With the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, a new group, the black bourgeoisie, began to evolve in America. After flourishing for a century, however, that social class became obsolete, as a consequence of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Gail Lumet Buckley chronicles this century of black life, viewing her own family history as the embodiment of the black-middle-class experience during the period. While Buckley’s mother, singer and actress Lena Horne, is certainly by far the most famous member of the family, she is not the only Horne to have made significant contributions to American life or to have lived an essentially middle-class life.
Because Buckley was brought up a child of Hollywood, New York, and Europe, with a white stepfather and all the privileges of money and fame, and because she grew up to marry a rich and famous white man, director Sidney Lumet, she herself was not aware of her family’s unique position in American social history until she discovered years of family history in the photographs and memorabilia in her grandfather Teddy Horne’s trunk. By discovering what her family had been, Buckley came to a great understanding of herself and of the segment of black America that her family typifies.
In her concise and insightful introduction, Buckley traces the origin of the black bourgeoisie to three groups: “free Northern blacks, free Southern blacks, and ’favored’ slaves.” The class that grew out of these groups took great pride in being separate from ordinary black life. Buckley writes of black Brooklyn children who responded to requests to perform menial chores by chanting, “We’re not field niggers! We’re house niggers!” In this world, the Hornes were considered among the elite of the elite: “old (as in not ’nouveau’), comfortable (not super-rich, but property owners), intellectual (with teaching degrees and a certain appreciation for ’the arts’), political (from suffragettes to civil rights) and famously good-looking.”
The Horne ancestors who were slaves were fortunate in two ways. They were among the favored house slaves, and their masters tended to treat them well. Sinai Reynolds’ master allowed her and her husband, Henry, to live together without white supervision, something that eventually brought him before the court because such living arrangements were illegal. Cora Calhoun’s master was also a member of the white aristocracy, and his prestige and power carried over to his slaves when they were freed and began to participate in black society.
In addition, from the earliest recorded family history—the story of Sinai and her family—a recurring theme is the enormous value placed on literacy and education. Thus, when freedom came, Buckley’s ancestors were better prepared to assume the leadership role of the bourgeoisie than were many of their less educated counterparts. Edwin Horn first made a reputation for himself by publishing poems, essays, and editorials in the black press, and one of Teddy Horne’s brothers, Frank, was a poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a teacher and college administrator, and finally a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial group of black advisers known as the Black Cabinet.
Buckley’s purpose, however, is not merely to document the accomplishments of her family. She is equally candid when she discusses the career of her grandfather Teddy and the oddly disturbing behavior of his first wife and Lena’s mother, Edna. Although Teddy was the product of Edwin and Cora’s firmly traditional life, he was not a traditional man, even for the black bourgeoisie. He did not find sedate, middle-class life fulfilling and left Brooklyn, his wife, and his baby daughter to pursue the life of a dashing and slightly shady sportsman, sustaining himself and often being generous with his daughter by means that were never exactly clear even to his family.
Edna, too, eventually left her young daughter to the care of her grandmother Cora and traveled in pursuit of success on the stage. At irregular intervals, seized by guilt or a sense of her power as the mother of Lena or some other irrational impulse, she would appear to spirit away the frightened child from the familiar world of Brooklyn and her grandparents’ home. Lena would then spend time living in a variety of unconventional...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)