Lena Horne's Bright Shining Light
Lena Horne is gone, but she remains a bright shining light.
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When Lena Horne went to Hollywood, her father went with her and made it clear to the movie moguls that his daughter would not play a maid. He told them that he could afford to hire a maid for her. Lena Horne was beautiful with an expressive singing voice. More important, she possessed dignity, courage, and the knowledge that she represented the hopes and dreams of a people.
Her life in Hollywood was not easy. She suffered the suspicion and jealousy of African-American mavens who did and could only play maids. She was a mixed-race woman of African, European, and Native American heritage. Her story helps us to see that race is a social construction that has and still does create great pain. There were roles she thought she would get because the character was a mixed-race woman. She watched those roles go to European-American women. Max Factor created make-up to darken her complexion. Again, European-American women wore the make-up and played the roles.
She told some of these stories in her one-woman Broadway show that earned her a Toni Award. She was honest to admit that she carried the bitterness of these injustices for years. However, she did use her celebrity to attack racial segregation in the United States. Because there we not many roles for her in the movies, the theater executives asked her to perform a series of concerts in theaters. She refused to sing before segregated audiences. She refused to perform when German POWs were seated in front of African-American GIs.
One day while visiting an elder African-American woman in the hospital, a member of my church, we started to talk about Lena Horne. I was reading a book about her family at the time. Mrs. Harvey told me about a Lena Horne concert that she and her husband attended when they were young and still living in South Carolina. She appreciated Horne's stand against segregation. It was a memory of an early affirmation of her dignity that she carried with her for a lifetime. Lena Horne's determination made a difference in people's lives.
In womanist scholarship, the life stories of African-American women and men become source material for moral reasoning. Moreover, ethics rooted in spirituality determines the righteousness of actions according to whether or not they foster just relationships. The vital force that enlivens every living thing, which breathes through creation not only sustains life, but inspires and helps all living things to reach their full potential, to be more of who and what God intended them to be. It is an ethic that encourages righteousness to flourish and peace to abound. (Psalm 72:7)
Lena Horne lived her life in such a way that she became a bridge from the days when the primary image of African-American women in the media was the portrait of a servant to these days when African-American women are seen in positions of high authority. The world still has a very long way to go on the road to equal opportunity, human dignity, and respect. Lena Horne's beauty and bravery were and remain star shine that helps us to find and to keep our own true north.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.