Lena Horne was one of the last links to an era fading slowly from living memory.
A singer and actress of cafe au lait skin, lively eyes and an irrepressible smile, she came to fame in the 1940s, a time when African Americans could not vote in the South or gain admittance to most hotels, when southern trees still bore strange fruit.
Thus the African-American performer who climbed out of obscurity became, wittingly or not, a de facto symbol, a stand in representing millions of other African Americans shut out of the mainstream by custom and by law. She bore all their hopes and aspirations. It was unfair; it was ridiculous. It was the way things were. Lena Horne, who died Sunday at 92, had to represent. And she did — spectacularly.
Not simply because she was beautiful, though she was. Not simply because she sang in a satiny, deceptively agile voice, though she did. In the end, the thing for which Lena Horne may be most justly celebrated is simply that she did all of the above with a sense of weightless grace, a wordless insistence upon her dignity and carried herself with a refined sophistication the nation simply was not used to equating with African-American people. In so doing, she became a hero in a way that went far beyond her beauty.
Although, in the end, everything always came back to that beauty. Horne was ambivalent about it.
``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.''
African-American men did not share her ambivalence. Indeed, African-American men of a certain age will testify that while the white guys went to war with posters of Betty Grable to remind them of what they were fighting for, black men climbed into their tanks, hefted their rifles, knowing that they were fighting for Lena Horne.
They were smitten by an elegance that seemed effortless. But she would tell anyone who asked that it never really was.
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