JOHANNESBURG—As I turned on the television on Tuesday morning, the first thing I heard were the lyrical tributes to Lena Horne by Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole, both of whom talked about how she had taken them under her wing early in their budding singing careers. I couldn't help but think about how she inspired me, albeit in a very different way.
I was 20 years old and still negotiating the space the law had made possible for me as the first black woman student at the University of Georgia. And while it might have been a lonely journey otherwise, I had so much support beyond its walls and that included the women in the sorority I had joined at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I was studying while waiting for the courts to decide whether Georgia had lied when it denied my application on the pretext that there was no room in the dormitory.
When I was finally admitted in the winter of 1961, my Delta Sigma Theta sorors in Detroit cried as I left on an uncertain and possibly dangerous journey. But after a tumultuous welcome by white students that included a riot outside my dormitory, things settled down for the most part, except for the absence of women like those who had taken me in when I joined them in their sisterhood. They wrote and called, and on one occasion, Jeanne Noble, the brilliant and stunning national president of Delta took advantage of a speaking engagement I had in New York and organized an evening, she said, with some friends, one of whom was a soror.
I didn't know where we were headed until after Jeanne knocked on the door and I first laid eyes on the woman of the house. I was shocked. Not only because I recognized her face, that wide, wonderful smile immediately, but also, here I was, up close to Lena Horne. This was not the Lena Horne I had seen in the little, segregated movie theater of my childhood in Covington, Ga., wearing sequined gowns and furs and looking oh-so-glamorous as she sang ''Stormy Weather.'' This was a tiny figure dressed in black pedal pushers (yes, it was the early 1960s) and a pink cotton shirt. But that smile? It added the furs and sequins and made her as tall and stunning as I remembered her on the silver screen. This was possibly my first time ever being at a loss for words. And I was ever more flabbergasted when she greeted us with ''Hey, y'all.'' It turned out that Lena was an honorary Delta.
Then suddenly, she bounded lithely out of her chair and headed for the kitchen, casually saying she was going to ''fix dessert.'' We followed her into the kitchen, and to my surprise, there was no one else in the kitchen—not a cook, nor a servant, nor a helper of any kind as I was expecting in the home of such a star. And she—the star—was busy putting whipped cream on a stack of sweet biscuits covered with strawberries. All with her beautiful, little hands. I couldn't believe it. And then, she led us back to the living room and served us. I honestly don't remember a word that was spoken, but I remember the moment. It was, what we might today call, a teachable moment. It was a moment that taught me about humility and the importance of holding fast to it, no matter the heights you have achieved.
I heard Dionne Warwick on the television talk about how the only person she ever called Mama other than her own, was Lena, because she was a true Mama to her. And I continued down memory lane of that night in New York on West End Avenue and remembered how Lena had prepared more surprises for me than that strawberry shortcake. For she had understood that the life I was living at the time didn't leave much room for fun, so she arranged for her son, Teddy-that is, her very handsome, hazel-eyed son Teddy-to drop by. And just when I thought the introduction and the brief visit was all there was, and that was plenty, Lena said it was time for me to go, not with Jeanne, but with Teddy, with whom she had arranged to take me to Birdland, where I would soon hear my first big band.
It was a night to remember and so nice to remember it today, for it means that for me, Lena Horne will never die. She will live on in my memory for her pioneering stardom, to be sure, but for more than that. For her kindness, for her humility and for her motherly understanding of the needs of a young girl at a particularly challenging moment in her life.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an American journalist living in South Africa.