Lena Horne Fights Through Storms

At the age of twenty-two, one could find Lena Horne at a baseball park in Pittsburgh, rooting for the Homestead Grays, an all-black team. She often had at least one of her two children there, and fans who noticed her believed she was content on growing old with her husband and raising her kids.

The truth, however, was different. Lena was stuck—trapped inside a domesticated prison. She was a performer—a 5’7’’ bronze-toned knockout, locked within a lifestyle she’d thought would help free herself from her mother. But the truth was that the choices she’d made out of rebellion had only made her more like her mother, an aspiring actress as well.

As she sat at that baseball game, Lena no doubt felt pulled in several directions…

First, there were her two wonderful kids. How could she ever leave them like her mother had done? She loved them dearly, but artists like Lena in general often have one foot in their reality, and the other in a place they can never quite reach.

Second, there was her husband. If she left him, the fallout might prove enormous. He was possessive, and she had loved him once. Would she be quitting too early on a vow she had made at the age of nineteen?

Finally, there was New York—a performer’s sanctuary. She had so much potential and had survived the obstacles of hate. All of these directions pulled at her at that baseball game, and they were enough to drive her mad. She had to make a choice.

With her children around her, it would have been without surprise that Lena daydreamed of her past, and the people who’d gotten her to this point in time…

 For Lena, it was Cora, her grandmother, who became the most consistent authority during her childhood. For years Cora told Lena, without a drop of sympathy… “Think for yourself. Don’t make excuses. Don’t lie. Never say ‘ain’t’. Learn how to read. Learn how to listen. Hold your head straight, look people in the eye, talk to them distinctly…never let anyone see you cry.”

Lena learned how to bury those conflicting emotions and, in a way, suffer elegantly. While deploying her grandmother’s advice, her mother Edna dragged Lena through Florida and then through the South in the hopes that she, not Lena, could become a star.

As Edna pursued her own goals, Lena, because of her ‘uppity’ color, was derided at school by classmates as being “high yellow”, or, more accurately in the South, “high yaller”. Because of her mixed heritage, Lena received doses of racism from both sides, and friends were a rarity because she never stayed long in one particular city. Her mother was always dragging her somewhere new, with more promise. “(I was) afraid of people…of letting myself be close to them…I made my peace that no one really did love me…regardless of my color.”

After a while, the act of fitting in became such a regular experience that Lena soon regarded herself as a kind of chameleon. According to James Gavin’s biography, Stormy Weather, Lena often found herself speaking in different accents:

 

“A confusion overtook her (Lena) that she never quite lost…she called herself “two or three people”, depending on her company. Her accent kept shifting: “I hear it happening and still I go ahead and do it.”

 

Thankfully for Lena, she eventually settled back into a semi-normal routine with her grandmother in Brooklyn. As her mother came and went, Lena was able to focus a bit more on her schoolwork. But as soon as normalcy set in, Lena was pulled back in to the revolving door of performing, this time with the famous Cotton Club in Harlem—made famous thanks in large part to the side effects of Prohibition[1]. Run primarily by gangsters, if you were a performer at the Cotton Club[2], you were protected by some serious muscle and metal. The performances involved mostly a brass band, dancers, a revolving set of soloists, and a crowd of mainly white folk who came in with money to spend and booze to drink.

Eventually, the Cotton Club became successful enough that black people with some money in their pockets were allowed in. However, segregation still loomed over society, and Lena and the other dancers never used certain entrances designated for white people. Their bathrooms weren’t exactly ‘bathrooms’, but basins. Still, Lena at the time didn’t complain. She was young, performing for 25 dollars a week, and keeping food on the table for her family. Her mother, who never managed to achieve this level of fame, latched on to her daughter’s dreams and took as much charge as she could on how Lena was used.

The Cotton Club allowed Lena to grow into a performer. Even Lena herself said, in the beginning, that “I had no talent; I had nothing but looks.”

From being “paralyzed by fear” to a regular performer in Cotton Club shows, Lena was soon given other opportunities to shine around the country. You would think that stardom was just around the corner. However, sometimes life feels as if “it’s rainin’ all the time”. And for Lena, there was plenty of rain.

