This book tells the story of Lena Horne, the famous singer, actress, and activist, born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. It begins with a quote by her as the epigraph: “You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.” Lena never accepted the judgment of white America. As the author observes:
“Lena Horne was born into the freedom struggle. At two, she became not just one of the youngest members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but also a cover girl for the NAACP Branch Bulletin.”
Lena was brought up at first by her grandmother, who taught her to read, to have good manners, and to have black pride. She also enrolled Lena in drama and dance lessons. Eventually however, Lena’s mother came to get Lena and took her along while she chased parts in vaudeville. During the Great Depression, Lena’s mother put Lena onstage to help earn money.
Lena joined the chorus line at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, and before long got a singing and dancing job with a black band. With them, Lena, age 18, cut her first record, “I Take to You.” Soon she was hired by an all-white big band, one of the first black vocalists to be in this position. But, as the author reports:
“Lena was banned from the bandstand between numbers. Restaurants refused to serve her and hotels refused her rooms and she slept in the bus.”
After appearing in a nightclub out west, MGM offered her a studio contract, the first ever for a black actress. With encouragement from the NAACP, which was trying to change the way whites saw African Americans, Lena refused to play maids or mammies. But there weren’t many roles for black actresses:
“So Lena was cast, instead, in singing numbers that could be easily snipped from films when shown in the South so as not to defy racist views.”
During WWII, Lena sang on armed forces radio shows, but only on the shows for blacks – entertainment was separated. Furthermore:
“At one venue, Lena was denied a cup of coffee but was asked for autographs on her way out. At another, German prisoners of war were seated in front of black soldiers.”
She filed a complaint with the NAACP over these insults, and, fed up, she paid her own way from then on to perform for black troops.
After the war, her ties to outspoken activists (i.e., black men who argued for equality), got her blacklisted, and she couldn’t get a job in Hollywood. Still, she was invited to sing at President Truman’s inaugural ball.
In 1947, Lena, now divorced and with two children, went to Paris to marry a white man, because many states in the U.S. did not allow interracial marriage. The couple didn’t publicize their marriage for three years.
In 1957, her name finally came off the blacklist, and she sang on television and starred on Broadway. But, as Weatherford avers, “her most important work lay ahead.”
Lena got involved in the Civil Rights movement, taking time off from the stage and screen to sing at rallies. After the Sixties, she continued to cut records and accumulate honors, including getting inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. She also continued to speak out throughout her lifetime against discrimination due to race. She died in 2010. The author concludes:
“Lena Horne’s pioneering performances, her fight on the front lines of the freedom struggle, the racial barriers that she broke, and her fiery pride form her legacy. Because Lena refused to darken rear doors, black stars now gleam on red carpets and reap box-office gold.”
The book ends with an Author’s Note, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading and listening.
Lovely true-to-life illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon were created from oil paint and cut paper collage. The collage aspect of the art gives it a depth and realism as well as adding visual interest.
Evaluation: Weatherford, author of over forty books, many of which have been award-winners, wields her reliably good talent in emphasizing the struggles, persistence, and courage of a woman who today is not really remembered as much as she should be. While there are those who know Lena Horne for her singing, her contributions to the cause of civil rights were also outstanding and should be recognized.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2017
You can see Lena Horne singing one of the songs for which she is most famous, Stormy Weather, in this 1943 video.