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The Legacy of Lena Horne

February 28, 2011

On February 27th, 2011, the 83rd Academy Awards paid tribute to Lena Horne, a Hollywood trailblazer and civil rights activist who passed away in 2010. Horne’s legacy was introduced by Halle Berry, the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role.

“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. 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.” – Lena Horne

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30th, 1917. Her first big break was a chorus girl job at the Cotton Club in Harlem (New York City.) Horne would go on to tour with Noble Sissle’s orchestra (comprised of all black performers) and Charlie Barnet’s band (where she was the only black performer.) Horne catapulted to the spotlight in the 1940s and 1950s as one of Hollywood’s top African American performers. She signed a contract with MGM Studios in 1942 and starred in famous movies including the musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.

During her movie career, Horne faced stereotypes and the racial discrimination that many actors of color faced during the 1940s and 1950s.

  • In 1933 during the Great Depression, Horne took a job as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. She was 16 years old and hired less for her singing ability than for her looks. The Cotton Club thought her light skin and “good hair” would be more appealing to white customers.
  • Lena Horne and the rest of Noble Sissle’s orchestra were often forced to sleep on the tour bus because several cities they visited only had whites-only hotels.
  • When Horne traveled with Charlie Barnet’s band (as the only person of color in the band), restaurants would refuse to serve food to the entire band when Horne was traveling with them.
  • During a tour stop in Las Vegas, a hotel Horne stayed at reportedly burned the sheets she used after she checked out–rather than reuse them for white hotel guests.
  • Horne’s contract with MGM explicitly stated that she would never have to portray a maid.
  • MGM felt Horne was too light-skinned to play opposite other black actors, but did not want to put her in films with white actors, either.
  • Even though Horne was in movies with other stars like Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball, her scenes were filmed in a way where they could be cut out when the films were shown in movie theaters in the South.
  • MGM producer Arthur Freed asked Ms. Horne to act in his show, “St. Louis Woman.” When Horne refused because she felt the role was stereotypical and offensive, Freed retaliated by blocking her from other movie roles.
  • During World War II, Horne was asked to perform for the troops. Horne saw that the audience was segregated and that black soldiers were seated in the back–even behind white enemy prisoners of war from Germany. Horne caught flak from her producers for defying this unfair practice when she walked off the stage to the first row of black troops and performed with her back facing the the Germans, straight to the black American troops.

Horne also participated in the Civil Rights movement. She volunteered for the NAACP, was at the March on Washington, and worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. After the 1950s, Horne concentrated on television work and eventually moved onto Broadway. Her 1981 show, The Lady and Her Music, won a special Tony award and two Grammy awards.


Halle Berry’s tribute to Lena Horne was both a stark reminder of what Berry called “a very different time in Hollywood” as well as a reminder of how much past discrimination continues to influence modern Hollywood practices. 2011′s ceremony marked the least diverse Academy Awards ceremony in a decade.

Even before the ceremony, Los Angeles Times entertainment columnist Patrick Goldstein’s January 25th, 2011 column, Academy Awards 2011: The Unbearable Whiteness of the Oscars was syndicated nationally and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott called 2010 “Hollywood’s Whiteout.” (We would also like to note that mainstream media articles about Oscar diversity focus almost exclusively on black actors–show some love to Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American, Middle Eastern…all people of color, too!)

In response to the Horne segment, Comedian Sinbad cynically tweeted: “Funny whenever there are no current black actors being nominated they go deep in the vault and do a tribute to a black actor/actress.” Looking back at the 2011 Oscars, the New York Post bemoaned: “It was so white.”

We hope that Lena Horne’s legacy will continue to make way for a new generation actors of color, and that next year’s Oscars will showcase diversity that is truly representative of the United States and Hollywood.

Learn More: Yale University has created a website for Carl Van Vechten’s Portraits of Women, which has a profile on Horne’s life and experiences in Hollywood. The Washington Post‘s obituary for Lena Horne is also an amazing read: Lena Horne dies at 92; performer altered Hollywood’s image of black women.

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000629058153 Aja Gaulden

    An amazing woman. Everyone can learn a thing or two from her. God rest her soul.
    I’m definitely glad I did look up to her (and still do) before she passed away. I even have the movie, Cabin in the Sky.