NPR logo Obama On Lena Horne: She Forged Progress

Obama On Lena Horne: She Forged Progress

President Barack Obama issued a statement on the death of Lena Horne, the pioneering African American singer and actress who became a symbol of class, style, beauty and defiance for millions of blacks and many whites as well.

Coming from the first black president, what's striking about Obama's statement is how much the nation has changed from the era when Horne commanded the stage to today when Obama does.

Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Lena Horne — one of our nation's most cherished entertainers. Over the years, she warmed the hearts of countless Americans with her beautiful voice and dramatic performances on screen. From the time her grandmother signed her up for an NAACP membership as a child, she worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality. In 1940, she became the first African American performer to tour with an all white band. And while entertaining soldiers during World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences — a principled struggle she continued well after the troops returned home. Michelle and I offer our condolences to all those who knew and loved Lena, and we join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country.

But as great as many changes have been, we haven't completely left that past behind. During the 2008 presidential campaign, some commentators said part of Obama's success was his biracial background which gave him an appearance that helped his crossover appeal.

Horne didn't shy away from how her light skin and straight hair made her more acceptable to whites and, yes, even to many blacks. A paragraph from a BBC report that my fellow blogger Mark included in an earlier post goes to that point:

"When asked about her success, Ms Horne once said: 'I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked'."