A detailed pursuit of the author’s ancestors, from the South to the North.
Through the prism of her distant family’s story, Buckley (American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, 2002, etc.), the daughter of Lena Horne, fleshes out a middle-class black family’s journey of hard work, education, and aspiration in a deeply racist United States. Her narrative begins at the time of emancipation for patriarch Moses Calhoun, an educated former butler on a plantation in Atlanta, Georgia, who began to climb the ladder of success in 1865 by marrying, opening a grocery store, buying property, and becoming “a pillar of Atlanta’s black community.” His daughters, Cora and Lena, were educated in the missionary-run schools at the apex of Reconstruction, just as the Jim Crow laws instituting segregation were taking effect in Tennessee and elsewhere. Cora married the handsome, twice-widowed teacher and Republican activist journalist Edwin Horn in 1888 and moved to New York City in 1896, part of the great Northern migration of the Talented Tenth (W.E.B. Du Bois’ name for the country’s highly educated blacks). Edwin would switch party affiliations and become a “political New Negro,” a Democrat, and leader of the so-called Black Tammany; the couple joined the Brooklyn bourgeoisie and the NAACP. With the birth of their granddaughter, Lena Calhoun Horne, in 1917, the story inevitably follows the rising star of the author’s mother, largely abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother, Cora, through the heady Harlem Prohibition years (also the height of lynchings in the South). While Lena’s dark skin was both a hindrance and help to her career (too dark for the white stage, too white for the black), she found her movie-star spot during World War II. The author later weaves her own story of 1960s political awakening into this thoroughly jam-packed narrative of history and nostalgia.
Contains several memoirs in one: ambitious, relentless, and occasionally messy.