Catch the keynote, Ossie Davis: a mighty laborer in the field of the arts, a majestic voice for integrity has gone on ahead.
Much like Robeson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee emerged out of the 1940s and 1950s as young actors/writers/activists with a passion for their craft and a deep love for their people that could not, would not, be compromised. They worked, struggled and fought their way to the pinnacle of America's theater, stage and screen. Their early struggles, fueled by their love of literature and theater, with an equal dedication to finding justice and fair play for their people and others, did not allow them to become doormats for the powerful image-makers of Broadway or Hollywood.
Like Paul Robeson, their personal hero, and in the tradition of Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Sterling A. Brown, Alain Leroy Locke, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and others, quite early in their careers, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee refused to turn their heads. They refused to be professionally separated from the injustices experienced daily by their people and others. As intellectual and politically minded actors, they consciously pre pared themselves to be bringers of the truth. As truth-tellers, their rise to the top of their profession was not easy, comfortable or without personal and professional consequences.
In 1998, Davis and Dee cowrote their autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, which detailed in exquisite prose their 56-year marriage and the battles they faced both personal and professional. It was no small feat for the most recognizable black husband-and-wife acting team in America, to emerge out of Apartheid-America during the first half of the 20th century and move into the human-rights battles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As a result of their lifelong love and commitment to each other, black family value system, the black community and human rights, they arrived into the 21st century as honored artists who had not only paid their dues, but also rewrote the dues-paying book.
Humility and Greatness
When we see these two individuals who are now legendary stars of the American stage, television, radio and film, few of us realize that during the very lean years, when they were "white-listed" falsely labeled anti-American and denied work, they established strong bonds with the black community. They traveled thousands of miles throughout America, carrying the words of our great writers, playwrights and poets, reading in black churches, community centers, and black colleges and universities. We have among us today a legacy to whom we owe much. Yet Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee have never come to us this way.
They are humble in their greatness, quiet in their accomplishments; and only those who have some understanding of the history of black folks in the West can appreciate the height to which they have risen and still not lost their humanism, kindness and enduring smiles. In With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, they write "We survived--no, more than survived--we triumphed, thanks to a strategy that assured us the victory: simply, we learned how to belong to the people for whom we worked-mostly black people. They were, and still are, the audience that never made us rich, but never let us down."
On February 4, 2005, in a Miami hotel during the midnight hours, due to natural causes, the 87-year-old sage joined our ancestors. Ossie Davis, the man with the great smile, majestic voice, exceptional talent, stately presence, progressive politics, grand and caring heart, lust for life and impressive resume and history, no longer sings. That he will be missed is an understatement of hurricane proportions. How does one replace breath? Ossie Davis was the water in the battle, the protein in the beans and the gentle but firm voice calling us to a sound and shared saneness. He never sought a "follow-ship," he led in his profession and as an activist by example, sharing his time, resources, expertise, overburdened heart with a people, his people, who were always in need. He lifted all of us.
The "White-List" Years
Not long ago, Ruby told me the story that expressed his love for black people. During the McCarthy period when the two of them, especially Ruby, were "white-listed" and could not find work, on occasion Ossie would borrow money to make ends meet. Ruby laughed as she stated that he would lend the money that he had just borrowed to others less able to survive, while stating that "our people will support us," Ossie and Ruby, according to their autobiography, viewed themselves as "laborers in the field of the arts."
In December 2002, my family and I traveled to New York City to view A Last Dance for Sybil, a play by Ossie Davis, starring Ruby Dee, which was produced by Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre and Emmalyn Productions Company. As their guest, my wife, daughters and I witnessed one of the most profound productions and critiques of colonialism that ever graced the Off-Broadway stage. Ossie Davis was one of the few actor-playwrights who could combine art and message without losing the art. Their art could not be separated from their lives.
Ossie was--as are Ruby, Margaret Bur roughs, Hoyt W. Fuller and Gwendolyn Brooks--a personal hero of mine. It is in their dedication to craft, their ever-investigative intellect, their commitment to the best in all of us, and their refusal to buck-dance and play imitations of other people's fantasies that endears them to me. If one is looking for character, we need not go any further. It is the integrity and values with which he and they live that have influenced literally thousands of actors and millions of fans worldwide. Ruby Dee wrote in her profound and hilarious book My One Good Nerve: "Lots of people, including myself, are longing for impossibilities." Well, dear Ruby, I'm here to tell you, and there are millions across this land who would agree, that the two of you raised the bar on impossibilities. Your lives have confirmed the humanizing and enlarging effects of art. Your art has carried you to the unique and honored status of eldership among peers. Through your work, you have communicated insights, laughter and wisdom. As the Deans of black actors, writers, producers, directors, activists, institution builders and just good black folks, we rise each morning to loudly proclaim that the cultural work that Ossie did, and that you continue to do, have paved a way over very, rocky and dangerous mountains for thousands of others to follow, learn from and hopefully duplicate.
On Saturday, February 12, 2005, at The Riverside Church in New York City, the Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. and the Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts, and thousands of Ossie's extended family paid tribute to this giant of a man. This was, as noted, a state funeral where only for the fourth time in the history of Howard University, Ossie's alma mater, the flag flew at half-staff. Ossie always voiced that "we are only whole with each other." He has, indeed, caught the keynote and has joined the symphony of Paul, Malcolin, Martin, Medgar, Fannie Lou and millions of others who believed that beauty, art, one's culture and The Struggle need not be strangers, need not be compromised.
Haki R. Madhubuti is a friend of the Davis-Dee family, and a poet, publisher and Distinguished University Professor at Chicago State University. His latest book is YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet's Life: A Memoir (Third World Press, April 2005).
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|Author:||Madhubuti, Haki R.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2005|
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