Monday was Memorial Day and with remembering our fallen servicemen and women as well as reading about the deaths of Dennis Hopper and Gary Coleman over the weekend, I began to think about another icon we lost in May, Lena Horne. Lena Horne was a New Yorker, phenomenal performer and the true definition of a legend.
When I first saw Lena Horne she had already been an international superstar several times over, but in my six-year-old eyes, she was Glinda the Good Witch of the South in The Wiz. There she was larger than the Milky Way, residing in the heavens with babies as stars. She guided Dorothy through her odyssey in Oz and gave her the keys to go back home when she sang “Believe in Yourself.” And the way she sang it, you could hear the fight to never give up in her tone. She commanded that not only Dorothy but all of us believe in ourselves. She stole the entire scene and brought tears to my eyes. Even when I see the seen as an adult, I am still moved to tears. But the fact of the matter was anytime Ms. Horne was in a scene; she became the center of attention.
Unfortunately I would come to learn that the list of Lena Horne movies was extremely short. The sad fact was when she came to Hollywood Hollywood was not ready for the beauty, talent and grace of Lena Horne. Because of her skin color she was generally relegated to performance feature spots where her parts could be edited out when the film was shown in southern theaters. It was Hollywood’s loss, performances such as “Stormy Weather” in Panama Hattie proved why she was so magnetic. Movies such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather allowed her to showcase all her talent, but her abilities as a vocalist is what she was most famous for. Very few people could sing a standard like Lena Horne. She was a multiple Grammy winner, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989 and winning her last Grammy in 1995. She also received a Tony Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as a Kennedy Center Honor.
Although I am sure Lena Horne did not go to Hollywood to become a pioneer, she broke new ground in Tinsel town nonetheless. Lena Horne made Hollywood realize that black women could me more than just maids. If it was not for Lena Horne stars like Dianne Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge and many others would have had to work much harder for their success. And her pioneering efforts did not just lend themselves to the stage. She was a civil rights activist. Even after she was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 50s for her political beliefs, Lena still choose to fight the good fight working with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws and performing and speaking at NAACP rallies as well as the March on Washington.
Appearing on shows such as The Cosby Show and The Muppets Lena Horne continued to be relevant, introducing herself to new generations and creating a fan base out of Generation Xers like me. As she grew older she became the epitome of grace, style and ageless beauty and her “tell it like it is” demeanor was Brooklyn to the core. As the 80’s reemerge in fashion and music, it seems that the downside of reliving the decade of my youth is the passing of stars that I idolize as a child. Hearing about Lena Horne’s death on May 9 was like losing an aunt. I would like to thank Lena Horne for teaching me to be classy and gracious regardless of the circumstance life may hurl at you and to never give up. Most of all, I would like to thank her for telling me with vigor to believe in myself.