Friday, February 04, 2005

Highlighting Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee for Black History Month

Shirley was the first to point out (though Martha, Ben, Billie and Joel also made similar statements) that you can't honor/highlight Ossie Davis without highlighting Ruby Davis as well.
Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis. Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee. Great point. A number of you noted that your thoughts were with Dee and with the children of Davis & Dee.

As Billie noted: "They were a team. They were partners. I'm thirty-nine and I can not remember anyone ever mentioning Ossie without then mentioning Ruby or the other way around. They were hope and they were the dream. They were the examples of what you could do. And what you could have if you really worked at it."

From The Kennedy Center:
They are one of the most revered couples of the American stage, two of the most prolific and fearless artists in American culture. As individuals and as a team they have created profound and lasting work that has touched us all. With courage and tenacity they have thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity. "When Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored by the Screen Actors' Guild with its highest honor, the Life Achievement Award, SAG president William Daniels said: "For more than half a century, they have enriched and transformed American life as brilliant actors, writers, directors, producers, and passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity, and creative excellence."

From the Washington Post:
They're an ageless couple, products of a world of art and protest that seems long gone now.
To hear Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee tell it, the '40s and '50s were beautiful, a time to accomplish things on both the stage and the picket line.

"I had been profoundly influenced by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes," says Davis.
"I'd come from a background in New York of picketing and protesting," says Dee.

From The History Makers:
Davis was born on December 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Georgia, to loving parents and a supportive extended family. Graduating in the top 5 percent of his class with an already burgeoning interest in theater, Davis had to earn enough money before venturing on to college. A year after graduation, with his savings in tow, Davis hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to live with his aunts. There, he received a National Youth Administration scholarship and enrolled at Howard University in the fall of 1935. At Howard, Davis found a nurturing environment to cultivate both his ideas and his talents. Impatient to try his luck on the stage, Davis left for New York City. It was in Harlem in 1939 that he became involved with the Rose McClendon Players.

From The Cornell Chronicle:
On influences in his life: "Dr. Alan Leroy Locke, the first black Rhodes Scholar, the man who discovered Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, was always on the lookout for talent. I was in his class. He encouraged me to go out to the theater. On April 16, 1939, I heard Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial because she had been barred from singing at Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.C. I understood fully for the first time, the importance of black song, black music, black arts. I was handed my spiritual assignment that night."

From The History Makers:
Almost a lifelong New Yorker, Ruby Dee was born Ruby Ann Wallace October 27, 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her family soon moved to New York and Ruby was raised during the golden age of Harlem. After high school she attended New York's Hunter College, graduating in 1945. Expressive and literate, Dee was drawn to the theatre while still a college student. Dee acted in small Shakespearian productions and landed a role in the play, South Pacific in 1943. She also began to study with the American Negro Theatre, where she would meet her future husband Ossie Davis. They would fall in love during a cross-country tour of Anna Lucasta.

From Media Relations:
Since meeting on Broadway in the 1946 production of Jeb, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have excelled as collaborators and as individuals (they married in 1948), and they often broke new ground for African Americans. They made their film debuts in 1950 in No Way Out with Sidney Poitier, then starred together on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun.

From African American Registry:
In 1946, Davis made his Broadway debut in Jeb, winning rave reviews. He went on to perform in many Broadway productions, including Anna Lucasta, The Wisteria Trees, Green Pastures, Jamaica, Ballad for Bimshire, The Zulu and the Zayda, and the stage version of I'm Not Rappaport. Davis is also widely acclaimed for his role in A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and its 1961-film version, as well as for The Joe Louis Story (1953). In 1961, Davis wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed Purlie Victorious. He has written and directed many films, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Countdown at Kusini (co-produced with his wife, Ruby Dee,1976), the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by Black professionals. Other Davis credits include Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1994).

From CBS News' Early Show:
What was her first impression of Ossie Davis? "A country bumpkin," Dee says, laughing. "He was tall and skinny and his clothes didn't fit. His sleeves landed in the middle of his arms and his pants didn't fit him."

From the Washington Post:
"His father, my father, were role models of different sorts," Dee says. "We learned about the importance of being black. You had to amount to something. It wasn't always Robeson, but the little people who pushed us, sensing that there was more to life than their own experiences. They sacrificed. It was an extraordinary and unconditional love."

From The Cornell Chronicle:
On his parent's response to intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan: "Mama took the note up to daddy, and a gun. It was then I appreciated my father as a hero and my mother as a heroine."

