Monday, May 10, 2010

The kid knew cool

It was as a prepubescent boy of eight or nine in the mid-1950s that I first fell in love. The object of my affection was Lena Horne.

I'd been raised in an almost totally all-white northwestern-Wisconsin city, so I had none of the racist thoughts that, in the words of the musical South Pacific, "you have to be carefully taught." And although I later realized that my parents harbored some of the prejudices endemic to people born in this country in the 1910s, these deeply religious people imparted only one message to me: We're all God's children.

So when I'd see Lena Horne performing in some variety show on our black-and-white television - often singing her signature song "Stormy Weather" - I never even really saw the black. I saw beauty, talent, and the sort of intelligent eyes that blew me away.

The newscasts early this evening noted her death at age 92, and mentioned her commitment in the latter half of the 20th Century to civil rights. The broadcasts couldn't, of course, do justice to her having grown up black, coming of age, and becoming the first real "woman-of-color" movie star in Jim Crow America. Nor her disgust at those who said her looks, rather than her talent, explained her success.

All of that was well beyond the ken of a child in mid-1950s Wisconsin. But I like to think the kid knew cool.

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