horne getting a contract with MGM was a big deal. A very big deal. No other black actor had such a contract with a major studio. But at the same time, a more insidious racism existed within the frameworks of this contract. Because of Horne’s mixed heritage AKA because she was both black and white, she was, in her own words “suspended in midair.” She had just enough Caucasian features to be accepted as a “good black” by the white establishment, but at the same wasn’t considered a viable leading lady due to the fact that she was, ya know, still black. Yet at the same time, many in the black community didn’t see her as a symbol of what African Americans could achieve but instead saw her as the weird double standard of the “white passing” black whose white features allowed her more opportunities than her darker skinned counter parts. So, even though she refused to play the stereotypical role as the subservient house maid, she was still just as easily dismissed as a racial outsider, as shown by the fact that she could be edited out of any film because southern white audiences wanted it so. Even with her growing disenchantment with Hollywood, Horne understood the importance of a black presence in political organizations and went on to become the first black board member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Lena Horne with Black troops
Despite her fame and fortune, Horne continued her fight against institutional racism. For one, she sued multiple nightclubs and theaters for discrimination. During World War II, the songstress traveled to Europe to perform for the troops. However, because the Army still had a policy of segregation, Horne ended up performing for black U.S soldiers and German prisoners of war. When she saw that the German P.O.W’s were seated in front of African American soldiers, she strolled right on down to the center of the aisle and performed in front of the black soldiers, putting her back to the German soldiers American was fighting against. She also continued her on-going work with fellow entertainer Paul Robeson at the Progressive Citizens of American, an anti-racism leftist organization.
She heavily lobbied for the role of Julie LaVerne in 1951 remake of Showboat, but it ultimately went to Ava Gardner. Horne maintains this was due to the anti-miscegenation rules put forth by Hayes Code. After that, Horne’s frustration with the Hollywood system came to a peak and her work with many leftish organizations put her against the McCarthy-era politics. Apparently she had enough of Hollywood and Hollywood had enough of her. So, she packed her bags and left.
Lena Horne and Martin Luther King, Jr.
After leaving the bright lights of Hollywood, Horne returned to the nightclub scene. She became one of the most successful singers of the era, touring throughout North America and Europe. In 1957 she attracted record numbers to her performances a the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and her live-album of the show, Lena Horne at The Waldorf-Astoria was the best selling female record in the history of RCA records. She returned to New York to star in the Broadway musical Jamaica. The 1958 politically charged production told the story of a small island community’s fight against American commercialism and touched upon still relevant topics such as evolution and unfettered capitalism. Jamaica was a hit play and lasted over 558 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in Musical for Lena Horne. She was the first black actress to be nominated for such an honor.
During this time Horne remained a prominent figure in the fight for civil rights. In 1963 Horne participated in the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King. She also spoke and performed at many civil rights rallies, and worked with the National Council for Negro Women and the NAAPC. Her civil rights song Now!, even went on to be used by Cuban director Santiago Alvarez to show the struggle for civil rights in the United States. For her tireless dedication to cause of civil rights, she would eventually be awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1983.
When Lena Horne passed away in 2010, she left behind an enormous legacy. Not only did she manage to climb to the top of the show business ladder, but she did so without forgetting where she came from. She experienced first hand the slights of institutional racism while also acknowledging the fact that her light skinned complexion and white features allowed her more opportunities than her darker skinned cohorts. Simply put, she spoke out strongly against discrimination of every kind throughout her career, and thus helping break the racial barriers for all of those who came after her. I want to end this with one of my favorite quotes from Horne and it goes a little something like this:
“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.”
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub