READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

She was still far from Lena in December when the child's uncle Frank paid a surprise visit to the house in Macon. It wasn't clear who in the family had sent him there, but he was in a unique position to help Lena. Frank worked thirty miles southwest in Fort Valley, a largely black Georgia town. There, the dapper, wavy-haired young man served as dean of students at Fort Valley Normal and Industrial School, an all-black college.

Frank moved Lena to Fort Valley. There, she roomed in the dorm with his flapper fiancée, Frankye, a teacher. The child felt uneasy living among a bunch of college-age women, but they went out of their way to treat her sweetly. That wasn't true of her classmates at a nearby elementary school. Observing that Lena's parents were nowhere in sight, and that her skin was much lighter than theirs, they lashed out at her. In her first memoir, Horne recalled their jeers. "Yaller! Yaller!" they chanted. "Got a white daddy! Shame! Shame!" They linked arms and danced around her, calling her a "little yellow bastard." Lena cried out, "I am not!"

Their words haunted her. She tried to darken her skin by lingering in the sun, but she wasn't sure how she should talk. At her grandmother's home, to use anything but textbook English was grounds for punishment. But the Fort Valley locals talked in thick southern accents, using Negro dialect. A confusion overtook her that she never quite lost. In 1965, 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."

But as she soon found, switching identities could be helpful. In the auditorium of Uncle Frank's college, the child watched a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. Lena had been around the theater as long as she could remember, but as she neared puberty, the notion of acting struck her in a whole new way. To escape one's self and take on a dramatic new persona—better still, to be applauded for it—took on a great mystique for the young Lena. There in Fort Valley, she recalled, the yen to act hit her for the first time. She began reading plays in the library and imagining herself in various roles.

When Frank and Frankye wed, Lena got her own room in their new house. Life hadn't felt so normal in years. But it was shaken up by a rare appearance from Teddy Horne. Lena barely knew her father, but Edna and Frank had told her stories of his dastardly ways, which, combined with his absence, had turned him into a magnetic, mysterious figure in Lena's mind.

Teddy didn't disappoint her. She watched in awe as he pulled up to the house in a big black car. Out came her smooth-looking, fashion-plate daddy, dispensing presents like Santa Claus.

Lena was awestruck. Teddy stayed for weeks—their first extended time together in her memory. In recent years, Teddy had only moved up in the world. He'd relocated to Pittsburgh, a city with a bustling black population and cultural life. It also had a thriving underworld, and Teddy made the best of it. He'd gone to work for Gus Greenlee, the city's premiere racketeer. A Negro from North Carolina, Greenlee had grown so rich—largely through illegal gambling interests—that he'd bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the city's two black baseball teams, and built his own field.

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