The Hornes Essay - Critical Essays

Gail Lumet Buckley

The Hornes

Gail Lumet Buckley draws on resources of birth records, family photographs, financial statements, memorabilia, and newspaper files to locate and investigate her ancestry. The story commences with Sinai Reynolds, a Maryland-born slave who managed finally to purchase freedom for herself and her husband through money earned selling persimmon beer and ginger cakes on street corners. Linked to the white, Georgia Calhouns, this Atlanta-based branch joined with the Horns from Indiana, whose progenitors were a white, Tennessee River trading boat captain and an American Indian. At the least, Lena Horne’s background blends Blacks, Indians, British, French, and Iberians.

Despairing at their prospects in the post-Reconstruction era, during which blacks lost constitutional protection and civil liberties, Cora and Edwin Horn moved north to Brooklyn and became part of the black bourgeoisie, whose qualifications were “old” freedom, reasonable wealth, and light complexion. In the process, an “e” was added to the family name.

The story of Buckley’s glamorous mother is already well known. A Cotton Club dancer and big band singer, Lena Horne moved quickly from intimate night clubs to an M-G-M contract, advised along the way by such family friends as Walter White of the NAACP and Paul Robeson. While not stinting in her account of Horne’s public life, Buckley also provides glimpses of her mother far removed from the media glare--teaching young Gail to read, for example, from a McGuffey’s reader.

Reared in a celebrity world and nurtured by a family background seemingly insulated from racial bigotries and violence, Gail Buckley surrounds her family history with the greater American realities of prejudice. She describes her subjects’ relations to it, ranging from dedicated black Southern journalism to genteel feminism and liberal expressions by the black middle class. Thus, a family journal is movingly located in the broader context of America’s history. It is a story told with candor, wit, and modest charm.