August 2010 Volume 7

Standing Up in Stormy Weather

Ray Ford
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Life doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated. At times, we either have to stand up, or sit down. Advocate or quake. Champion a cause or dance around it. Be part of the movement or part of the gallery. Any stance in between, can sometimes be compromising and uncomfortable.  

Lena Horne who passed recently, by all accounts, was complicated and unpredictable. But that's okay. The pressures of racism can play on the mind.  But when confronted by big forks in the road, she took the right road.

She could have more easily have passed for white than either US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Grand Old Party Chairman Michael Steele, and yet she chose not to. She took the right road. The trappings of the club did not trap her. In the 1940s, to further her singing career, she could have gone along with the program and sung for segregated audiences. But she chose not to. She took the right road. These were her ways of standing up in stormy weather, when she could have gotten comfortable and sailed along. But to her, that sort of comfort was not comfortable. To her, the worst kind of acceptance as she put it, was to be accepted for (quote): `Not how great I was. But the way I looked.'

Some of her accolades came late: 1997 - honored by the Citizens Committee for New York; Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry; 1981 - Tony Award for `Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music'; because she began singing and acting in the late 30's. In 1940 she became the first African-American to tour with a white band, and in 1943 she played the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical Stormy Weather Stormy Weather the theme song for  which she's best known. Her first big Broadway success came in 1957 in the hit Jamaica.

Along the way though, she suffered major professional disappointments. The most stinging might have been being overlooked for the role of Julie in the 1951 movie version of Show Boat. The part went to the white Ava Gardner who could only act but didn't sing.  

Throughout her professional life, Horne suffered several indignities. Back in 1939, she could sing with a band but not sit on stage with it. In 1942, she was refused a cup of coffee in an Alabama diner. No wonder she grew to be an angry woman. That anger sometimes came out in her singing. But in general she sang about self-belief, self-determination and willpower. And in the end, she could claim triumph over bigotry.

By not working in places which kept out black people, she was always battling the system. This is just one of many instances where in the grand scheme of things, she chose right over wrong. President Obama rightfully saluted her as one who (quote): `worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality.’

And to all of us who at some time or the other, have been subjected to `libaty-teking’ as we say in Jamaica, she is a shining example of how to stand up in stormy weather.  

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