Lena Horne

Actress, Musician, Activist

"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."

Born June 30, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the daughter of a banker and an actress, however, her parents divorced when she was 3 years old. Because her mother traveled with varying theater troupes around the country Lena went along with her and stayed with different family and friends around the country. She Left school at 16 to help support her mother and became a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem. After performing there she moved on to perform with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, then performed on Broadway, but ended up joining the Charlie Barnet orchestra, a white swing band. However, because of the racial prejudices at the time she was rarely allowed to perform at, stay, or socialize at many of their events and she soon left the tour. Then in 1941 she went back to New York to perform at the Savoy Plaza Hotel Nightclub which was open to both blacks and whites. Because of her stunning performances at the nightclub Horne was featured in time magazine and became the highest paid black entertainer of the time in 1943. She had a seven year contract with MGM and later moved to Hollywood where she was able to act in movies like "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky". Her light skin color made it difficult for her to be cast in all black films, yet because she was black nonetheless it was difficult for her to be cast in movies alongside whites. She wouldn't take roles that put her in a stereotypical black role and many black actors shunned her while exclusively white films and actors did the same.

Early Influences

Her influences would have to be her mother and her experiences rising through the levels of fame and the performing arts. Growing up living on the road with her mother doing shows and performances at every stop influenced Horne to become a performer as well. After growing up with her mother's instruction and inspiration she created an identity for herself on the stage. Also, Lena Horne's experiences of being rejected by many clubs and venues because of her skin color made her become a strong proponent of civil rights. Being turned away from doing what she loved was unbearable for her, therefore, becoming active in the fight for racial equality was the only thing she could do the continue performing. She had dealt with racial injustice firsthand and it hindered her from doing what she loved, she wouldn't stand by and let roles that she could play go just because she was black, or because she wasn't black enough, she became accomplished and dignified because she wouldn't let the community of actors who disapproved of her defiance of the social norm decide what roles she would play or where she would perform or wouldn't.


Lena Horne was an advocate for civil rights and desegregation. Her influence for is came from her own experiences with racism and from growing up with her grandmother who was an early suffragette fighting for the same thing Lena came to support. Horne performed at rallies in the south to show her support of the cause, but mostly she defied the unjust racial roles at the time by rejecting castes roles in films and plays that projected her as an inferior African American in any way. She never broke any laws for her social activism, however she was blacklisted because of her political views and supposedly being a communist sympathizer during the red scare. Today since there are much fewer rallies and no need to fight for desegregation, Lena would use her position in the media to advocate for all racism to end and for total equality.


Compare and Contrast

Lena in Modern Times

If Lena Horne were to be at the peak of her performing career today, she would undoubtley still be famous because of her talent and drive to perform, however, he campaign for civil rights would be less impactful because unlike her era, we are not fighting to end segregation and complete separation of races. Obviously racism is still alive in parts of America, however, there are not freedom marches or speeches given to allow blacks equal rights anymore, which is what Lena fought for. Lena today would have a much easier time attaining success because of the desegregation of the film industry. Her skin color would not be a factor in whether or not she was given a role in a film or not.

Though her struggles would be few to none racially in the film industry, she would not regarded as as much of a nonconformist. She was glorified by many because of her ability to be her own person regardless of whether she was fully black or white, and today when race is not as crucial to define identity, Lena would have a harder time being that symbol

for individuality. If I had the same skills as Lena Horne, in the modern time period, to be able to sing and dance and act, I would of course try to work my way up the ladder of fame and like her, try to put my success toward making a name for myself in the world as an individual.

Jazz Night; Whites Only

My cartoon shows the racial inequality of the time period with a club sign claiming "whites only" while Lena Horne stands proud in the center spotlight despite the views of those around her. She was segregated against and was turned away form many clubs, venues, and film roles because of her skin color and this caused her to become an activist for civil rights. Though Lena was treated as an inferior becaus of her race, she used this to gain popularity and hope for those also discriminated against in America in the mid 1900s.
Lena Horne "Stormy Weather"


In the article "Lena Horne's Bright Shining Light" author, Valerie Elverton Dixon rewards Lena the appreciation of her bravery to combat segregation using her unique individuality and her raw talent. Dixon supports Lena's impact with her inclusion of how she refused the roles of maids in movies to show that she, as a biracial woman, was just as good as any white actress. Dixon is nothing but appreciative for all that Lena inspired in America at the time and I have to agree with her. Lena Horne was a symbol for change and equality, but her method of revolutionizing the film industry and country was one withholding class and dignity. Dixon's admiration of respect for Lena Horne and her campaign for equal rights clearly portrayed in her article detailing the highlights of Horne's life and her moments of stardom that collectively gave her the reverence of a dignified woman comfortable in her own skin and brave enough to combat the societal norms of the time period.


American Experience

Lena Horne's American experience was one of glory and fame, however stained by racial injustice and segregation. She became a renowned celebrity because of her refusal to be treated as inferior. She became a voice against discrimination and a symbol of change and respect in America. Her experience is the sort of American Dream many hope for with fame and fortune, and though she did achieve this, it was because of her strong mindset to push for her equality in the film and music industry. She was able to see all aspects of the American experience with times of success and failure and good treatment and bad, but overall her experience was one that sparked change in America that we can see today.

Works Cited

Dixon, Valentina Elverton. "Lena Horne's Bright Shining Light." Sojourners. Sojo.net, 10 May 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Harmetz, Aljean. "Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92." The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 May 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Jackson, Denny. "Biography." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

"Lena Horne." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Ms. Horne and Cab Calloway in "Stormy Weather." The Title Song Became One of Her Signatures. Digital image. The New York Times. Nytimes.org, 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

Neal, Tony. "R.I.P. to the LEGENDARY Lena Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010)." - CoreDJRadio. Coredjradio.ning.com, 14 May 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

"New Mexi-Gras Silent Auction." New Mexi-Gras Silent Auction. New Mexico Philharmonic, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

United States. National Park Service. "International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.