Missing Miss Lena: :Lena Horne Makes Her Transition

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

This was originally going to be an Event Alert article about a break-through theatrical production of “LENA: THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE”, which is set to preview on Sunday, May 16th, at the Lafayette Grill and Bar, in downtown Manhattan.**

But sadly, the thrust of my article has changed drastically. For you see, our dear Sister Lena Horne has made her transition. That wonderful, beautiful standard of Afrocentricity, and Black womanhood, who reigned from the early 40’s through the 21st Century, never losing one iota of her beauty, charm, grace, wit, poise, and clarity, has now joined her two peer-divas, Dr. Dorothy Height and Evelyn Cunningham.

Interestingly enough, each of those ladies were in their 90’s, and managed to retain their beauty, energy and enthusiasm. Each, was an activist; and each made their own contribution to Black people and the world in their own way. Each had made their mark. And neither of them will be forgotten.

Somewhere in the back of my psyche, as I remember each of these ladies, I silently think: I want to be like each of them when I grow up. (So I guess I’d better get started now.)

Ms. Lena Horne was a legend in my life from a very young age. When I was a kid growing up in a still-segregated Oklahoma City, OK, my parents would take us to either the Aldrich, the East Side or the Jewel Theater -- all Black-owned motion picture theaters -- in our communities. We would sit and watch Lena Horne , dressed in the most elegant gowns, singing Stormy Weather (with Katherine Duhnam dancing in the background); or Cabin In The Sky with Paul Robeson and Todd Duncan. These wonderful Black cinema classics still hold their own today.

{Note: The great thing about Black owned theaters in Oklahoma City was that they would continuously show old and new Black movies, as well as contemporary white movies. So as kids we’d see old Black movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, alongside whatever else was current -- Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”, Oscar Michaeaux’s “Bronze Buckaroo,” etc., Anna Lucasta, and others spring to mind.}

I remember watching Ms. Lena with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and some of the other Black artists, and thinking how beautiful she was. She had an energy about her and a sparkle in her eyes, that was still there when she played Glenda the Good Witch of the West in the movie production of “The Wiz”, starring Diana Ross.

She had that exact same sparkle in her eyes when I met her in the 90’s at the premiere of “And Then I’ll Be Free To Travel Home”, where she hosted Eric Tait’s documentary of the African Burial Ground, held at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

And, as I watched her speak, interact with Eric, Noel Pointer, Lillian Smith, and others, knowing that at that time she was in her 80’s, I thought, “How does she do it? She looks fabulous!” She moved about with the grace and ease of a woman half her age -- not a bulge, not a limp, no trace of age or illness.

But what impressed me even more than her appearance, was her dedication and devotion to promoting and supporting Eric Tait’s work in documenting the recovery of our ancestral remains, as well as her wealth of knowledge of things African and Black history.

Ms. Horne was not just beauty, she was also brains as well. She was so well informed, it was clear that the information could not have come from a mere preliminary briefing. She was totally tuned in. Her dedication to the African Burial Ground was recently re-iterated during a recent re-release of Eric Tait’s documentary in 2010, where she gave the introduction of the DVD.

I am in awe of Ms. Horne’s activisim. It truly spoke volumes about her love for her people, her gentility; her genuine dedication. She could have easily rested on her laurels as a Black beauty, heralded by the European world, but she refused to be relegated to a status that denied her dignity as a Black woman.

That courage of conviction and feisty spirit is no less resonant in her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley, whose love of history and research was wholeheartedly supported and heralded by her famous mother.

Ms. Horne had the wonderful quality of making you feel totally comfortable in her presence. She was approachable. She listened. She responded. She was genteel and joyful. You could not help but smile when you were around her.

And I know that they’re smiling even more in heaven, because now they have added another to the pantheon. I’m just wondering, though, can they stand to have three Black female activists there at the same time? Wow! That’s really going to be something.

My even earlier memories of Ms. Lena was when a friend of mine had completed a TV Production Training program sponsored by Chanel 13. They were holding a graduation ceremony and I was an invited to the screening of her graduation documentary.

The room was dark to accommodate the movie screen, so you could not see who was in the room. I remember being sent to a table where there were already several other people seated. When the lights came up I realized I was seated at a table with Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, and a few other celebrities.

Ms. Horne and Ms. Tyson were both down to earth, jovial, and gracious. I was stunned. But I remember saying silently “Thank you, God!” I felt as though I was in such a privileged space, sitting with these two Divas.

They talked about everyday occurrences, their next projects; the importance of Black television programming. I just listened and soaked it up. My friend said that it was the first time she had ever seen me rendered speechless. I was totally awestruck. I have absolutely no idea what I said. I remember thinking if these two ladies are trying to out compliment each other, it’s an impossibility because they’re both so great.

Just that brief interaction with Ms. Horne taught me an important lesson about the facts of life and living in New York City: practically everyone in New York is a celebrity of one sort or another. For that reason, no one gawks at anyone. In New York, generally, we don’t have mobs running after a celebrity; we give them their respect and their privacy.

The memory I took away from the event and still hold to this day is that Ms. Horne and Ms. Tyson were two fantastic, down to earth women who were just as involved in what was happening in their community as they were being on the big screen.

My condolences to her family, and to the rest of us. But not to mourn the loss, but to celebrate the gain. We have been blessed with having Ms. Lena Horne among us for these 92 years, and we have been the beneficiary of her love, largess, creativity, activism. Each of us should definitely take a bit of Lena Horne with us and replicate what this wonderful woman started.

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

**Lena: The Life of Lena Horne, Written and Directd by Nickolas Long III, starring Mia Davis, Andrea Womack, Kwasi Osei, Tangie Quinn, Cherisse Brandley, James F. Barrett IV, J. Lyn, at the Lafayette Grill and Bar, 54 Franklin Street (between B’way and Lafayette) call 212-732-4449 for info and times.

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