Lena Horne

Lena Horne is dead, and I’m sorry. I’m even sorrier to admit that I never could enjoy her as much as I wanted to, at least not in her later years, despite her phenomenal voice and otherworldly beauty. As many of her obits are pointing out, Horne received some truly shameful treatment from Hollywood, which initially refused to let her be seen speaking to white characters onscreen and even cut her numbers out of musicals to accommodate the Southern trade. That’s maddening just to think about; I can only imagine what it was like to experience it. But the effect of it seemed to color Horne’s demeanor, to the point where she often appeared tightly wound and only superficially happy—even in the Sixties, when she was a hugely respected star often seen on TV performing to adoring audiences, or in more recent documentaries discussing her experiences. Hearing that voice when it was just coming out of the family stereo was one thing; seeing it with the clenched chin and tight cheeks and flashing eyes was a pricklier and less happy affair. It wouldn’t surprise me if Horne, like Jackie Robinson, was so hurt and infuriated by the indignities that there was no getting ahead of them for good, ever.

God knows for every wrong I can imagine there must’ve been a thousand more. Right now I’m in the middle of Robert E. Burns’ I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! It’s the source material for the great Paul Muni movie, of course (but with “Georgia” omitted from the title, in another sop to the South), but it’s mostly fascinating for the details which Burns probably never suspected would be interesting to readers 80 years down the road. While preparing for his first escape from the chain gang (yeah, the sumbitch managed to escape twice), he spots “a certain Negro in my group” who could wield a sledgehammer expertly. Burns’ plan was to have his fellow con hammer the sides of his shackles until they became distended enough to slip over his heels, and in describing how the plan came to him he mentions the “Negro”—always using that word—four different times. But then, when he was on the verge of actually approaching the man, he writes, seemingly out of nowhere: “One day in June when the heat was terrific and the guards were half asleep from the humidity, I spoke to this nigger.”

How casual is that? Burns was no Southern boy. He was a New Yorker (so much so that his accent was a giveaway when he was on the run in Georgia) who’d just declined multiple chances to use the word, yet who brings it up at the precise moment he’s about to ask the man for a favor—a life-threatening one at that. And all of this was related in a book originally published by the Vanguard Press—a left-wing publishing house. The scene continues:

“Sam,” I said. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Boss, if I can, I sho’ will,” he replies.

And after Burns has explained his plan:

“Boss, it sho’ is pretty rough, and I ain’t much for hunting trouble, but if I’s can help you, I sho’ will…Boss, if you can keep the shackle from turning, I can hit it right plump.”

This is just delivering the goods. Earlier on, when Burns was being forced into the stickup that would earn him his years, a two-bit gunman is reported as saying “And say, don’t go pulling any tricks or make any squawk, see? I got the rod in my pocket and I’ll plug you if you try anything funny, see?” These lines sound like something that would’ve come out of a Warner Brothers crime flick, not gone into one, right down to that Edward G. Robinson “…see?” at the end of them. But I Am a Fugitive (both book and movie) came out in 1932, only three years after talkies were born and only a year after Little Caesar made Robinson a star. These passages reek of Burns tilting his style to meet his readers’ expectations: the tough-talking gunsel, the helpful but hopeless black man. Readers already expected their gangsters to talk like Cagney and Robinson, formulations like “I’ll plug you if you try anything funny” didn’t ring hollowly in their ears, and if a country “Negro” opened his mouth, he wasn’t likely to have much more on his mind than “If I’s can help you, I sho’ will.” If “nigger” could be used so offhandedly, so completely unnecessarily, to describe a man who’s saving the protagonist’s life in a muckraking book from a progressive publisher, it’s no wonder if Lena Horne took things as hard as it sometimes looked like she did. It’s only a wonder that more of her generation didn’t do the same thing.

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