Bye Bye Cutie Pie
I cannot remember a time when Lena Horne did not fuel my erotic fantasies and haunt my dreams. When I was a boy only two women in the world seemed able to match her beauty: Dorothy Dandridge and my mother, Queen Elizabeth. Lena was superbly talented, irresistibly charming and drop dead gorgeous. And she was quintessentially American: nowhere but in the United States would she have been considered “a Negro.”
In other parts of the world she would have been classified as some species of racial hybrid – which, in biological terms she was; as are many Americans whether they know it or not. But the fact that she was considered black speaks volumes about the arbitrary nature of race in the US. It is a sociological construct not a biological fact. Hence in America “Negroes” run from light bright damned near white, to blue black. In order to really understand Lena – i.e. the path her life and career took – it is necessary to understand the peculiar relationship between race, color and rights in the United States.
In Cuba Lena would have been a “Mulatto,” if not white, in Puerto Rico she would have been a “Moreno,” or possibly white, in Brazil she would have found her place in what seems like an endless array of racial categories, and in South Africa she would be a “Colored.” During slavery times in the US she would have been considered a quadroon and wealthy white men would pay handsomely for her favors or set her up in grand style as an undercover lover.
Although New Orleans was infamous for its Quadroon Balls where wealthy white men came to meet beautiful mixed blood women and form forbidden liaisons, all of the southern cities had similar social arrangements. Urban historian Richard C. Wade documented the existence of mulatto classes in every major southern city, which was formed by illicit sexual intercourse between white men and African women in the anonymity of the city. The mixed blood females of that class were sometimes rescued by their white fathers who sent them away to be educated and live as free colored women – especially in Louisiana because of the Gents de Colour tradition – but others were abandoned to their fate in racist America.
Because she came along in the Twentieth Century, was a New York City girl, and the daughter of a well to do numbers racketeer – a gentleman gangster – she never wanted for anything. And when she was offered her first movie contract her father accompanied her to the business meeting and told Otto Preminger that he could provide his daughter with a maid so he didn’t want her playing one in the movies. And that was that! Lena remembered the incident the rest of her life, and would say many times “Mr. Preminger had never dealt with a strong black father” and didn’t quite know how to behave in his presence. “The Hornes,” a book written by Lena’s daughter Gail, presents a detailed portrait of the remarkable family from which she hailed.
Although she went on the appear in glamorous cameo’s in Hollywood Musicals, her only starring roles came in all black productions like “Cabin In The sky” and “Stormy Weather.” These movies were few and far between, but when they did get the green light to make one they were all-star affairs. The black community was bursting with great performers in this period, as show business really was one of the few avenues to affluence open to “Colored People” back in the day.
Hence whenever anybody wanted to stage a musical production – on stage or film – there was a treasure trove of talent to choose from. Lena was among the brightest stars and her talent illuminated every production she was in. She was what everybody in Hollywood wanted to be, what Maureen O’Hara called “a triple threat.” She could sing, act and dance. And still, she had to compete with other superbly gifted black performers like Dorothy Dandridge and Pear Bailey – who could also sing, dance and act – for the limited roles available to black female performers.
Lena Performing In “Jamaica”
Given the blatantly racist nature of American society, with its absurd pigmentocracy that judged people on the basis of their color and not their character, Lena was no doubt favored over her darker sisters for some roles and invited to perform in venues where they were not. Yet Lena was a real talent and came up through the ranks in learning her craft – she paid her artistic dues and suffered every indignity on and off the stage that every black American suffered.
Coming of age at a time when live shows were the order of the day, she was a chorus girl at Harlem’s world famous Cotton Club – a racist venue that rebuffed most black customers while employing world class black entertainers for the amusement and amazement of whites – fans and performers alike. Many a famous white act in this period stole their material from visits to black nightclubs, Yet because the black originators were excluded from white clubs the white plagiarizers could get away with grand cultural theft…and they did.
At L.A’s Coconut Grove
The White Folks Favorite Negro…Until She Denounced Racism!
It is virtually impossible for those of us living in America today to imagine what her life was like. To live and work in a country obsessed by color, where the races existed side by side in an uneasy truce that could break down at any time, resulting in murderous violence; yet you look like the enemy. To know that it was possible to slip into the dominant “race” and enjoy all the amenities that are routinely accorded them, yet choose to remain true to yourself and your people although it carried unimaginable burdens, was nothing short of heroic!
She could have left this country and settled in Europe or Mexico, and just passed into the local population without further reference to her “Negro” lineage. But Lena not only stayed in the racist land of her birth but became quite active in the struggle to change it. After becoming a bonefide star in show business, where her name and image was one of the best known brands in America, she embraced and supported the militant spokesmen for Afro-American liberation like Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King. This came as a surprise to many people – black and white – because it seemed that had risen above the problems other blacks faced: she was wealthy, famous and married to a white husband.
Yet despite all appearances, things were not what they seemed. She remained a Negro in America despite these advantages, which means that she was ever in danger of being subjected to racial prejudice and embarrassing acts of discrimination alas. Her affluence and fame did not abrogate the fact that in much of her native land she could be insulted or assaulted with impunity by the most down and out cracker. For as Dr. Dubois once observed about racial incidents in America:” Not all the time but anytime…not everywhere but anywhere.”
Thus unlike most black celebrities of her generation, who quaked with fear for their careers and kept quiet, Lena joined militants like Harry Belafonte, speaking out strongly and consistently against the racist practices black Americans were regularly exposed to. This is as much Lena’s legacy as her brilliance as a performing artist and world famous entertainer, who continued to cast a spell over audiences well into the autumn of her life.
As for me she will forever be remembered as Afro-America’s answer to the white glamour girls who seduced our minds on the silver screen, and were proffered as the epitome of feminine grace and beauty. That she somewhat favored my mom made her celluloid image real to me. In my mind all the white girls, on the silver screen and off, paled in comparison!
Anybody who reads this piece and suspects that I have claimed too much for Ms. Horne, heaped upon her undue accolades like an unthinking love struck fan, then I invite you to expose yourself to the magic of “You Tube,’ and check her out with the great Duke Ellington Orchestra singing the title tune from the movie “Stormy Weather.” To say that she is entrancing only bespeaks the failure of the English language – the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible – to provide suitable superlatives. The performance is a cameo from the movie, and even the five blind boys of Alabama can see that no more modern, elegant and sophisticated representation of American civilization can be found anywhere in the world of American art.
Her magnetic talent and beauty were unmatched in white Hollywood
Harlem New York
May 11, 2010