‘My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman, I’m not alone, 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.’
Lena Horne, who has died aged 92, became one of the first African Americans to cross the music-business colour divide and tour with an all-white band, sometimes sleeping in the band bus when hotels would not let her enter with her colleagues. Her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, was a political activist who persuaded Lena to join the NAACP. Horne, backed by the NAACP, succeeded in breaking the Hollywood colour bar to sign a longterm deal with a Hollywood studio. One of the first results was the 1943 film, Stormy Weather.
As today’s Guardian obituary notes: “Horne not only rose above it all, but also significantly contributed to changing the situation. The velvet-voiced, multi-talented Horne first negotiated, and then resisted, the worst that a racist entertainment industry could throw at her. She rose to its summit as an original creative artist and a free woman whose style, beauty, eloquence and independence made her a role model for millions.”
Horne took part in the civil rights march on Washington in 1963, and had travelled to Mississippi to speak alongside Medgar Evers on the night Evers was assassinated that summer. She said: “Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.” She began to appear regularly at rallies organised by the National Council for Negro Women.
One of her later film appearances was in 1978 as Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wiz, the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz, that also starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who I was surprised to discover was Horne’s son-in-law, (he had married her daughter, Gail, in 1963).