The Answer to "Lena Who?"

Overheard on the streets of Los Angeles today:

Person A: "Hey, did you hear Lena Horne died?"

Person B: "Lena who?"

Person A: "That old black actress lady who sings that Stormy Windows song."

Person B: "I dunno who the *#&@ you're talkin about."

My first sarcastic thought was that last night BET must've forgotten to tell the 106 & Park hosts to say, "Big ups to Lena Horne! Rest In Peace, Mami! Now, coming in at number seven, Lloyd Banks and Juelz Santana with Beemer, Benz or Bentley!"

Yes, much as I cringe over BET, I've learned to appreciate the slight education they sometimes provide our youth. I would've preferred to hear, "Was that that lady Rocsi was talkin about on 106 yesterday?" instead of, "Lena who?"

But I can't really blame young people for their ignorance. Our history books don't tell the stories of quadruple threat African American stars like Lena Mary Calhoun Horne. She could dance, sing and act and she stood up for civil rights, but throughout my entire high school education, not one single teacher ever mentioned her name. It's two decades since I graduated from high school but I know most history teachers still aren't including the 20th Century Hollywood experience of stars like Lena Horne in their lessons.

So, how did I find out about Lena Horne? My mother loves old movies, my father is a jazz musician, and my parents were always talking about the contributions of African Americans to America, so I've known about her my whole life - and hoped I looked as good as her when I get old. I remember the first time I saw this GAP ad with Lena in it back in the late 90s. She would've been in her late seventies and she looked amazing:
Smokin' hot. I still want to know her skincare regimen.

My nine year-old's response yesterday after hearing that Lena Horne had passed was quite different from what I heard today. "You mean the lady from The Wiz who's our relative?" he said.

He has a good memory. A few years ago my husband and I were thinking about researching our family trees and we got to talking about how you never know who you're related to. He mentioned how he knew his grandmother and Lena Horne were cousins. I'm not sure if I have any relatives with that much "wow" factor!

Sadly, in quite a few places online I've read ignorant comments from people saying that they don't know why people are saying that Lena Horne was a black icon since she wasn't black. Some comments even say things like, she's "not one of us" when she's so light skinned and obviously "mixed" and it's wrong to let mixed people say they're black.

Again, it's sad that African Americans don't know their history. Both Lena Horne and my husband's grandmother were descendants of a the most notorious slavery advocate in our nation's history, former Vice President John C. Calhoun. Slave owning Calhoun raped black women he owned and fathered children with them. So although the children of those rapes were genetically part white and part black - just like in lots of African American families, the children were black in America, and they were proud to be black in America.

Yes, Lena Horne's parents were both black. They may have been lighter skinned with more European-textured hair, but neither of her parents were white. And she carried herself with dignity. She refused to take demeaning roles and as time went on, she became a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement.

I can wax prolifically on the lack of diversity in Hollywood, but I don't think I can genuinely appreciate what this town must've been like for someone like Lena Horne. What I can imagine makes me respect her legacy.

I hope that as time goes on Lena Horne gets more mentions in the history books - and then maybe I won't have to overhear another young person asking, "Lena Who?"


Unknown said…
bawling ... seriously ... great tribute to our Queen.
I'm surprised that they didn't know her from The Cosby Show! Bill Cosby featured quite a few jazz musicians on the show and I thought EVERYONE watched that show back in the 90s!

Personally I'm gonna treasure my copy of the movie, "Cabin in the Sky" where Lena plays the vixen. You did write an awesome tribute to an amazing woman!
Tafari said…
You are making me want to watch The Wiz, which I haven't seen in forever & a day.

One thing Lena was, was a proud Black woman, she was not confused by her existence & it's a shame that people who are tripping don't even have their facts straight.

And how interest your family connection is. Seems like we really are 6 degrees from everybody.
Val said…
I hope some actresses of color will read Lena's bio before accepting their next demeaning role.

Lena left us all an amazing legacy if only people would take the time to learn about it.
nick said…
I also knew little about Lena Horne until she died and bloggers started mentioning her. It would be good indeed if people like her were part of our history lessons as well as kings and queens and presidents. Her struggle to get decent roles and not just the rubbish roles Hollywood used to offer black people is an inspiring example. That took a lot of courage and self-respect.
1969 said…
Great tribute but I so heart you for this:

"Big ups to Lena Horne! Rest In Peace, Mami! Now, coming in at number seven, Lloyd Banks and Juelz Santana with Beemer, Benz or Bentley!"

I laughed out loud. :)
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. She's one person I wish I could've met.

They're too young. Folks who are 18 or 19 don't really remember Cosby all that much.

I love Cabin in the Sky. Such a good film on so many levels.

We watch The Wiz at least once a month around here. My boys LOVE that movie. -- Isn't it interesting how family trees work? Showing we're all connected.

Exactly. Have a little self-respect and cut out the trifling demeaning stuff just for a check.

I also much prefer history without all the bloody battles and corrupt kings, queens and presidents. It's more interesting and more real than reading about wars.

Hahaha! Juelz Santana could be my future baby daddy if he asked. ;)

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