After leaving the Cotton Club at eighteen, Lena landed a gig with a popular black conductor at the time, Noble Sissle.

Sissle didn’t mess around. He took the young and still innocent lady aside and told her exactly what he expected:

 

“One must be neater and cleaner and more genteel in attitude so that one will be accepted for the sake of helping other Negro people! You are not a whore—don’t let them treat you like one.”

 

From Sissle, Lena was given a lesson in acting dignified. The band played at various white-dominated events, and Lena soon realized that the only way a black person could get any ounce of respect from a ‘cracker’[3] was to act with an excessive amount of class, even if all she wanted to do was spit in their faces.

Most nights, Lena and the band couldn’t find a hotel that would take them, so they’d sleep on the bus on the side of the road, or with sympathetic black families or “black hostels”. Perhaps in retrospect a low point, Lena even endorsed a “Skin Whitener Ointment”. The impact of the endorsement was mute. The black community mostly understood. “She was young. She got paid.”

However, out in popular culture, black icons stirred about. The first authentic moment Lena felt to the core was when she and others listened to boxer Joe Louis’s fights over the radio. In the late 1930’s, heroes like Joe Louis were like beacons of light for African-American. His victory was their victory. So when, on June 19th, 1936, Lena listened to Joe Louis[4] fight German and Hitler-endorsed Max Schmeling, she cheered for him like there was no tomorrow. And when Louis lost, Lena was surprised to find herself in a sea of tears. Only later did she understand her sadness: “I was identifying with the symbol that we had of a powerful man, an impregnable fortress, and I didn’t realize that we drew strength from these symbols.”

On the way toward her own icon status, Lena inevitably fell in love. Her mother had remained by her side, blocking her from any potential romances that would disrupt her career. However, Lena, in an attempt to break from her mother’s clutches, and perhaps to feel something other than the cold glare of a white audience, married Louis Jones at nineteen years old. They had two children, a boy and a girl[5]. For the next two years, Lena tried to live life ‘straight up’. She did however find time to film a movie in L.A. called The Duke is Tops, but it flopped, Lena didn’t get paid, and her husband turned colder and colder.

 

“My husband wanted to be my manager, but, honey, back then no black man could walk into a café and book a black woman. The marriage couldn’t last—he tried to stop me from working. If I had been older, I would have realized it was the only way he thought he could assert his masculinity.”

 

In August of 1940, at the age of twenty-two, Lena left behind her children and a husband whose possessive efforts had decayed their marriage. She took a train to New York. She’d be with her kids again, but as for Louis, her ‘first love’?

“His personality was just too strong for me.”

Perhaps it was Lena who was too strong for him.

 

[1] By side effects I mean even more drinking and the creation of organized crime. Just those things…

[2] To be a Cotton Club dancer, according to Ebony, you had to meet these requirements:

1. Beauty

2. 5 foot 5 or taller

3. 120 pounds or less

4. A little rhythm and knowledge of body movement (this sounds purposely vague in the moments when #1 conquers all)

5. Age 26 and under.

Lena was around sixteen when she auditioned, making her illegal, but, well, the gangsters weren’t exactly in love with rules. Cotton Club manager Clarence Robinson, upon reviewing her for the first time, didn’t exactly jump for joy: “A likely prospect, thin, but beautiful.”

[3] What black people call white bigots. I’d like to call all the white people in Alabama who voted against interracial marriage in 2000 ‘Zestas’.

[4] Louis lost the fight at the age of twenty-two. It was one of the more devastating losses in his career, but he was able to bounce back and gain his revenge on Schmeling in 1938. Later in life, Louis carried around photos of Horne, and vice versa.

[5] Lena’s daughter, Gail, would later write an excellent book called The Hornes.

Flash Fiction for the Global Learner - Event - May 16th 2-3:30

Tacoma Public Library - Olympic Room

Fiction acts as a bridge toward understanding more sympathetically the challenges other cultures face on a day to day basis. It can also illuminate the very culture we are a part of. In Flash Fiction for the Global Learner, we will discuss short (under a thousand words) stories from around the world. At the same time, you will be given direction in writing your own, perhaps first, flash fiction set in another country. 

