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In Memoriam: Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

In Memoriam:
Ossie Davis (1917-2005) The Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of Ossie Davis on Friday, Feb. 4, 2005, at 8:00 p.m., prior to their evening curtains. All across America, the national and local media sought theatre and film specialists to comment on Mr. Davis’ extraordinary career.

Black theaters, community film workshops, libraries, as well as Sunday morning worship services nationwide, reserved a special time to pay tribute and render moments of deep silence and reflection for the Black man, actor, husband, writer, father, playwright, producer, director, humanitarian, brother, businessman, political/cultural activist and artist: Ossie Davis.

Ossie Davis, 87, passed away from natural causes in a Miami hotel on the morning of Feb. 4, 2005. Mr. Davis had a history of heart problems and had recently recovered from pneumonia. Ruby Dee, his wife and partner of more than 58 years, had voiced concern about him taking on another project so close to his battle with pneumonia. However, true to his profession and in keeping with his work ethic, the ever dependable Mr. Davis reported for work.

Ossie Davis was the brother with a killer smile, who possessed the unique ability to deliver a line in a voice as familiar to us as morning water was quiet. Whereas his footsteps among us have been put to rest, his enormous presence catalogued in an impressive and unprecedented body of work will endure, entertain and educate us and future generations. Along with Ms. Dee, he graced us with a mirror of ourselves. Always the consummate actor, Mr. Davis, in countless roles, displayed the whole, complicated, unpredictable and under-told stories of Black folks.

Ossie Davis was a man of many selves. He was our literate voice, a word crusader who used language with the ease and naturalness of taking a breath. Literature was his entry to the world. From his Alice in Wonder (1952) and Purlie Victorious (1961) to Just Like Martin (1992), he wrote about our insides with a seriousness and humor that only the truly gifted and experienced could capture.

As an actor starting with Dick Campbell and The Rosa McClendon Players of Harlem (1939), Davis would appear in over 31 professional stage productions, 30-plus films and hundreds of television and radio performances that displayed a genius that closely approximated his hero Paul Robeson. His appearances in countless television mini-series, documentaries and specials put him and Ruby Dee in the center of our consciousness for over 50 years.

Ossie Davis seldom backed down from a righteous fight. He and Ms. Dee never forgot who they were and from whence they came. From the beginnings of their careers they were was intimately involved in the Black struggle locally, nationally and internationally.

Mr. Davis acquired substantial Black cultural knowledge as a student at Howard University (1935-1939). He majored in English and wanted to become a writer and playwright. His early influences, other than his father, Kince Charles Davis, were the poet and cultural scholar Sterling A. Brown and the eminent philosopher and scholar Alain Leroy Locke, both of Howard University. Between the two of them, Davis was introduced to the best Black poets, writers, musicians and visual artists of the day.

Davis’ commitment to the many struggles of Black folks never took a second seat to his art. In fact, his art, whether as actor or playwright, always presented us with ideas that compelled us to think seriously about the geopolitics and social forces that governed White and Black lives in an unequal and unfair arena. His unswaying support of Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as of hundreds of other struggles that Blacks and progressive Whites faced was in keeping with his core belief that “race mattered.” He was not about to allow — after years of struggle — his special status as a celebrity to interfere with his work on behalf of his people.

Always the human rights activist, there was not an intellectual or cultural separation that would put his or his wife’s art in a separate room from their day-to-day lives. Most certainly, Mr. Davis understood that the best art always formulated new questions, suggested new paradigms, forced another approach to missed dialogue and signified the absolute importance of culture. Above all, he recognized the critical link between popular and national cultures. After all, metaphorically, Stevie Wonder lived down the street from Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston recognized the healing powers of the Delta blues.

Ossie Davis’ life was a continuous confrontation of cultural backwardness and no art was outside of the realm of his intellectual curiosity. His art fed us, allowing us to grow and, yes, finally appreciate his greatness and his genius. He was, indeed, our golden trumpeter; clear, resolute, unafraid, athletic, Black-self-loving, articulate and, above all, always in tune and ahead of his time.
It is always best to close with an artist’s own words. I am reminded of the memorable eulogy for his friend Malcolm X during which Mr. Davis stated, “In honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.”

Haki R. Madhubuti is a friend of the Davis/Dee family, a poet, Distinguished University professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Chicago State University. His latest book is Run Toward Fear.

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