February is Black History Month across America, and I’ll be celebrating the moxie of a few of our nation’s most compelling people. Today I’m talking about Lena Horne, the elegant, sophisticated performer with a fiery heart for social justice.
It wasn’t the first time Lena Horne looked out from the stage to a sea of white faces. She’d been performing for all sorts of crowds – black, white and everything in between – since she first shimmied onto the stage as a dancer at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club at the age of sixteen.
But on that day in the early 1940s at Ft. Riley in Kansas, she was supposed to be performing for African American soldiers. In those days of segregated audiences, she had performed the day before for white soldiers. Today was supposed to be her chance to entertain black troops.
Then why were the first few rows of the black mess hall populated exclusively with white guys?
Horne asked a few questions, and found out that the white men who occupied the best seats in the house were German prisoners of war. The black soldiers were seated behind them, several rows back.
Let that sink in for a moment – enemy soldiers were valued more than soldiers fighting for the United States of America, all because of the color of their skin.
Furious, Horne marched behind the German POWs to the first row of seats occupied by black soldiers, and performed from there, her back to the POWs.
It was a moxie move. She was a young, beautiful, talented African American woman on the cusp of Hollywood stardom, and rocking the boat could only bring her trouble. She rocked it anyway. Some lessons from her life:
Sometimes the most moxie move you can make is to say no. When the well-known nightclub singer made the jump to the movies in the early 1940s, roles for African American women were mostly limited to portraying domestic servants.
Lena Horne was having none of it. She refused to play a maid, and instead held out for parts in African American ensemble pieces Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. The later yielded her signature hit song.
She could have gotten a lot more screen time if she’d just accepted the roles she was offered. But she stayed true to herself, and chose to value herself first.
Moxie means weathering stormy times. Communists exploited racial injustice to further their cause in America, covertly recruiting prominent African Americans like actor Paul Robeson to promote their cause. Robeson was a friend of Horne’s, and he used her frustration over the racial injustice she experienced and witnessed around her to persuade her to join several political groups whose stated public goals were to combat racism and fascism. Those groups turned out to be fronts for the Communist Party.
During the Red Scare and what should have been the height of her career, Horne found herself blacklisted. Unable to find work in Hollywood, she took her talent back to the stage and continued to perform in nightclubs.
Being blacklisted certainly threw Horne off course, but she didn’t let it sink her. She kept on sailing through the stormiest of times.
The African American experience is a master class in moxie. The list of indignities Horne suffered is long. As a nightclub performer, she often could not stay in the very venues where she performed. How she stepped on the stage in those circumstances, night after night, is a study in grace and dignity.
She kept her second marriage to a white bandleader a secret for years. If it had been known, she’d have faced heavy criticism not just from whites, but from blacks, too.
Neighbors petitioned to keep her out of the home she rented in their neighborhood until Humphrey Bogart stepped in. Imagine having to count on white patronage simply to live peacefully.
It’s easy to see how these experiences would leave someone demoralized and angry. Horne and countless others turned frustration into peaceful protest that led to significant changes, including the Civil Rights Act.
If I had the chance to talk to Horne today, what would you want me to ask?