From the Washington Post:
He served in the Army with a Negro medical unit that eventually would send him to Liberia. While in the Army, he read plenty of W.E.B. Du Bois and honed his political mind.
"When World War II was over, there was a strong feeling in the country that racism had to be attacked," Davis says. "The artistic community seemed to be leading the way. It wasn't just stories for dramatic purpose, and it wasn't just white folks doing good. It was a series of serious statements made by Americans of what kind of world we would have from here on in. And in that background, there were questions about the Sovet Union and colonization in Africa."

From Howard University:
He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994. Mr. Davis is also widely acclaimed for his role in Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and its 1961 film version, as well as for The Joe Louis Story (1953). He has written and directed numerous films, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Countdown at Kusini (co-produced with his wife, Ruby Dee, in 1976), the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by black professionals. Mr. Davis has also starred in numerous films that address issues critical to African Americans, such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1994).
Mr. Davis most recently appeared in the film, Dr. Doolittle, with Eddie Murphy; Get on the Bus for Spike Lee; I'm Not Rappaport with Walter Matthau; 12 Angry Men for Showtime Network; and on the CBS television series, Promised Land.
Mr. Davis has received innumerable honors and citations, including the Hall of Fame Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in 1989; the U.S. National Medal for the Arts in 1995; the New York Urban League Frederick Douglass Award; the NAACP Image Award. He is the author of three children's books, Escape to Freedom, which was honored by the American Library Association and the Jane Addams Children's Book Award; Langston; and Just Like Martin.

From New York Living:
What do you miss most about your early years in Harlem?
Mr. Davis: I miss the sense of community and camaraderie. A few things happened to change that: the suburbs, the automobile, and the mechanical means that allows us to exist apart from each other. The shift in power and opportunity from the cities to the suburbs changed things, and the human relationships that were possible in a mixed community where you not only saw the beggar, but you saw the "top cat" walking on the same street-I miss that. Now we have gated communities on one end, and the other end where people are viewed like lepers. But a society can't last if it segregates and splits community on the lines of class. And we're paying an awful price. But maybe we're coming back. People are moving back to the cities, new economic opportunities are being created, but the degree to which people have real roots in the life of the community is still to be determined. There are new things going up on 125th Street, and I think-yes and no. There's a certain inevitability about it, but I don't know how it's going to play itself out. I miss what we had in the past, yet I'm not a romantic or a sentimentalist, and I'd be the last one to say this way back to the past. The future has to embrace a lot of what was in the past to enable us to sustain a life and make a future possible. We need wisdom, reflection, common sense, but I'm not sure we have enough of it at the moment to do the job.
Ms. Dee: I miss when we were on the road and we'd see Lena and Cab-just everybody. We were all on the same circuit. We ate together, and stayed in the same houses. Some were grand places, some were little hotels. Some where magnificent mansions, with velvet drapes, and pictures of all the people who stayed there. It was an extraordinary time, but when hotels were no longer segregated and the entertainers began to stay where they liked, we didn't see each other anymore. It was the end of a good time.
Mr. Davis: Every blessing is mixed.

From the Washington Post:
"The McCarthy years cut so much out from under us," he says.
For a period, they were blacklisted. They survived McCarthyism, though FBI agents trailed them around; they suffered the pain of being out of work, and remained determined to keep raising money for families of lynch victims.
Their politics could be called radical by some standards, constantly challenging the status quo, as they planted their feet on many an occasion to the left of the Democratic Party. Like Robeson, one of their heroes, their astonishing artistic credentials flowed into their political activities.
"They have a political resonance not all artists have," says civil rights historian Taylor Branch. "Ossie delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral at a time when not many Americans -- even blacks -- knew what to make of Malcolm. And there was Ossie, calling him 'my sweet black prince.' "

[As Matthew Rothschild (editor of The Progressive) noted in his McCarthyism Watch, May 11, 2003, right-wing hatred of Ossie Davis didn't abate.]

From The Daily Texan:
"I think the struggle is one of the reasons we live," Dee said. "I think the struggle brings us dignity, gives us a weakness before we can make sense of our existence."

