Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Fighter and Amazing Artist, Lena Horne (1917 - 2010)

I have already posted once on the passing of the Great Lena Horne, *here*, singing the classic original version of "Stormy Weather". But one post cannot suffice. No number is sufficient, so please find her work and enjoy it. Here are two performances and a synopsis of some of what this woman endured, breaking barriers that I hope feel inconceivable to you today. Compare, if you will, the version of "Stormy Weather" sung so many decades earlier, to this version here just below. And later, at the end of this post, see what a person on a stage can do, when welcomed to do so.

I just saw a biography on television about Lena Horne. I had learned about her life years ago, have known and admired her work for decades, but had missed learning some of the details of how this country, this endlessly wretchedly amoral country that so prides itself on being Great, worked so hard to keep her down.

What you ought to know, if you don't already, is that virtually everywhere she went in Hollywood, Hollywood's color barrier kept her out. She could only appear in movies if the cast was all Black, as no interactions among characters of different races was allowed, unless the Black performer played a maid or butler, porter, or shoe shiner "serving" the white characters. If you watch just about any movie with both white and Black actors from the 1930s, you'll be hard pressed to find an African American in any other role, and you'll also notice, if you wish to, that even when the actors had speaking parts, they were usually not listed in the credits. But Lena's father made sure that MGM would never cast her in such a role. Which meant, really, the studio couldn't do much with her. How MGM showed off her talent besides giving her parts in two all-Black films, was to have her perform solo, singing one number in an otherwise all-white film, a number which would be cut out for the films' showings in movie theaters throughout the South.

The white Ava Gardner was cast in a role Lena was meant to play, in a classic MGM musical film called Show Boat; Ava wore make-up to make her skin a bit darker, and had someone else entirely sing her songs to her mouthing the lyrics. Imagine the insult to Lena.

On tour with the U.S.O., she was made to perform for U.S. soldiers with the white ones up front, close to her, and the Black soldiers in the back. She did what the U.S.O. organisers hoped she wouldn't consider doing: she walked into the audience, right to that color line, and performed with her back to the white soldiers, for the Black soldiers up close. (She was never allowed to part of another U.S.O. show after that one.)

She found success as a singer on the stage, free of the racist restrictions of the U.S., in Europe, but when she returned she'd been "blacklisted"--a term from the McCarthy Era that only adds insult to injury. On U.S. television, a white man was not allowed to make physical contact of any kind, including a handshake, with a Black woman performer. The first time this rule was broken was due to Lena Horne being on TV--her hand and a white performer's hand greeted each other in a shake. In the 1960s, many, many great singers had their own variety shows, but no network would allow a Black performer to have her or his own show. Imagine the indignity.

Lena Horne learned both how to fight and how to keep her deepest feelings inside, away from the harsh and mercilessly critical glare of the very white spotlight. This came at a price, as having to cordon off parts of yourself because dominant society doesn't want to know who you are inevitably does. She met with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, so many other great colleagues in the Civil Rights movement. The movement gave her some strength and began to bring her more fully into contact with parts of herself she was not allowed to show to white folks.

Only into her sixties, seventies, and eighties was she allowed to be herself on the U.S. stage, and that happened only when a mixed race audience was truly ready to embrace her. Then she did open up and allowed others to see the depth of who she was--a extraordinary talent, a powerful person, a singer with years of fierce resistance and painful stories and wellsprings of emotion available to be expressed from the entirety of her being. These two videos show THAT Lena Horne, the woman who was no longer bound to laws and customs designed to keep white supremacy safe by keeping her silent.

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