Sunday, May 09, 2010

Lena Horne: June 30, 1917 - May 9, 2010

Looking back at the age of 80, Ms. Horne said: “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.”

In Brian Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America," she was quoted as saying:"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out ... it was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world."  

When I was a child her beauty grabbed me first, but there was so much more... that extraordinarily regal bearing, which never broke; the fire in her eyes that let you know there was a real fighter behind that classically gorgeous face; the earthy, frank humor which dispelled the "goddess" mystique in which her countenance and her own rich, layered history (personal and professional) shrouded her. But it was her vast reality and the courage and class with which she lived it that made me a lifelong fan, and made her relevant beyond nostalgic longing. Her struggles in Hollywood and her principled stands against racism in the entertainment  industry, in the military (she was an early challenger to the rules of segregation that were in effect when celebrities performed for the military in the '40s), and in America at large made her a heroine and cultural icon for Black folks even though her film career was a clear example of the race-based glass ceiling at work. We had great pride in her because she was talented and tenacious... But also because she was loud and clear about the pride she had in us, long before such pride was publicly fashionable. She was tough. Fearless. Legendary. My good friend, the poet/publisher Steven G. Fullwood dug up the following quotes in his tribute to her:

From Donald Bogle's book Brown Sugar:
"There was a Horne aloofness, which never unnoticed, became the hallmark of her style. Sometimes as she sang, her face went vacant. Other times she seemed condescending. But always held something back. In the middle of her career, The New Yorker commented on her unusual detachment: 'Curiously, as her style as developed, she seems to have withdrawn further and further from her audience and into herself. She never addresses her listeners directly, and her eyes are closed, a good part of the time. In acknowledging applause, she tilts her head, eyes cast down, and bends and turns with...self effacement.'"

And from the Lady herself:
"...they were too busy seeing their own preconceived image of a Negro woman. The image that I chose to give them was of a woman who they could not reach. I think this why I rarely speak to an audience. I am too proud to let them think that can have any personal contact with me. They get the singer, but they are not going to get the woman."

Those quotes capture what I most loved about Lena: that detachment while performing, that cool mask and the sparks that flint from beneath it, the way her calculated self-protectiveness (and more than a little contempt) became her glamorous shield/facade.

Her death hits hard. She was 92 years old.

NY Times obit
Washington Post obit


Anonymous said...

This woman's uncompromising love of her blackness and everybody else's has always meant the world to me. No apologies, no excuses, no exceptions, no exemptions. She was ours; she expressed nothing more than always wanting to be ours. And I will always love her. R.I.P Lena.

A.Writer said...