An appreciation: Lena Horne


Toward the end of her very full life, Lena Horne suggested to a PBS interviewer that, after decades of struggling to define her image as an artist and a black woman, she finally had seized possession of her identity.

Lena Horne: The appreciation of Lena Horne in Tuesday’s Calendar section listed “The Fallen Sparrow” among her film credits. She did not appear in that movie. —

“I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody,” said Horne, who died Sunday night in a New York hospital at the age of 92. “I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ ”

Americans born before 1960 will recognize Horne’s fragmented reference to a phrase that, mercifully, has now been confined to history’s ash heap: “a credit to her (or his) race.”

That perhaps somewhat well-intentioned, but deeply patronizing, sobriquet was applied — mostly by white Americans, of course — to a select group of blacks ( Ralph Bunche, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis Jr.) deemed to possess superior talents and/or character traits that might, in time, help “uplift” other African Americans by setting a “good” example.

Viewed more sinisterly, it was a term that was plastered onto prominent blacks who were perceived by whites as conforming to white behavioral standards, and therefore didn’t threaten America’s racist status quo.

What Horne passionately insisted on was the right to be regarded not as the designated representative of a group, or the personification of some abstract ideal, but as a one-of-a-kind individual — neither more, nor less. Horne posited herself as the active subject of her own life, not the object of the mainstream white audience’s “exotic” fantasies and fears.

Her dignified personhood was expressed most obviously through her knockout beauty and multiple talents. Long before the idea of “self-branding” came into vogue, Horne established herself as a multi-dimensional entertainer, making her mark in musical theater, movies, records and later television.

Her fierce individualism also took form in the uncensored anger she vented at the racially based indignities she and other African Americans suffered. (She once threw a lamp at a lout who uttered a racist gibe in a Beverly Hills restaurant.)

Horne’s singularity came through in a vocal style that was notable not for its effortless urbanity, a la Ella Fitzgerald, or booming gospel panache, in the Aretha Franklin mode, but for its elegant pop-jazz versatility and the sense it conveyed of the singer’s heartfelt emotional struggles. She movingly dramatized those qualities in her early-’80s hit Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which earned her a special Tony Award

Reviewing the show in the New York Times, critic Frank Rich noted that Horne had sung her signature tune “Stormy Weather” twice: first as a belt-it-out showstopper, then in the second act as an emotional coup de theatre that left Horne “blind with sweat and tears.”

Another influential critic, John Simon, called Horne “a fascinatingly evolving singer; there wasn’t a vocal style she didn’t shed or at times revert to.”

In a phone interview Monday, Arnold Rampersad, a Stanford University emeritus professor of English and author of books on Ralph Ellison and Jackie Robinson, said that Horne brought an aspect of “high class” and cultured sophistication to her singing, but didn’t shy from the “more plebeian, gusty, authentically bluesy tradition” of singers such as Bessie Smith.

Horne found her widest renown on the big screen, in movies such as “Cabin in the Sky” (1943), “Panama Hattie” (1942) and “The Fallen Sparrow” (1942). But she was painfully passed over for the role she most coveted in the 1951 remake of “Show Boat,” that of Julie, the mixed-race performer who has passed herself off as white.

Rampersad compared Horne with Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers great, in that she was given “a kind of role of leadership within the black world” that was to some extent bestowed on her by white American society. Horne herself acknowledged as much, once commenting that she was “a kind of black that white people could accept.”

“I was their daydream,” she said. “I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

But Horne, who was raised by her suffragist grandmother (a member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People) in a free-thinking household, generally refused to play along with the restrictive conventions and damaging stereotypes of mid-20th-century Hollywood. She brushed away attempts to cast her as a Latina.

And she steered clear of clichés of the “tragic mulatto,” depicted in pop culture as a figure so torn by “conflicting” ethnic identities that suicide seems the only possible escape.

“She had too much individual strength, moral strength, historical knowledge of what it meant to be African American” to allow herself to be destroyed by such hackneyed, prejudicial notions, Rampersad said. “She moved on.”

In standing up to the ugly specter of American apartheid, Horne, who took part in civil rights demonstrations, joined with other African American entertainers, artists and athletes who simultaneously fascinated and unnerved many white Americans. The great singer-actor and social crusader Paul Robeson, a friend of Horne’s, comes to mind, as do Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali.

Indisputably, Horne helped pave the way for any number of contemporary entertainers of color. Janet Jackson was quoted by the Associated Press as crediting Horne for having “opened up such doors for artists like myself.” That was generous, given that Horne reportedly pressured ABC to drop Jackson from playing Horne in a planned television movie, because Horne was angry at Jackson’s infamous breast-baring shenanigans at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Some would argue that the path Horne forged leads right up to the current occupant of the White House. Last year, when the Pasadena Playhouse opened a new bio-musical, “Stormy Weather,” starring Leslie Uggams, the show’s producer, Stewart Lane, told a Times reporter that Horne’s efforts as “a light-skinned woman making it during the racially charged ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s … laid the groundwork for Barack Obama.”

(In a statement released Monday, the president praised Horne for furthering the civil rights cause by adamantly objecting to the segregation of U.S. troops when she was asked to perform for them during World War II.)

Such assertions may be a bit of a stretch. But it’s fair to stay that Lena Horne, at a minimum, was certainly a credit to herself.