From "A free-wheeling conversation with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee" (Hartford Web Publishing):
"After all," Dee mocks the dated stereotypes, " 'African-Americans don't do ballet or play tennis or golf.' Critics still see blacks as 'the other,' an 'exotic.' What amazes me are the critics' audacity and lack of humility in response to other people's cultures. There's a bedrock of meanness and a tone of superiority."
Davis sees the "critics' cultural bias" as part of a larger problem. "Criticism used to be an art practiced by educated people. Now you don't know what any of them are looking for in anything."
Both Dee and Davis make the point that racism is, for the most part, much subtler-and therefore more difficult to combat--than it used to be. "Years ago, it was personal. Someone was a racist and you could address that," recalls Dee. "Now you have people-and these include friends of ours whom we like and respect-who don't see themselves as racists. They don't have racist ideas. But because they are in some ways the beneficiaries of racism-they are racists!" Interestingly, neither has found ageism-and for Dee sexism-too problematic. Dee says she has been restricted in the roles available to her because she is an African-American, but being a woman is ultimately more defining to her. "Wherever I go, I'm a woman." She adds, "When I was doing voice-overs years ago, the only producers in the room were white men. Now you see as many women and quite a few are women of color."

Ossie Davis on art and race (The First Amendment Center):
For me, yes. It — the arts, for the black community, were always a form of our politics, our protests. I would imagine — and I tell people this sometimes — that when we were slaves, you know, huddled in the work camps and all, there must have been times when the old master sent down to the slave quarters and said, "That gal who was singin' as I crossed the field — the senator's coming tonight; get her up to the house." And that girl would be taken and bathed and put on her best clothes. She'd come to the house, she'd sing, and the master would be absolutely ecstatic. The senator would be smiling. So, out of the fullness of his heart, he would say to her, "Ah, you done good, gal. What can I do for you? What do you want to show my appreciation?" And then she would say, in addition to a few things for herself, "Well, if we could have some corn that didn't have bugs in it or if we had a place where the water didn't come in the roof, we sure would feel better." So, our arts were always, from the very beginning, a means of protest. It was the one way we had where we were free to truly declare that we were human beings and not cattle. So, art was always very political for us. And, when I came into the theater, the people who were most important to me were the heroes of the theater at that time — Paul Robeson and Canada Lee and Lena Horne. And they were all a part of the struggle. So, I came in at that level and sort of joined the theater and joined in the struggle. And they were always, and still are, in my mind, intertwined in my experience.

Ruby Dee's career highlights noted by the AARP:
Award-winning stage performances include Boemsman and Lena; Wedding Band, for the NY Shakespeare Festival; Long Day's Journey into Night; Agamemnon; and The Glass Menagerie. She and Davis hosted The Forgotten Cinema, the African Heritage Movie Network series of Black film classics, for five seasons.
Dee's book, My One Good Nerve, is a compilation of her short stories and poems and is also the title of her solo performance; she is working on volume two. She and Davis wrote a joint autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together.
Dee and Davis have produced several television specials including Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum; A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers; and the critically acclaimed series, With Ossie and Ruby. In 1995, Dee and Davis were recipients of the prestigious National Medal of Arts Award, bestowed at the White House by President and Mrs. Clinton. They are both longstanding political activists.

Arts and activism from Jim Crow History:
Racial prejudice ushered Dee into what she calls "the Struggle" or working for racial equality. Toward that effort, and, occasionally under threat of losing her job, Dee has held membership in the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her name has appeared on letterhead for committees supporting the Black Panthers and Angela Davis and she has been acquainted with a number of late twentieth century notable African-American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Dee has written several plays and musicals and has published a book of poetry, My One Good Nerve. She has received numerous awards among them an Emmy, ACE, and Drama Desk Award as well as a Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts in 1995. Dee and Davis live in New Rochelle, New York.

From ACLU News Winter 2001:
Author, activist and U.C. Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis presented the Earl Warren Award to Davis and Dee. "They have been associated with literally every progressive movement for justice and peace for #at least # the last fifty years," Davis said. "How auspicious it is for us to gather at this time when civil liberties is under attack, to honor these two people. Never have we had to worry that Ossie and Ruby would be frightened away from anything!"

Ossie Davis speaking of MLK (from The University Record):
"Martin said it to us loud and clear," said Davis. "We must either live together as brothers or perish together as fools. Shall we be brothers? Shall we be fools? The choice is up to us.
"I look for those who will say to themselves, 'Yes, yes, yes, this is what we must do, even at the cost of lives for some of us. We mustn't be impatient. We mustn't be in too much of a hurry. We must give time, time to do its work. For us, we need to be in a stand by mode. Ready when the call comes to pick up the knapsack, rejoin the line and march."
"We can't afford to let Martin go just yet," said Davis. "There’s juice in the old man that we’ve still got to have access to." The life of King, according to Davis, is a model of leadership. It shows the "craft of being in a position to help lead people to a fairer and more just society."

