In The Hornes, Gail Lumet Buckley described Cora as "a very neurotic woman," obsessed with what others thought of her and her family. Carmen de Lavallade, an influential black modern dancer whose career burgeoned in the fifties, knew the stifling effects of such an upbringing. "At that time if you came from certain families, you had to grow up to be a lady!" she said. "I grew up that way. It doesn't give you allowance for anything—for temper, for sorrow. You can't be yourself."
Cora's militancy involved deep prejudice. Horne would later tell reporter Sidney Fields that she'd "been raised to dislike white people intensely." Cora forbade her to play with white children, but wouldn't explain why. When she got older, she heard that white men wanted only one thing from black women, and it wasn't marriage. Cora looked with equal disgust at lower-class Negroes. Gail Lumet Buckley gave a dismaying example in The Hornes. When Lena's fair-skinned cousin Edwina fell for a dark-hued, unpedigreed black man, the family broke it up, all but forcing her to marry someone else. Even the lusty sounds of gospel and blues made Cora cringe; in her home, anything that signified a loss of control was shunned. Instead, she listened to Bach and Gregorian chants, cutting off the musical part of Lena's black heritage.
Cora sneered at Edna's ambitions, but they weren't so outlandish as she thought. By now enough black beacons had burst onto the show-business scene to keep Edna hopeful. Comic Bert Williams had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and the recording field to become the nation's first Negro star. Audiences knew him as a downtrodden clown whose laughing-through-tears quality touched the heart. Florence Mills was black America's sweetheart, a lovely young waif who sang in a lilting, birdlike voice. Mills had shot to prominence in an off-Broadway smash, Shuffle Along, and seemed on the verge of great things. Actress Rose McClendon had moved from South Carolina to New York and won a scholarship to the hallowed American Academy of Dramatic Arts; eventually she became known as "the Negro first lady of the dramatic stage."
McClendon reached that zenith via Harlem's Lafayette Theatre, nirvana for an aspiring black actor. Billed as "America's Leading Colored Theatre," the two-thousand-seat hall hosted the Lafayette Players, a legitimate Negro stock company. Founded in 1915, the ensemble was a big step forward from minstrel shows, vaudeville, and many silent films, where blacks were usually portrayed as thick-lipped, nappy-haired buffoons. Instead, the Players performed everything from Shakespeare to all-black versions of Broadway hits, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1921, Edna walked into the Lafayette during an open audition and recited a monologue from Antony and Cleopatra. Her flair for melodrama served her well, and she walked out of the theater as a Lafayette Player. Edna had never known such joy. Soon she was emoting her way through ingénue roles in plays like Madame X.
Now a working (if meagerly paid) actress, she sometimes reclaimed her four-year-old from Cora and showed her off at the theater. Lena retained a happy memory from that time. Edna had a part in Way Down East, a popular Victorian tragedy that had just made it to the silent screen. The stage set contained a fireplace, and before curtain time one night, Edna sat Lena behind it and allowed her to watch the show through a little hole. Even at four, the stage thrilled her.