More than just a legendary entertainer, Lena Horne was a courageous activist against segregation and the racial injustices in Hollywood and society.
Lena Horne is gone, but she remains a bright shining light.
When Lena Horne went to Hollywood, her father went with her and made it clear to the movie moguls that his daughter would not play a maid. He told them that he could afford to hire a maid for her. Lena Horne was beautiful with an expressive singing voice. More important, she possessed dignity, courage, and the knowledge that she represented the hopes and dreams of a people.
Her life in Hollywood was not easy. She suffered the suspicion and jealousy of African American mavens who up to that point could only play maids. She was a mixed-race woman of African, European, and Native American heritage. Her story helps us to see that race is a social construction that has and still does create great pain. There were roles she thought she would get because the character was a mixed-race woman. She watched those roles go to European-American women. Max Factor created makeup to darken her complexion. Again, European-American women wore the makeup and played the roles.
She told some of these stories in her 1981 one-woman Broadway show that earned her a Tony Award. She was honest to admit that she carried the bitterness of these injustices for years. However, she did use her celebrity to attack racial segregation in the United States. Because there were not many roles for her in the movies, the showbiz executives asked her to perform a series of concerts in theaters. She refused to sing before segregated audiences. She refused to perform when German POWs were seated in front of African American GIs.
One day while visiting an elderly African American woman in the hospital, our conversation turned to the subject of Lena Horne. I was reading a book about Horne’s family at the time, and Mrs. Harvey, a member of my church, had vivid memories of the singer from “back in the day.” She told me about a Lena Horne concert that she and her husband attended when they were young and still living in South Carolina. She appreciated Horne’s stand against segregation. It was a memory of an early affirmation of her dignity that she carried with her for a lifetime.
Lena Horne’s determination made a very real difference in people’s lives.
In womanist scholarship, the life stories of African American women and men become source material for moral reasoning. Moreover, ethics rooted in spirituality determines the righteousness of actions according to whether or not they foster just relationships. It is an ethic that encourages righteousness to flourish and peace to abound (Psalm 72:7).
Lena Horne lived her life in such a way that she became a bridge from the days when the primary image of African American women in the media was the portrait of a servant to the present day when it’s not unusual to see African American women in positions of high authority. The world still has a very long way to go on the road to equal opportunity, human dignity, and respect. But Lena Horne, with her beauty and bravery, was a shining star who helped us navigate the injustices of racism and segregation. May the legacy of her life and career help us to find, and keep, our own true north.