“Lena Horne is coming on!”

When I was growing up, those words were the signal to drop everything and rush to the family room, where Ed Sullivan or Perry Como or Dean Martin had just announced the next performer. At the time, I didn’t understand why it was unthinkable to miss one of Horne’s appearances. I didn’t yet realize that she was one of the most significant American entertainers of the 20th century — and certainly didn’t realize how burdened she was by her trailblazing success.

Horne, who died Sunday at 92, was an infiltrator. She strode confidently through doors that had been closed to African-American entertainers, and was able to do so because white audiences found her not just beautiful and talented, but also non-threatening. Late in her life, she gave a sense of how difficult that role had been to play.

“My identity is very clear to me now,” she said when she was 80. “I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

Indeed, she was different. She was light-skinned, with just enough tan in her complexion to make it evident that she wasn’t white. Her nose was narrow, almost turned-up; her hair, in the fashion of the times, was always straightened. She was, by any standard, gorgeous. But she knew that the racial ambiguity of her looks allowed her to attain a level of stardom that was inaccessible to singers and actors who conformed more closely to white America’s image of “black.”

There was no ambiguity, however, in her sense of herself as a black woman — or in her strong political and social views. She was the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with one of the major Hollywood studios, earning $1,000 a week from MGM in the 1940s; she made thousands more from radio and nightclub appearances, and in 1945 was described in a magazine article as “the nation’s top Negro entertainer.”

MGM cast her in a series of musicals, showcasing not just her voice but her beauty and sophistication. But the studio made sure that her scenes could be easily scissored out of prints of the movies that were destined for theaters in the South, where audiences would not have accepted a black actor as anything but a servant or a savage. Meanwhile, Horne was envied and even resented by other black actors in Hollywood who had to play servants and savages to get any work at all.

“They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either,” Horne wrote in her autobiography. “I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.”

Horne was always outspoken about civil rights. During World War II, she complained about how black soldiers — who had made her a popular pinup, essentially the black Betty Grable — were being treated in the segregated Army. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences got her disinvited from USO tours.

Horne blamed her activism and her associations for the waning of her movie career after her MGM contract expired in 1950; actor Paul Robeson and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, both known for their left-leaning views, were among her good friends. There is no evidence that she was ever actually blacklisted, however. Tastes changed, and musicals became passé. By the time that black actors began to get substantial dramatic roles in the movies, Horne was already past leading-lady age.

She wasn’t a great singer like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Hattie McDaniel and Dorothy Dandridge were better actors. But Lena Horne was a much more important figure in American social history, because she was able to bridge the gap between the black and white in a way that others could not. She could be vocal, even strident in her advocacy for civil rights; she could be a proud black woman who stood up for African-American causes and refused to back down. But she could do all of this without ever seeming alienated.

She would come on Ed Sullivan’s show and sing “Stormy Weather,” and she would own the stage — a glamorous, elegant revolutionary who helped change the way American eyes perceived black and white.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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