READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

Many in the black bourgeoisie wound up emulating the values and even the looks of middle-class whites. From the 1920s through the 1960s, magazines for black readers advertised lye-based skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening treatments. "'Lighter is brighter'—that was an actual expression then," said Gene Davis, who produced dozens of black cultural documentaries before his death in 2007. "The social structure in the black community until recently was based on how light you were. And the lighter you were, the more acceptable you were." The notion that "black is beautiful" did not appear until the civil rights movement, when African roots were flaunted, not hidden, and the Negro slave ancestry celebrated for its strength.

In his 1957 book Black Bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier defined that group in terms that could have applied to Lena Horne. In Frazier's view, it lacked "cultural roots in either the Negro world with which it refuses to identify or the white world which refuses to accept it." By struggling so hard for the respect of both, he wrote, members of the black bourgeoisie suffered from a constant identity crisis.

But a more enlightened age could never have come without bridges, and the black bourgeoisie was uniquely equipped to fight for change. Its members had education, social access, and manners a white society might come to heed. If they had to deny their history in order to find a foothold in the white man's world, they didn't hesitate.

So it was at the Horne residence, the hub of a family with a sprawling history explored by Gail Lumet Buckley in her book The Hornes: An American Family. Before Lena's birth in 1917, six people lived in the house. Reigning over them was Cora Calhoun Horne, her dictatorial grandmother. Fifty-two when Lena arrived, Cora was a community activist of warrior determination. She looked the part, with her austerely pulled-back salt-and-pepper hair, steel-rimmed glasses, and near inability to smile.

Cora battled for so many Negro civic groups that her gentler husband seemed to wilt by comparison. Back in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was born, Edwin had published and edited Justice, a prominent black newspaper; later he worked as a schoolteacher and politician. In Brooklyn he became secretary-general of the United Colored Democracy of Greater New York.

Astonishingly, Edwin wasn't even a Negro, but the son of a white Englishman and a Native American mother. During Reconstruction, Native Americans had suffered worse discrimination than blacks. For his children's sake, he'd decided to "pass" as Negro. Apparently that went undiscussed among the Hornes—no surprise, given their disdain for whites.

Edwin and Cora had four sons. Edwin Frank Horne, Jr., the handsomest of the boys, lived on the top floor with Edna, his wife. Errol had served as a sergeant in an all-black army troop until influenza killed him. Burke and Frank were teenagers when Lena was born.

The Hornes seemed like a model family. Outsiders didn't know that Edwin and Cora slept in separate rooms and barely spoke. One of the rumored causes was a past affair between Edwin and a white editor of Vogue. But in a Catholic household like theirs, divorce was as verboten as philandering; best to avoid discussing either. "As a family," said Lena, "we were very reticent, hiding feelings."

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