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Learning From Lena Horne: Prejudice Comes In Many Forms

The death of Lena Horne at age 92 brought the accolades expected and deserved by a woman who broke many racial barriers in her long career in entertainment and who served her country by working to entertain the troops during World War II.

She was famous long before the Pundit was born, though her Hollywood career was limited. She refused to play servants or other roles she thought demeaned African-Americans, and movie producers mostly cast her in roles like that of a nightclub singer, so her part could be easily clipped when the movie played down south.

We knew her standards, of course, like Stormy Weather, which really established her as a star:

Lena Horne’s real impact on us came from a brief mention in a book titled, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. , which is Sammy Davis Jr’s autobiography. We read the book as a young teenager and remember a scene described by Sammy Davis Jr. As we recall the story, Lena Horne was headlining at some big Las Vegas hotel — and she was a big enough draw to insist on staying in the hotel, although most black entertainers were sent to hotels in the black neighborhoods.

But Lena Horne was a star; she insisted on staying and the hotel went along. In the story she went for a dip in the pool, and as soon as she was done the hotel drained the water and cleaned the pool, lest any white person should be “contaminated” by the water she had swum in.

The scene has always stayed with us, as an illustration of how deep prejudice can go and the dangers of believing things without scientific foundation.

Fearing a chemical without scientific evidence is justified in the same way that fearing to swim in water touched by a black body was once justified. Both are a reversion to irrationality, both are prejudices — judging before one has sufficient evidence.

We tried to tell the children about Lena Horne, tried to caution them about the dangers when humans abandon rationality and pander to prejudice. You never know with children if you are getting through, but we try, and we found a video that both showcased Lena Horne’s talent and put her story in a context that children could understand, thought we would share it, its great for everyone to watch and, especially great to tee off a discussion of prejudice with children:

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