In May of 1963, US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy convened a meeting of black representatives from the realms of politics, academia, and the arts. The remarkable gathering included James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, social psychologist Kenneth Clark, president of the Chicago Urban League Edwin Berry, and Jerome Smith, a young activist and CORE fieldworker. Concerned by the escalating protests in Birmingham, Kennedy hoped to persuade these race leaders to publicly diffuse mass anger and counsel patience. Kennedy offered defensive platitudes of his record on civil rights; Clark, Hansberry, and others tried to impress upon him the inadequacy of the federal response to the situation in the south. Both sides spoke past each other until the meeting was brought to a halt by the soft-spoken yet passionate interruption of Jerome Smith. Smith challenged Kennedy’s pragmatic politics. Speaking of his experience registering black voters in Louisiana and Mississippi, he cut through the figures, policies, and statistics under discussion with a visceral description of what the struggle in the south was like.
Looking back, Horne described her response to Smith’s testimony as a simultaneous solidarity with and isolation from his struggle. “You could not encompass his anger, his fury, in a set of statistics,” she recalled, “nor could Mr. Belafonte and Dr. Clark and Miss Horne, the fortunate Negroes, who had never been in a Southern jail, keep up the pretense of being the mature, responsible spokesmen for the race anymore. All of the sudden the fancy phrases like ‘depressed area’ and ‘power structure’ and all the rest were nothing. It seemed to me that this boy just put it like it was.” The fundamental dynamics of this confrontation–between black and white, north and south, urban and rural, social science and the arts, elite and mass politics, younger and older generations–can be heard in every song that Lena Horne recorded throughout her career.
I thought of this scene when I heard the news that Lena Horne passed away on May 9, 2010. Horne, as much as Kennedy, got schooled in that meeting, and her account of Smith’s oration suggests what we, in turn, might learn from Lena. In her writings, recordings, and performances we can discern a deep pedagogical impulse that undermines hierarchical models of knowledge transmission and instructs us in new ways to listen–something Horne models for us in her account of Kennedy’s meeting and that she demands of us every time we listen to her sing. Through her vocal stylization, her comportment toward her song and her audience, Horne created a space that allowed for new possibilities of self-knowledge and social reassemblage. Within this space, Horne contemplated her own location within history and continually worked to dismantle the logic of the “firsts” that underwrote her career. As Horne put it in 1965, not long after her meeting with Kennedy,
“I had begun to convince myself that all of us ‘firsts’–first glamour girl, first baseball player, first this-and-that-and-the-other–had reached the end of our usefulness. We were not symbols of the approaching rapprochement between the races. We were sops, tokens, buy-offs for the white race’s conscience. Now millions of Negro people were reaching out, as a mass, to take what had been so long denied them. I did not want to remind them of the old days. I wanted to join this movement not as a tired symbol but simply as me, as a private Negro person.”
In this distribution of influence away from the normative logic of the exemplary, Horne repudiated the ideology of respectability that organized early-twentieth century uplift politics and embraced instead a mass politics of uprising. She also demonstrated her own willingness to learn from the energies and experiences of a new generation. In doing so, she interrogated the potential promises and necessary failures of collective belonging.
This isn’t the Lena Horne that first comes to mind when we hear her name: the pioneering, barrier-breaking performer working across the color line in nightclubs and in Hollywood; the flawless vocal stylist and unparalleled phraseologist; the icon of elegance, beauty, and dignity; the aloof chanteuse who left her audiences desiring more than she would give. But as her long career and remarkable achievements are memorialized, and as the contradictions of her life are inevitably smoothed into liberal integrationist narratives of US race relations, I also want to remember the jagged aspects that fail easy incorporation into the obituary genre: the nationalist Lena Horne who–even (or especially) in her recordings of “timeless” popular standards–refuses our nostalgia, the Lena Horne who can teach us something about the long civil rights era in which we live still.
For accounts of Kennedy’s meeting, see Lena Horne, with Richard Schickel, Lena (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 275-281; James Gavin, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 312-315; and Arthur M. Schlessinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 330-335.