On May 16th, at the Main Tacoma Public Library, from 2-3:30, please join me in a FREE workshop (thanks to Artist Trust) designed to get you thinking about the world of flash fiction. All attendees will receive a few helpful handouts filled with very short stories, along with a copy of one of the author's published flash fictions set in Switzerland. 

Hope to see you there. 

Murmurs of Sagan

 

“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, out thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.” – a message from Jimmy Carter, on the Voyager Golden Record

On August 20th, 1977, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the Earth for an everlasting adventure, Carl Sagan made sure it had our personality attached to it. After almost thirty-seven years and two Cosmos television series later, this little-spacecraft-that-could has left our solar system and entered uncharted territory, or interstellar space.

With Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey bringing us up to date with what Cosmos discussed, one can hear Carl Sagan’s name getting bounced around once again. After all, the host of the new television series, Neil Degrasse Tyson, was greatly influenced by Sagan when, at seventeen, he visited the Cornell campus, where Sagan was teaching. Tyson never forgot how generous Sagan—a pretty big deal by that point—was with his time. At that time, Sagan was less than two years away from organizing a committee to launch what will no doubt be his most enduring legacy: The Voyager Golden Record. Mentioned briefly in the first episode of the new Cosmos series, the close up of the record is a reminder of how far it has traveled in the last three decades.

Although Sagan wrote numerous books that have remained in print long after his passing in 1996, his work on the twelve-inch Golden Record will be how his name lasts with each new century. In the 1978 book, Murmurs of Earth, Sagan, along with Ann Druyan, who was an executive producer and head writer of the Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, described in detail the process of creating the Golden Record.

After extensive meetings and hours of discussions, Sagan decided, among others, on four pieces of American music: A Navajo night chant, Louis Armstrong’s  “Melancholy Blues”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and “Dark Was the Night,” by Blind Willie Johnson—a song with lyrics described as a wordless moan, and, according to Timothy Ferris, a producer of the Voyager record, “one of the most fundamentally moving pieces of music ever recorded.”

Sagan and the team were searching for a sense of “cosmic loneliness” in their sound. They did consider the Beatles, however the world famous band did not own the copyright to “Here Comes the Sun”, their favorite among the quartet’s songs, and were moved aside. “…the legal status of the piece seemed too murky to risk,” Sagan wrote.

There is of course a wide variety of music on the record. Three Bach compositions made it on. In fact, if an alien race were to obtain the record and play the music side first, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F, First Movement, would be the first sounds they hear. Other highlights on the Record include a Japanese Shakuhachi—a bamboo flute—first played by a samurai named Kinko Kurosawa, the song titled “Cranes in Their Nest.” Ferris described the song as a “birdlike cry appropriate to Voyager’s lonely flight through space.”

And what a lonely flight it is. In Murmurs of Earth, Sagan predicted that there might be a chance, in tens of thousands of years, that the two Voyager messengers could be relatively close to a star called AC +79 3888, where the chances of meeting something, anything, will increase a minuscule. During that trip, the outer side of the Golden Record, protected by an aluminum cover, will be damaged by tiny micrometeorites (around 2% of damage, to be more specific). On that riskier, outer side of the record rests all of the music mentioned above, except good ol’ Bach. The inner side of the record will, according to Sagan, “survive essentially forever”.

And what did Sagan imagine the aliens would think of us after analyzing the Golden Record?

They would wonder about us. They would know that 60,000 years is a long period of time in the history of civilizations. They would recognize the tentativeness of our society, its tenuous acquaintance with technology and wisdom together. Had we destroyed ourselves or had we gone on to greater things?

Through new television shows, his books, a highly protected record that is set to breach the Milky Way, there are murmurs of Carl Sagan all around us. We could not have had a fairer, more considerate representative of the human race. 

The Ellensburg Writing Group

Winter, 2008

There I was, surrounded by five other writers in a D&M coffee shop on a Wednesday night. They had all read my short story and were deciding who should speak first. We’d been meeting each Wednesday for the last few months, and I’d already given them a few short stories that had been put through the wringer.

