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Ossie Davis, A Celebrity of the People

Mark Reynolds

Davis' true art was in his representation of all that was noble and heroic about being a black man. He gave dignity to our workaday struggles, and ceremony to our highest joys.

I'm not too thrilled about the way 2005 is starting. We haven't even made it to St. Patrick's Day, and we've already lost some truly seminal figures from our cultural heritage: Johnny Carson, Arthur Miller, Max Schmelling, Hunter S. Thompson, even O.G. (Original Gidget) Sandra Dee. The news of their deaths stunned us, as so often happens when celebrities pass, because we hadn't heard much from any of them in quite some time. Their fame had long since been etched in stone, and their deaths gave us pause to recall their glory days one more time. But for the most part, they were figures from our collective past. Their presence in our lives today was more as influences, singular historical markers, than as active contributors and participants.

When Raiford Chatman Davis departed from this mortal coil the 4th of February, he was still on our cultural stage, literally and figuratively. Far be it from me to offer any appreciation more knowing or eloquent than those that have already been given in honor of Ossie Davis. His works have been recounted, his commitment to justice and freedom praised, the world he molded and shared with his loving wife, Ruby Dee, duly celebrated. His passing, though, did jog my memory enough to recall a moment from my theater days a quarter-century or so ago.

There was a new theater group starting up in Cleveland, populated mostly by those who weren't part of the scene at Karamu House, Cleveland's venerable training ground for black talent. I was cast in the troupe's first production, The Struggle for Freedom. It was not much more than a pastiche of speeches, music, and poems from the black cultural canon, held together by the barest of plot threads. The production was a chaotic process at best, hardly anyone found their way to our space to see it in the basement of an all-but-dormant Catholic church on the edge of the projects, and after the first week it was a crapshoot to determine which actors would show up for any given performance. The whole enterprise sank without a trace, which was just as well because I don't think anyone had bothered to secure the proper clearances for any of the copyrighted material we were using.

My showcase was a long monologue on Malcolm X. They were actually the words of Ossie Davis, and as memory serves, the piece was a combination of his eulogy for Malcolm X, and his response to the question, "Why did you eulogize Malcolm X?" They weren't written for the stage, so it became my job to develop first a character, then a performance style. I eventually settled on an authoritative Everyman tone, using voice and movement to illuminate key passages. Audiences, such as they were, seemed to like it, or at least get it. Such was the case at an integrated (reluctantly) Cleveland high school, after which three extremely bitter-looking, scowling white lads in the front row weren't into shaking my hand at the end of the show. Yeah they got it, and they didn't like it one bit.

It took me little time to find the poetry and rhythm in Davis' writing. Only upon his death did I discover that he had aspired to be a writer when he entered Howard University in the 1930s (had I been a more seasoned actor back then, I would have done some homework), and that he'd written not just Purlie Victorious, but several other plays as well. But although he was better known as an actor, and as part of black America's most famous couple ("OssieDavisandRubyDee" might as well be one word, so inseparable in our collective consciousness they remain), Davis' true art was in his representation of all that was noble and heroic about being a black man. He gave dignity to our workaday struggles, and ceremony to our highest joys. He was our culture's moral authority, but he never made pronouncements from on high. Even when he was speaking to an audience of thousands, his words and voice always found their way straight to you, and what you were feeling at that moment.

It's usually a cliché to say there will be no others like the deceased. In Davis' case, this is true, and not just because of his gifts. He and his wife were part of a socially, politically, and culturally charged era in black America. His life spanned generations of art and ideas, from Alain Locke, the Harlem Renaissance intellectual who was one of his professors at Howard (and who encouraged him to go into the theater), to filmmaker Spike Lee and the hip-hop audience. Not only did he eulogize both Malcolm and Martin Luther King, he also traded ideas with W.E.B. Dubois and stood up for Paul Robeson during the height of the Communist paranoia in the 1950s. He was there for every cause, he lent his name, his talent, and his time to every battle.

We don't live among such giants nowadays. There are no Malcolms, no Martins, no Robesons feeding our hearts and our minds with visions of a better world. Our times, though they are rife with major issues yet to be resolved, don't have quite the same electricity of Birmingham in 1956, when blacks left the back of the bus and began to empower themselves, or Harlem in the early 1960s, when Malcolm X built a movement simply by speaking the word on a street corner. Yes, we have our advocates, our passionate defenders of the blood, our visionaries, our flag-wavers. And many of them, no doubt, will be written up in the history books someday. But the conditions that called forth an Ossie Davis don't exist in quite the same fashion, so it's not quite fair to expect that another Ossie Davis will emerge from some magical dispenser to fill this void.

But what if we consider it a challenge instead of a void: who will represent for future generations what Ossie Davis represented for half of the 20th Century? Who will be our celebrity of the people, who will be known for how he used his talent to serve a greater good? If we look around, the answers are many - and none. Davis' compatriot Harry Belafonte is still with us, still fighting the good fight. Lee, Danny Glover, and Whoopi Goldberg lend their talents to the struggle. Bill Cosby's commitment to our youth has never been questioned, though of late his tactics and tone sure have been. And numerous athletes, actors, and musicians freely lend their name and resources to worthy philanthropic activities.

But this generation and the ones to follow will have to produce its own Ossie Davis. Someone else will eventually have to be the one to step up and speak for those who are not heard, with artistry as well as passion. Someone else will have to put service before celebrity, put the freedom of the masses above the lights of the cameras - or at least redirect those lights towards the masses. Someone else will have to be that person who makes both a two-act comedy and a protest rally a special event simply by being part of it. It will take more than a slogan on a T-shirt, an all-star charity single, or a gala black-tie event. It will take heart, it will take courage, it will take love.

And it will take, one might expect, a lifelong commitment. These are the words of Ossie Davis, the co-master of ceremonies for the 1963 March on Washington, from a 2003 event at Riverside Church in New York City, one week after America invaded Iraq:

" . . . I have never looked upon myself as a magician. I was not sent by the Almighty to solve all of the problems of the world at one fell swoop. I am not morally arrogant. I accept the fact that maybe this generation was not the one designed by fate to bring peace to the world. But I also believe that is it necessary to stay on the march, to be on the journey, to work for peace wherever we are at all times, because the liberty we cherish, which we would share with the world, demands eternal vigilance. And democracy is no easy path, but those of us who believe in it must be prepared to sacrifice in its cause more willingly than those who are prepared to die in the wars of aggression. We, too, must be dedicated to the cause of freedom…"

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


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