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Lena Horne, 1941. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten.
photo: courtesy Library of Congress


From dancing at age 16 at the Cotton Club in Harlem, to singing in her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music, Lena Horne (1917-2010) paved the way not only for herself, but also for women of color in the entertainment industry who came along in her footsteps.

Lena Horne in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As her physical appearance displayed a somewhat racial ambiguity (she was of African, European, and Native heritage), she had to learn to navigate racial complexities throughout her life and career. Complex, and confusing: on one hand it seemed that sometimes she was encouraged to lean towards her “whiteness” for the white audiences in her live musical performances; she was limited in roles in MGM films because of those same audiences; and at the same time, the NAACP encouraged her Hollywood pursuits to help break the color barrier while not taking the stereotypical roles that blacks were normally cast at the time, sometimes angering some of her Black peers who accepted those stereotypical roles in exchange for simply being able to work in the industry. However, later along in her career during the Civil Rights Era, she chose to lean into her “blackness,” participating in marches and losing opportunities to work because of that participation. As the song that she is famously known for singing, it was Stormy Weather in real life.

Lena Horne and Coretta Scott King; Trumpet Awards Foundation gala, Atlanta, Georgia, 1994.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-DIG-ppmsca-38464

Later in life she stated:

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.

At the end of the documentary below, you will see her come into her own using that same song, Stormy Weather, where she had moved away from a more “standard” jazz style (often deemed more acceptable to white audiences early in her career), to a more bluesy delivery towards the end of her journey. She had clearly had freed herself.

The Series-

As Americans (and people all over the world) push through and do our best to adjust our lives to the new realities that the COVID-19 pandemic is showing us, now more than ever, many could use the healing art that music often provides during times of distress. Along comes jazz… and blues, and they each tell a story of the history of America along the way.

The mission of the Don’t Duck History program is to promote and facilitate the learning and sharing of American history, along with its personal and social implications, and to highlight the history of Americans whose stories are not often presented in traditional American history textbooks.

Don’t Duck History is a program of United Charitable, a registered public 501(c)(3) nonprofit.