We were all men between the ages of twenty-two and forty. John and I taught English as a Second Language at the local university in Ellensburg, Washington and both leaned toward a literary style. Dave wrote fantasy and taught at a community college. There was also Ben, who called himself a graduate student, but his non-fiction suggested that he mostly roamed free like a drifter. Matt and Jeremy were the other two, both being students at the university and wrote in multiple genres. Before this group, we were all writers working in isolation, free to write anything we wanted without direction. That kind of freedom is nice in moderation, but there is always that uncomfortable moment when you know you’ve taken your work as far as you can take it, and it was now time for it to get sliced, diced, tossed around, and, inevitably, judged.

“I’ll go first,” Ben said, plopping the story down on the table. “Is this true?”

I stayed quiet, because that was the only unspoken rule when getting critiqued: Don’t answer any questions or try and defend your work in any way. It was a good rule. That way the discussion about your story happens naturally, without interference from the creator. Still, what Ben said was music to my ears, because I had built the short story, about a strange ritual at the top of a volcano, to sound like non-fiction.

“The first paragraph is like one giant hook,” Dave chipped in. “It really works…but…”

Oh no. There it was. The dreaded three-letter word. B U T. It had found its way into rejection letters from agents, magazine editors, and publishers. The moment that word is spoken or read, that perfect crystal cage I’ve placed my story inside is shattered into a thousand pieces. I’d been conditioned to expect it, but (oh there it is again!) it always contained a tingle of pain, as if my story had just lost its innocence.

“It doesn’t feel like a story. It just feels like a bunch of scenes that fit together, but…I don’t know.”

“It’s a story,” John said to Dave, as I took a sip of coffee. “But it’s broken apart. Maybe on purpose?” John looked at me, but I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face.

“I kind of liked that,” Matt said, however I knew not to get hopeful again. Matt loved anything experimental or non-linear. “If it was just a conventional, A to B story, the ending would kind of lose its impact.”

“Yeah, about that ending…” Jeremy said, smiling. He threw the comment up like a softball waiting to get crushed by someone else.

Dave cracked it over the fence. “So does the main character want to kill himself, or is he trying to change?”

There was division on this answer. I’d left the ending ambiguous on purpose, so I’d expected there to be different opinions. What concerned me more was the general question that I’d asked almost everyone who had read a story I’d written: Were they satisfied? And so, I violated the unspoken rule just for a moment and asked them.

Their responses were No, No, kind of, yes and no, and Yeah, sure.

Not exactly what I was hoping for.

Each person had written comments, along with line edits, and at the end of the meeting, I took home five copies of a short story that had lost its newborn glow. I set it aside for a few weeks, too unconfident to mold it into something else entirely. I worked on other projects, and we continued to meet each Wednesday for the next three months. We learned each other’s styles, we saw stories transform and find new perspectives, and, most importantly, we enjoyed talking about this incredibly lonely profession. When summer came, life jumped in and broke up the group. Dave and his wife and two children moved to Minnesota, Matt graduated and moved west over the mountains, John got a job in Pennsylvania, Jeremy moved to Idaho, and Ben backpacked, somewhere.

Three years later, my wife and I found ourselves in Leysin, Switzerland. I’d written the story in 2007, the writing group edits happened in 2008, and after making a couple of my own changes, I’d submitted it to over twenty magazines. Unanimously rejected, of course. So in August of 2011, I found myself lazily going through a box of stories I’d gathered over the years, and, lo and behold, there were the five copies, paper clipped together. I had a free weekend, so I decided to take a deep breath and re-read all of their comments, this time with a clear mind.

I relived those Wednesday nights—the good times, the advice, the hours of conversation. I thought about Dave, John, Matt, Ben, and Jeremy, and I took pieces of all of their feedback and retooled the story (The title? Mihara...which you can read by going to the 'Stories' section on this site). I sent the new story off to a magazine, and three months later, after years of rejection, it was accepted for publication. The longest story I had ever had published at the time. And it all happened because six guys decided to sit in a coffee shop every Wednesday and talk about fiction.