Hard as it may be to believe, Britain’s chattering classes are even more race-obsessed than America’s. At least, that’s the conclusion to be drawn from reading their obituaries of Lena Horne.
Lena Horne? You remember her: A black woman who had a long career as an African-American, during which she endured a non-stop series of insults and outrages because of her status as a Negro. She also did the odd spot of singing, though you would barely know it from The Economist’s obituary, in which every single sentence is about race:
Her blood was mixed up on both sides with white European and native American, so that in her black school she was “yellow” to her playmates, and was whispered to have a white Daddy. Both blacks and whites felt she was not one of them. Her family’s social models were the white bourgeoisie; her father, resplendent in a suit with a diamond stick-pin, had told Louis B. Mayer to his face that he didn’t want his daughter playing maids in Hollywood, because she could have maids of her own. Not that it did any good. At one of her lowest points Miss Horne went to tea with Hattie McDaniel, who had played Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”. They ate tiny sandwiches and cakes in her grand drawing room, while Hattie explained that a maid’s role was her only realistic future on the screen. Pretty soon afterwards, she threw in the acting life.
Did anything good ever happen to her? Was she nothing but miserable for all of her nine decades? And by the way, where was she from, and how did she get into show business, and what made her singing so special? You won’t find out from this article (or from the left-leaning Guardian, though its obituary at least makes a few passing references to Horne’s career and family life). For a thorough assessment of Lena Horne, as an artist and a person, you’ll do a lot better with the New York Times obituary, or even a somewhat shorter one from the Associated Press.
Near the end of its piece, The Economist writes:
The insults she suffered, therefore — debarred from lodging houses, spat at in the street, forbidden from mixing with white customers — were all the worse because she did not feel she represented a race, only herself. And conversely, the barriers she broke — first black star on a long-term contract with a studio, first black on the cover of Motion Picture magazine, first star whose picture could be pinned up by black GIs in their lockers — gave her neither pride nor joy, because she thought only of the label that had been stuck on her. She was not a symbol, not a credit, not a first this and that, as she cried bitterly in her old age. “I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
America has made great progress on race since the prime of Lena Horne’s career. Unfortunately, as her British obituaries show, there are still some people who look at a magnificent singer and see nothing but the color of her skin.