Davis eulogizing Malcolm X (from Hartford Web Publishing):
I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American -- Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men.
Malcolm had stopped being a Negro years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted -- so desperately -- that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too.

Davis on Mumia Abu-Jamal (Socialist Action):
After spending almost two hours with Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row at State Correctional Institution Greene in Waynesburg, Pa., on May 12, Ossie Davis called for a new trial for Mr. Jamal and released the following statement:
"It was an extraordinary visit because I was dealing with, I think, an extraordinary man. There was a talent that I respected because I had read his writings before. But in conversations I became aware that this was a deeply spiritual human being who was capable of love, and that love was wide enough to embrace even those who would kill him.
"That's not always the case when you are dealing with somebody who is a prisoner. As we talked, I became conscious of those many things in our past as Black people that have been imposed upon us, but which we've overcome. Asking ourselves how was it, how did we overcome slavery, how did we overcome Jim Crow, how did we overcome lynching."

Davis on the Iraq war and the administration (from Editor's Cut -- blog of Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.):
"One reason the Right rolled over us in these last months," Davis declared, "is that it controlled the definition of patriotism with television, images, language. I'd like our fellow hip-hoppers to come up with our own definition of patriotism. No stiff declarations, please. We can use humor. Raise tough questions. Expose the corruption and absurdity of those who say if you didn't support the war you're unpatriotic. We can be clever too--use a song, a joke or an argument to define true patriotism--so it speaks to brothers on the street, in jail, in the military. We have to do it. People in Congress ain't going to do it for us."

[Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were both Associates of The Nation.]

From Democracy Now!'s Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee Pay Tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party :
OSSIE DAVIS: For African Americans in the South at mid-century, the injustices had become routine.
RUBY DEE: If you were thirsty, you had to go to a water fountain for colored people. And you had to hope that that fountain was working. And it wasn't broken.
OSSIE DAVIS: If you needed a ride, you had to move to the back of the bus. And even if you could afford to travel by car, you had to drive miles out of your way to find a hotel that would take you. Long terrifying miles down dark country roads, patrolled by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
RUBY DEE: And you had to hope that the single bare light bulb in your motel room hadn't burned out. And if you went to school, you had to get used to learning the same thing every year because your district had only one teacher.

From The Kennedy Center:
"Intensely committed they are to the idea that art and politics are inseparable. They both firmly believe that the arts have the capacity to make viewers more human and teach them, at least on some level, how to live (Stagebill)." Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have been teaching us how to live all our lives.

From ACLU News Winter 2001:
Dee closed her remarks with a dramatic, optimistic recitation of her own composition "The Dream Droppers," ending with the lines:
From time to time though

I sneak a peak around a corner
To see if one of those explosive ethereal
Dangerous aspirations
Takes hold, stays alive.
Because every now and then
A dream does put on flesh, stands tall
And walks!
A dream does happen every once in a while, you know.

Additional resources:
Democracy Now! will have a tribute to Ossie Davis in their February 7, 2004 show.
Indiana University has a great interview (listen only) with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (January, 2002).
NPR's Morning Edition also has an interview with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that you can listen to (March, 2001).
A list of plays written by Ossie Davis can be found at
Ossie Davis joined U.S. Congress Representative Maxine Water in speaking out against the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Ruby Dee can heard in A Pacifica Radio Special: Ruby Dee & Others Read John Hersey’s Hiroshima (August, 2003) via Democracy Now!.
Internet Broadway Database offers a listing of Ruby Dee's Broadway credits. has a MP3 of an excerpt of Ruby Dee reading from Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men.
A 2001 interview with Ruby Dee can be found at The Diane Rehm Show.
The Center for Black Culture Leadership Awards gives out a Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis award.
MP3s of Ossie Davis reading Langston Hughes can be found at Internet Multicasting Service.
WoMo (Women's Monthly) has a nice feature article on Ruby Dee.
Danny Schechter has an article at AlterNet about a documentary (on African-Americans being denied the right to vote in 2004) narrated by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that PBS refused to air.
Ossie Davis was among the signers of the Not In Our Name petition.
Amy Goodman interviews Davis as "Millions Protest Around the World, Hundreds of Thousands Protest in NYC" (2003).
"Black Entertainers Honor Actors, Reflect On Impeachment" (from Democracy Now!) notes the celebration of "the 50th wedding anniversary of actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis at a community theater benefit in New York."
Ossie Davis can also be heard in Democracy Now!'s N.Y. Celebration Remembers Paul Robeson.

[Note: This post has been corrected -- typos and font errors -- that I caught in a quick read. I'm sure there are more.]