The wench was both love object and object of ridicule in musical numbers; those musical numbers were the favorites of white women who were thrilled to hear romantic emotion expressed toward their sex. Thus, an archetype was born, on which Tyler Perry continues to make bank through well-loved variations. There it is.
By the time Lena Horne started moving up inside of Hollywood’s dream machine, the charming yellow girl was fashioned in place as a devil or an angel, a temptress or a savior. Nuance was not necessary, because the subject was, after all, the Negro, and everyone was supposed to know how simple they were. In King Vidor’s 1929 film, the all-black Hallelujah, bone-colored Nina Mae McKinney played Chick, the woman who brings a man down further and further until his helpless affection curdles to the point of murder upon discovering that she has betrayed him once again. McKinney’s role was the first time that a black woman was cast as an object of desire in the movies; as such, it was a role that foreshadowed Horne’s career, her image, her persona and even the emotional content of her material.
McKinney, who was called “the Black Garbo,” is almost unknown today, but she was considered something when she had her magnetic strut and manner in place. McKinney’s early-20th-century version of the minstrel wench is destroyed by her tendencies and her appetite for the spiritual swill ever present in the nightlife. Mortally wounded at the end of the film, McKinney mutters nothing into the on-rushing silence more than the devastating realization that she did not know what she was doing. American film has rarely entered the tragic essence of the blues armed with such actual poignance. Had Hollywood discovered the Negro ethnic market 70 years ago, both McKinney and Horne could have brought great profit to their studios. (McKinney had signed a five-year contract with MGM, but the studio seemed reluctant to cast her in anything.) Horne might have become something of a singing Pam Grier and put her abundant sass to good use. Horne had more than it would have taken, but that money trail was not moved on until the dream machine’s bloodhounds picked up the whiff in the 1970s.
But Lena Horne was always out of place in Hollywood. The nearly successful actress looked at her chances and saw none. Instead, she became a supper club star, doing the most that was possible in circumstances known more for their ticket prices than their aesthetic or emotional quality. Horne was beamed upward on the light cast by the boob tube, appearing on what seemed like every existing variety show. Her career got a second wind as she became more popular through those frequent guest appearances.
Always elegant and haughtily poised, something close to pathos arrived with middle age and would occasionally peep through what seemed to be her near-perfect pitch. By the age of 40 or so, Horne began to reach those qualities of feeling that she once thought were beyond her talent. (She told Billie Holiday quite correctly that there was no way that she had it in her to sing the blues.) By midlife, however, she could then sing certain notes and fill them up with the freedom that only arrives with unvarnished self-recognition. Those human truths about universal limits are what the supper club audience hopes to have found when seated before a singer who can supposedly reach into the pockets of the heart and knowingly pull out those things that cut and bleed their wounds into place.
That sense of maturity came from Horne in a 1982 conversation with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, when she was in her sixties and the singer joked about the silliness of racial constructs. We all might have benefited from hearing her talk about what was actually on her mind years earlier. We didn’t because it was a different time. Time is always the trouble, and people do what is possible within the realm of what can actually be done, not what anyone else believes should have happened. If they were like Lena Horne, they lived lives that were essentially satisfying but were made distinctively shallow by the nation’s lack of interest in tragic complexity, one of the essences of the Negro-American experience. It is always free of the militant self-pity that becomes no more than another angry but lucrative and boring act. The singer chose to go her own way and mix contemptuous satire in with the rendition of her bad luck.
Horne told Carson that a problem in the old Hollywood was that it was difficult to “match up” Negroes because the color range went on and on. There was no available stereotype that could stand in for everybody. That epic degree of visual individuality was obvious to anyone who could see, but it is only now rising into place. One of the burdens Horne had to carry was what her beauty meant to those quite willing to reduce it all to a shining but superficial symbol. The drummer Panama Francis bitterly remembered playing a benefit for the Los Angeles NAACP in the early 1940s. Still an emerging star, Horne was introduced by NAACP President Walter White, who looked exactly like his last name. The Negro race, he said, needed to be represented by women who looked like Horne, not Hattie McDaniel. There you have it, with no sweetener, no grease.
Rednecks who periodically appeared were too often ready to tell Lena Horne what she could not do. By the end of the 1940s, she had begun to reply by letting them know, one and all, that they could kiss her where the sun didn’t shine.