This essay examines Lena Horne's reputation in the first half of her career as a reserved, refined, and affectively distant diva. Approaching her performance of aloofness—communicated and enacted both on film and in live cabaret shows—as an acute response to the interracial intimacy produced by performances across the color line, I argue that Horne's withholding exploited the conventions of the cabaret to resist the circumscribed roles available to black women performers on the Jim Crow stage. In autobiographical accounts of her early nightclub performances, she embraces what I term an “unperforming of the self” through the cultivation of an impersonal intimacy that deferred a fixed subjectivity and frustrated the racial expectations of her audiences. She developed this impersona through three interlocking tactics: a disarticulation of self and song; a reversal of the psychic positions of audience and performer; and, following Bertolt Brecht, what we can think of as “third-person singing.” Horne's aloofness illuminates a historically vexed connection between public intimacy and hostility to suggest that as much as intimacy could be a resource for individual and collective transformation, it was also often the precondition for varieties of hostility, alienation, violation, and surveillance. I conclude with Horne's self-revision of these aloof performances as she articulated a new relationship with her audiences during the civil rights movement and after.
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Shane Vogel; Lena Horne's Impersona. Camera Obscura 1 May 2008; 23 (1 (67)): 11–45. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2007-022
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