Monday, May 10, 2010

Death of a Nightingale

"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out. ... It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world," -Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Yesterday a nightingale died in New York. She lived a long life and a rewarding one, at least from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. I never met Ms. Horne or even saw her perform live, but like millions of others, I admired not only her talent, but her courage and determination.

What made Ms. Horne special, beyond her decades-long career as a singer and actress, was her drive to step outside the role that white America had assigned her and get in the face of those who tried to keep her and everyone who looked like her "separate but equal".

Her obituary records that in "the 1940s, she was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub and among a handful with a Hollywood contract." Her frustration was that while she was good enough to entertain white people, she wasn't good enough to socialize with them. I guess 1945 was an especially important year for her.

Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear. That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.

I suppose most people will mourn her loss as an iconic entertainer whose career spanned over half a century, but I see her as more than a songbird, though her talents were considerable. While I can't mourn her as a person who knew her but only of someone who knew of her, I see her life as an inspiration for the rest of us. How many people would have just given up and tried to fit in, pursuing the spotlight of fame while avoiding the harsher light of controversy?

If Lena Horne's life didn't mean anything to you before, let it mean something to you now, but not just because of the color of your skin, where you were born, or anything else that separates you from other people. Let Ms. Horne's life mean something to you because she rattled the cages and knocked down the walls. Let her life mean something to you so you can rattle more cages and knock down more walls. Let her make a difference in the world by making a difference in the world yourself.

What she tried to do, along with other people of conviction and compassion, isn't over. Racism, bigotry, and prejudice aren't dead. I read stories everyday that still show how fragmented the world is over differences of color, race, and ethnicity.

The last words printed in the obit I read said this:

I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she said, "because being black made me understand.

The rest of us won't really understand until everyone has the chance to equally access resources and experiences and no one is prevented from that because of what they look like or where they were born.

One of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence guarantees citizens of America "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." No, we aren't promised happiness, just the opportunity to go looking for it. It's up to us to find and hold onto what we want and need. Lena Horne's life embraced that pursuit. Nobody handed her a thing. She earned everything she had, and so must we.

A nightingale died in New York yesterday. The rest of us need to live and aspire to fly upward...where her life and her passion will always sing. No more "Stormy Weather."


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