Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, the first Black actress to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio (MGM, in 1942) and the first Black actress to be popularly accepted in roles that were as glamorous as any offered to the studio’s white singing talent, died on Sunday. She was 92.
She recalls serving, however, as “window dressing” in such films as Panama Hattie, Thousands Cheer, Two Girls and a Sailor, and Duchess of Idaho, after having refused to try to “pass as a Latin” because of her light skin color.
Looking back at the age of 80, Horne said:
“My identity is very clear to me now. 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.”
Lena Horne translated her experience as a Black woman in Hollywood to a song that children could understand and be inspired by. In 1970 she was a guest on the first season of Sesame Street and along with Kermit the Frog, she sang a song titled “Bein’ Green.” The Muppet Wikia describes the song:
Kermit expresses his ambivalence about his color, noting that green “blends in with so many other ordinary things” and wishing that he were some other color instead. During the bridge, Kermit realizes that there are some powerful associations with the color – “green can be big, like a mountain, or important, like a river, or tall like a tree.” In the end, he decides that he’s happy to be green – “it’s beautiful, and I think it’s what I want to be.”