Lena Horne and the Irony of Cultural Politics

We welcome a guest post today from Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, author of Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era. In her book, Sklaroff argues that New Deal cultural programs supporting notable black intellectuals, celebrities, and artists (including Lena Horne, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Richard Wright) represent a key moment in the history of American race relations, as the cultural arena provided black men and women with unique employment opportunities and new outlets for political expression. As the country mourns the recent death of Lena Horne, Sklaroff offers insight into her career and the cultural path she forged. –ellen Update:Watch BookTV’s interview with Sklaroff at the OAH 2010 annual meeting.

Lena Horne’s passing on Sunday, May 9, has brought about discussion on the significance of black pioneers in the culture industry. Some reporters recall Halle Berry’s moving 2002 Oscar speech, when she paid tribute to a number of black female entertainers who came before her, such as Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. Several obituaries have paralleled Horne with other African Americans such as Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier, whose appeal and popularity transcended race.  At the height of her celebrity in the 1940s, Lena Horne undeniably contributed to the broadening of African American representation and the official promotion of a moderately liberal popular culture in the postwar years.

While Horne held a privileged position among other black actresses and entertainers—actor Ernie Whitman called her “the most famous filly in the armed forces” during World War II—she was part of a larger moment in the history of interracial liberalism that includes some who have become famous African American artists, but also a number of men and women who have received little, if any, attention.

As I discuss in Black Culture and the New Deal, government-sponsored cultural programs of the 1930s and 1940s offered unprecedented outlets for African American writers, actors, musicians, artists, and playwrights to move slightly outside of the confines of a restrictive commercial industry and to craft new interpretations of the black American experience.  The plays of the Federal Theater Project Negro Units, the Negro Affairs division of the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series, the Armed Forces Radio Service Jubilee program, and several racially oriented Hollywood films fostered an interracial exchange that prioritized the issue of black cultural representation. Horne’s frequent performances on the Jubilee program and her roles in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (both of which were highly monitored by the government’s Bureau of Motion Pictures) made her central to the federal initiative to sponsor and shepherd more racially inclusive projects.

Yet, particularly in the midst of World War II, government programs largely centered on morale-raising, politically sanitized media.  Horne, like other African American wartime celebrities such as Joe Louis, represented acceptable models of blackness, which liberal white Americans could tout in the face of Nazism as evidence of an increasing racial sensitivity.  However, as was the case with other African Americans employed in government cultural programs such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Horne’s politics were not always easily contained. She refused to perform for segregated audiences during USO performances, and when government officials perceived her ideas and affiliations as increasingly threatening in the Cold War climate, Horne was blacklisted and unable to perform in commercial industry for several years.

Until fairly recently, racially transcendent figures have had a curious history, due to the imprecision of their public personae and their less aggressive stance on racial politics. Widely covered in the black press and looming large in the cultural landscape, individuals like Lena Horne nonetheless fall outside of the categories that scholars conventionally employ to understand the black freedom struggle. Although Horne’s participation in civil rights activities such as the March on Washington place her alongside other traditionally defined activists, she arguably had a much greater impact on American culture in the 1940s, when her politics were ostensibly much more muted.

So how can we understand the impact of Lena Horne if her work was not “political”? What did she give to African Americans at the height of her celebrity?

In the 1940s, Lena Horne offered an alternative imagery for African Americans all too accustomed to seeing themselves as inferior. As her celebrity was largely a product of segregation and racism—black servicemen could not pine for the ever popular white pinup Betty Grable—Horne’s wartime commodification promoted a black woman unstereotypically. The proliferation of Horne’s image also legitimated black male desire, often conceived as naturally inclined towards the abuse of white women.

Horne, like her contemporaries Sterling Brown, Carlton Moss, Clarence Muse, Edna Thomas, Ida James, Eddie Green, and so many other lesser-known African Americans, worked to carve a wider space for black talent and to feature black men and women outside of minstrelsy.  For most of these individuals, the changes they promoted were subtle and incremental, and the impact of their efforts was not truly felt until later in the postwar period. For a celebrity like Horne, however, her frequent presence in visual media and her voice on the airwaves overtly challenged the longtime exclusion of African Americans in the culture industry. Horne provided African Americans—particularly black women—with a newfound sense of representational agency.

Horne’s impact on the white mindset should also not be ignored, as her celebrity across the color line and the successful careers of several African American entertainers and athletes in the following decades may have led to a heightened intolerance of racial injustices. Americans, however, have always been able to compartmentalize culture and politics as distinctly separate categories: embracing black culture heroes on the one hand, while ignoring the economic and social contours of racism on the other. The career of Lena Horne reveals this paradox, and while her legacy points to the opening of opportunity for some, it may also expose the persistence of certain racial tendencies that prevents change for all.

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff
University of South Carolina
author of Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era