READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

The child next found herself in southern Ohio, where Edna placed her with a doctor and his family. They treated her affectionately, and she had her own room in a comfortable house. But she knew it wouldn't last, and she began having terrible nightmares. In 1974, she told reporter Nancy Collins that every time she developed a loving relationship with her caregivers, her mother snatched her away. She became "afraid of people . . . of letting myself be close to them," lest she get her feelings hurt. From then on, she lived with lowered expectations. "I made my peace that no one really did love me," she said, "regardless of my color."

In 1927, Edna got word of possible work in Macon, a prosperous city in central Georgia. The train pulled into a tidy, bustling downtown area, with trolleys running through it; in another well-tended area stood the nearly century-old Wesleyan College for women. But southern Negro poverty awaited Lena again when Edna left her in her latest foster home. The child's new "street" was a fly-ridden, dirt alleyway lined by wooden frame houses. She recalled moving into a two-room shack whose walls were patched with newspaper. Washing clothes in a big iron pot out back was the lady of the house—"a very elderly mammy," said Horne—who presided over many boarders. Her daughter lived there with her two children, one a little girl named Thelma. The other, a boy, shared the mammy's bed, at the foot of which lay a cot for Lena. Others slept in the kitchen.

The old lady seemed to sense Lena's loneliness, and treated her caringly. Now ten, Lena noticed how the poorest people she met were usually the kindest, for they understood struggle better than anyone. The daughter, who cooked for a white family, brought home scraps of fine southern food, and made sure Lena never went hungry.

Edna was broke on a regular basis and struggled to afford Lena's upkeep. For all her mother's flightiness, Lena still yearned for her, and refused to see her as a villain. "She tried hard to take care of me," said the singer in 1952. Lena would later observe that a black woman of the day was "apt to be a whore" when times got rough. Since actresses were already deemed loose women, prostitution proved an easy segue. A journalist who knew Horne well recalled her mentioning that Edna had sold her body, at least briefly. It wasn't surprising; Horne also spoke of her mother's prostitute friends, with whom she'd stayed.

For all the squalor of the child's southern life, she was reminded every now and then of the grandeur a Negro could achieve. In November of 1927, her schoolteacher in Macon stood before the class and announced that Florence Mills—dubbed the "Queen of Happiness"—had died at thirty-one. Tuberculosis had felled the winsome songbird, reportedly due to an exhaustive run in Blackbirds of 1926, the show that had sealed her fame. "We've had a great loss," stated the teacher. Horne never forgot his sadness. "I think that was probably the first time I was conscious that we looked upon certain people as ours," she said, "with this kind of pride." If Mills could scale such heights and evoke such devotion, then maybe Edna's ambitions weren't so far-fetched.

Page
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...