Horne’s Burden Then is Latinos’ Now
Ironically, Lena Horne was going to be honored at this weekend's Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Weekend in Cincinnati. The film and stage performer who died Sunday at age 92 was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to baseball. Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and endured many indignities in doing so. Horne was the first African-American to earn a long-term contract with a major movie studio, yet primarily sang in MGM musical cameos that were cut when the films were played in the South.
Still, she set her own terms as much as the times allowed. Prior to her emergence, black women primarily were seen in subservient or primitive roles. In a 1997 interview with PBS, Horne recounted that her father negotiated with MGM in 1942 by saying, "I can get a maid for my daughter. I don't want her in the movies playing maids.'' Horne would write with melancholy in a memoir, "They didn't make me a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either.''
She refused to comply with wrong customs in other ways. During World War II, she was censured by the USO after she refused to perform at an Army camp show in the South. She was incensed when she saw German POWs seated in front of black soldiers. When Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, Horne said she was so "frightened'' for him because of the scrutiny he too would face as a pioneer. "You can never forget you're a Negro . . . It's our burden,'' she said.
Burdens still remain for entertainers and athletes to shoulder in the spirit of Horne. The most important issue of the moment is Arizona's new immigration law that requires police to stop and force anyone on a mere suspicion of being undocumented to immediately produce papers. The law is so fraught with the potential for racial profiling that the Phoenix Suns basketball team wore "Los Suns'' jerseys at a recent playoff game on Cinco de Mayo. National Basketball Players Association President Billy Hunter said, "A law that unfairly targets one group is ultimately a threat to all.''
What Arizona is thinking is anyone's guess. It was so laggard in approving the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that the National Football League removed a Super Bowl game from Phoenix. The immigration law is so primitive that baseball players, particularly Latinos, who comprise 30 percent of players, have begun saying that they will boycott the 2011 All-Star Game scheduled for Phoenix and are concerned about spring training next season. The baseball players union, noting that half of spring training sites are in Arizona, warned that it "will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.''
The next step is apparent. If Arizona does not rescind this law, baseball should move the All-Star Game to another state and baseball teams should set up spring training in other warm-weather states. The National Collegiate Athletic Association should move next season's national football championship game and other bowl games from the state. Even the most rabid right-wing anti-immigration politician might think differently.
What is refreshing is to see athletes as part of the protest. Horne once said, "Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody's got to stand up and be counted.'' She would find this challenge to democracy ironic as Latino immigrants, legal and undocumented, do so much of the dirty work of our wealthy society. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented workers make up 5.4 percent of the nation's labor force, but 28 percent of dishwashers and 27 percent of maids and housekeepers.
Horne became a pioneer by rejecting menial stereotypes. Today, athletes are beginning to speak out because they reject a law that lumps Latinos - from maids to millionaire ballplayers - into one brown mass. A threat to take away the All-Star Game should end this suspicious policy.
© 2010 The Boston Globe