Horne’s beauty broke barriers, took nation by storm

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Click here to view a slideshow of the life and times of the late Lena Horne

My earliest memory of Lena Horne is her 1981 60 Minutes interview. I wasn’t very old then but it’s my first conscious encounter with “colorism.” I watched with my grandmother, who was just as fair-skinned as Lena Horne, and, for the first time, got a sense of her racialized identity. Up until this point, my grandmother had just simply been my grandmother. I gave no thought to her much lighter skin or her wavy hair. She was beautiful to me because she was my grandmother but that night it struck me that some skin colors and hair types were praised more than others.

Being considered beautiful wasn’t without its problems. Lena Horne’s life was a testament to that. Yes, by now, the troubles of the fair-skinned black woman is beyond cliché but such talk rarely ever invaded your living room in such a mainstream way. As Ms. Horne told Ed Bradley, passing was never a consideration for her. “My grandmother would have died. It would never occur to me to be anything than what I was,” she told Bradley.

Her family, like most of ours, was very complex. During the civil rights activities of the 1960s, Horne was very outspoken. She was at the March on Washington and even appeared with Medgar Evers in Mississippi shortly before he was murdered. Such outspokenness, however, was in her blood. Her grandmother Cora Horne was very active in the NAACP, among other organizations, and had actually helped Paul Robeson, whom Horne would become very chummy with as an adult, gain admission to Rutgers.

As the first black actor signed to a studio deal, Horne was a pioneer in Hollywood, even if it never showed on screen. For the most part, Horne made singing cameos that were left on the cutting floor when these films showed in the South. Her 1943 films, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, however, remain classics. Stormy Weather, as Ethel Waters’ fans know, is wrought with controversy. After the much younger and lighter Horne sang “Stormy Weather” on film, it was no longer Waters’ baby, although she had recorded it in 1933 and had been known for the song throughout New York. To say Waters was not pleased is an understatement.

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Horne’s brief film appearances were noteworthy because she was always glamorous. There were no maid roles for her. At the studio, she integrated the commissary and even appeared on the cover of a mainstream movie magazine. Still, music was where she made her mark. Her 1957 live album Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria was the largest selling album by a female artist for RCA Victor, which is no small feat.

To the average young person, Lena Horne’s death won’t mean much. Maybe they’ve seen her in re-runs of The Cosby Show or A Different World. They may even get that she was the hottie of her time from Cliff’s reaction to being in her presence but it’s truly doubtful that they will truly understand her significance. They won’t know why Halle Berry singled her out in her Oscar acceptance speech or truly understand that Lena Horne was the Halle Berry of her time, a woman considered beautiful by all.

Today that’s not so revolutionary but, in Lena Horne’s prime, black women of any hue didn’t have Revlon deals although Max Factor did create a shade, Egyptian Light, to make Horne look more “colored” that she joked was used on Ava Gardner. Imagine a black woman whose talents mainstream newspapers declare were overshadowed by her beauty and go back a good 60 or 70 years and maybe you’ll grasp the significance.

Lena Horne accomplished much in her life but her contribution to black women being perceived as beautiful, regardless of how much debate her fair skin and genteel features spark, shouldn’t go unnoticed. “Black is beautiful” in all shades and she opened an important gate that’s helped us push the dialogue along.