It’s nearly impossible to talk — or write — about Ossie Davis without delving heavily into the life of Ruby Dee.
As family, friends and Hollywood observe the centenary of Davis’ birth on Dec. 18, it’s easy to remember the couple as two of the most loved performers of the stage and screen — and, as racial tensions in America heightens, it’s easy to recall that Davis and Dee always stood out as dedicated activists for freedom, justice and equality.
“We raised them well,” said Nora Davis, one of the couple’s three children.
Nora joined her sister, Hasna Muhammad and her brother, Guy Davis, for an interview about their parents with the NNPA Newswire.
“I’ve always thought of being their children as ordinary and extraordinary,” Nora Davis said. “On Saturday, we did our chores, scrubbed the bathroom and we did our homework. They were serious about parenting not unlike many homes we had both parents and we went out to play.”
While Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were famous actors, their children said they never felt they had anything to brag about around the neighborhood.
“Many of our friends were in the same position,” Muhammad said. “Sidney Poitier’s children were who we played with and Harry Belafonte’s children and other activists and actors. We were all in the same position so it’s wasn’t about, ‘Hey, my dad was on TV last night,’ because everybody’s dad was on TV last night.”
A host of stars lived in and around the family’s Mount Vernon, New York, enclave, including Poitier, writer E.B. White, producer Dick Clark, actor Art Carney and boxer Floyd Patterson. That hardscrabble city would later produce such stars as Diddy, Denzel Washington, Heavy D and others.
“There was a moment when Mom and Dad became Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee,” Nora Davis said.
That moment arrived early when the children not only got to see their parents work on stage, but their activism.
“As an adult and a parent myself, I came to discover just how wonderful and amazing our parents were and how thoughtful they were,” said Guy Davis, an accomplished blues musician.
Guy Davis pointed toward the activism and the planning with folks such as Paul Robeson and Malcolm X, whom Ossie Davis ultimately would eulogize at his funeral.
Davis said his parents taught lessons even while administering discipline.
“They were like Joe Louis’ boxing gloves, the left and the right. One was the punisher and the other was the educator. They worked well together,” Davis said. “When I got into trouble, Dad would make me stand there with my palms facing up and he’d look me in the eye and tell me what I did wrong and take the belt off and wham down on my hand. He could hurt you without ever harming you.”
Dee’s hands were “faster than Bruce Lee’s,” Davis recalled.
“She could light you up and your knees would be buckling before you were hit,” he said.
Mostly, the lessons taught by Davis and Dee were about life — particularly life as an African-American.
“We’ve been Black a long time and what you see happening today, they’d remind us that none of this is new,” Nora Davis said.
Ossie Davis was born on Dec. 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Georgia. After serving in World War II, Davis embarked on an acting career that would span decades. He starred on Broadway and television and in films. He also wrote and directed. Davis and Dee were prominently involved in the civil rights movement.
He died in 2005 and Dee died in 2014.
Davis, who wrote, acted, directed and produced for the theater and Hollywood, was a central figure among Black performers and he and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, “In This Life Together.”
Davis’ 2005 obituary noted that he and Dee first appeared together in the plays “Jeb” in 1946 and “Anna Lucasta” in 1946-47. Davis’ first film, “No Way Out” in 1950, was Dee’s fifth. They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during their long, parallel careers
Both had key roles in the television series “Roots: The Next Generation” in 1978, “Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum” in 1986, and, “The Stand” in 1994.
Davis appeared in three Spike Lee films, “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever;” Dee also appeared in the latter two. Among her best-known films was “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1961.
In 2004, the couple received the Kennedy Center Honors.
“Of the two of them, mother was just a pure force of nature when it came to acting,” Guy Davis said. “Father was more of a writer. He acted, but he enjoyed writing.”
Nora Davis said her mother “came alive” on screen and on stage. She said Dee was more of a teacher to her husband.
Both, however, always saw the bigger picture, their children said.
“I’ve said being their children was ordinary and extraordinary because we had a special fly on the wall perspective because we were in the house when folks like Paul Robeson, Maya Angelou and others came over,” Muhammad said. “Mom and Dad brought these people into our homes around the dining room table, but they didn’t just bring them in, they brought the issues.
“I remember Mom telling us why Mamie Till Mobley had an open casket and how important that was,” Muhammad said. “I remember them telling us about the lack of African-American artists behind the scenes and the lack of writers behind the scenes and they would ask us questions like what are you going to do about poverty and it wasn’t rhetorical. We had to go around one at a time and make suggestions; we had to rise to the occasion and know what the issues and concerns of the people were and to have some remedy because they told us it was our responsibility.”
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis witnessed the distress of African-Americans when heroes like King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and others were assassinated. Together they planned marches, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience and protests.
Their children said they’d be just as active today.
“I learned from my parents that sometimes sacrifice is necessary,” Guy Davis said. “They told me how once they were on a train to go to work at the theater on Broadway when they were doing the play ‘Purlie Victorious.’ Here they were making a successful living but, because there were no Black conductors on the train they decided to protest and they didn’t go on stage that night.
“They stepped up and had to sacrifice in order to make change and today, you don’t even think twice about seeing a Black conductor or bus driver,” Davis said.
Showing up and speaking out whenever they were called was also part of everyday life for Davis and Dee, Muhammad said.
“There were many times we’d go into a store and were mistreated or not spoken to and others were allowed to go in line in front of us and Mom would just drop everything and speak up before she’d leave,” Muhammad said.
Nora said her parents taught her “to appreciate that this little brown girl was part of a wider world” and “to appreciate different cultures, languages and people.”
“They taught us to love our people and to speak up for our people,” she said. “When needed, answer the call.”