In 2011, playwright Khadijah Ali-Coleman was driving home one night listening to Pacifica radio station WPFW where they were playing an old interview from 1966 with the late Lena Horne with Gene DeAlessi.
“I was floored,” Ali-Coleman says. “Lena Horne, talking about race, ‘the man’ and her father, a number’s runner was so counter this image we’ve always been shown of this beautiful and poised woman. Here I was listening to Lena Horne being political, being conscious. It literally made me perk up.”
Ali-Coleman, who studied African-American Studies and Mass Media in undergrad in college, hungrily went home to research more about Lena Horne and her role in the civil rights movement and was transfixed by learning that Lena Horne was not only the first Black woman to sign to a major movie studio, demanding to never be commissioned to play a maid, but was someone blacklisted during McCarthyism because of her outspoken beliefs and association with the late great Paul Robeson. In her interview with Gene DeAlessi, she said:
LENA HORNE: Paul taught me about being proud because I was Negro. I had always had this pride, this fierce, sterile, almost, kind of pride, because my grandmother had said, “You must be proud.” But she never told me all the horror of her background. One didn’t talk about it, you see. And then she died. And I was getting more and more in that middle-class trap with Negroes who might have a job, who didn’t speak about it also. I worked even at the time I was sixteen and with Sissle, with organizations, but he never told me the reasons why I had a right to some of that pride, you see.
But Paul is the first one who came to me and said, “Your grandmother was a fiery little woman who chased me off the street corners of Harlem.” And she was this, and she was that. I said, “Really? Nobody ever told me that.” He said, “Why, she was a wonderful Negro woman, because she wanted to help her people, and she felt she had a right to it. And she made this expression, noblesse oblige, mean being proud of her people.” And I said, “But nobody ever said it.”
And he sat down for hours, and he told me about Negro people and what — you know, I’ve read it in some books and never learned it in school; they don’t teach it in history books. I couldn’t know anything unless I really had moved up by then from the South and had been with Negro people who were terrified, you know, and couldn’t do anything about it. And he didn’t talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that’s why I was always loved him. And I didn’t even know — he didn’t even speak to me as a leader, quote “Negro leader.”
And so, I grew to think then about all the — all the areas of it. And Josh taught me about singing about it. And I couldn’t sing, you know. And I was fighting that kind of inverse chauvinism from white people who said, “Ah, she can’t sing the blues,” you know. And so I felt embarrassed. But, by 1966, I find more and more myself calling upon the things that Paul said to me, because it’s as of now, except he is not our leader. We eat up our leaders, you know. We — history eats our leaders up. We eat them up. We drain them. And we throw them out because everything moves so fast. But I don’t think I could have felt the kind of pain I did and the kind of sense of recognition, when I saw Alabama and hoses and dogs and children, if I hadn’t had Paul in my life.
Ali-Coleman went on to research the interviews and footage of other great entertainers/writers who inspired her– Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Lucille Clifton– and decided to do something to honor these women and to highlight, not just their art, but their voices as politically and socially conscious citizens as Black women artists. Living in politically dangerous times when lynching was commonplace, discrimination rampant and Jim Crow still the law of the land, all of these women challenged the status quo in some way, leaving their art as their triumph.
Read more about the piece here.
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is an educator, writer, and arts communications professional with significant work in theater arts, music, and youth development. She is also founder of Liberated Muse Arts Group, a production house for cultural arts events. Through Liberated Muse, she has produced her play “Running: AMOK” and numerous events, including The Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest, published an anthology series and produced numerous benefit concerts. She currently balances time between producing events, creating art and work as a creativity coach and educator, helping others grow artistically and holistically as communicators into today’s high-tech and often convoluted world. Currently, she serves as an adjunct faculty member at Northern Virginia Community College in the department of Communication Studies and Theater. Learn more about her here.