by James Haskins ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 28, 1983
Prolific non-fiction-producer Haskins puts the emphasis--appropriately, but perhaps a little too narrowly--on racism and politics in this admiring biography of super-singer Lena Home. From a middle-class, light-complected black family in Brooklyn, Lena didn't benefit much from that relatively privileged background: her parents divorced; she went on the road with her actress-mother; she was abused, physically and psychologically, by a variety of babysitters. And her career, from the beginning, was shadowed by rough conditions, racism, and Lena's own ambivalence about her relationships with blacks and whites. From the Cotton Club chorus line she went on to band-singing, often suffering demeaning discrimination, (""Sitting alone in those restrooms, Lena developed a prejudice against white middle-class women that would last for years afterward."") An early marriage was rocky from the start--and when it broke up, Lena had to abandon her son. After notable appearances at Cafe Society in the very early 1940s, she became more aware of black history and music (""working for Barney Josephson was like going to school""), soon taking off for Hollywood as an NAACP-encouraged ""pioneer""; there, however, she was offered only stereotypes and ""specialty"" appearances--while many fellow black performers ""did not applaud her for demanding a certain dignity in her movie roles."" Also a source of guilt: her marriage to white musician Lennie Hayton, which they kept secret for three years. (""Having severed her ties with most of her own family by marrying Lennie, she was unwilling to lose the larger, impersonal family of her race."") And, in the mid-1950s, after blacklisting and Broadway success (Jamaica), she ""realized that for all of her hardships she had been insulated from much of the anguish of day-to-day life for black people in America"": more guilt, anger, and then 1960s activism--followed by deep depression in the early 1970s, when her father, son, and husband all died. But eventually her ""pain and grief. . . opened her up,"" and ""she started to see her audiences as people""--leading to her recent one-woman-show triumphs. Haskins scants personal psychology in this interpretation of Home's ups and downs. More importantly, he scants her music, with virtually no appreciation of the dramatic changes in her style, no evocation of what now makes her an incomparable vocalist. Still: a solid enough assemblage for those interested in the tribulations, rather than the art, of a great black performer. (A Haskins biography of Home for adults is reviewed, however, later in this issue.)
Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1983
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983
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