I fell in love with Ruby Dee the first time I saw her perform. Petite yet formidable, her presence swept me away like a gigantic wave that pulls you under with its swell. Ruby Dee, like Maya Angelou who recently passed, was not simply an artist, or rather her art was the vehicle through which she demonstrated abiding pride and deep commitment to African American culture. The first time I saw her speak at an event in New York in the mid 70s, she struck me as a Diva, and rightly so.
I was led to Rudy Dee and her late husband of 50 years, Ossie Davis, as a result of a crush I had on their son, Guy Davis, whom I thought was fine when at the tender age of 17, recently from Jamaica, I met him at Hunter College, where he was attending, a senior I think on my entrance. I asked about him, and my friend said, "Yes, girl he is fine wine, and the son of the famous Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis." I had no idea who they were at the time, but I did not let on. Instead, rather than going home after my classes for the day, I headed to the library and looked them up.
Guy's and my path crossed a few times -- I think we had a theatre class together -- but I was more drawn to his parents as actors, activists and as a couple. Over time they came to symbolize for me, a perfect union of marriage and art. Ruby Dee fitted ideally my standard of beauty. I thought she was gorgeous, stunning in fact, and the first time I saw her on stage, in some play, the title escapes me now, off Broadway in the mid seventies, her voice resonated in my head for weeks, and even now as I write this I hear her voice, soft but full as a Johnny Cake.
Ruby Dee belongs to the group of artists, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, June Jordan, et al, who did not separate activism from their art, and in fact given their visibility as artists, and the audience to which they have access, used this as a platform to speak out and against racism and other injustices throughout the world. Ruby Dee, along with husband, Ossie Davis were un wavering and actively, consistently, advocates for the rights and equity of African Americans.
But Rudy Dee's activism was long standing, from an early age. A Member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an active participant of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a member of the NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta, among others, in 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Ruby Dee and her late husbands were known to be close, personal friends to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. so it came as no surprise that in 1970, Ruby Dee was the recipient of the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League. In 2005, along with husband,Davis, Dee was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award by the national Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, March 2007, Dee was inducted into the Westchester County Women's Hall of Frame, joining the like of Hillary Clinton, and in 2009 was bestowed an Honorary Degree from Princeton University. Ruby Dee demonstrated that being dedicated to the "cause," was not a conflict of interest, but rather mutually inclusive of her artistic pursuits. In fact, I will argue that Dee's connectedness to larger social issues and her sense of obligation to help right certain wrongs, also enabled her to hone her craft, making her presence on stage as well as on the screen more riveting.
Although I wasn't in New York, I had read about Amadou Diallo, and had written a poem in his honor, so was not surprised, or rather was pleased to hear that Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were arrested at 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department, protesting the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999. This is yet another and more recent example of when Ruby Dee dons her activism hat to protest a great injustice, not just because she felt a great wrong was done here, but also, I would argue, to serve as a role model for other African Diaspora people and help to infuse them with and lead them to demand justices. Being an actor with an exhaustive film credit did not stop Ruby Dee from taking to the streets to demand justice for those less able, and those less willing to brave the repercussions.
While I did not see Ruby Dee on Broadway when she starred in Lorraine Hansberry's classic, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959 with none other than Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett and Ivan Dixon, I did see her in the same role of Ruth Younger, Walter Lee Younger's wife, the role starring Sidney Pointer, in the movie version. Every time Dee was on camera, regardless of her lines, she made me follow her and her alone, and in as much as I love Sidney Pointer, Dee outshined him in the movie, given her supported character role.
The next movie that I saw Ruby Dee in was Buck and the Preacher (1972), in which she played Buck's wife, also starring Sidney Pointer. Dee's expressive face and bright eyes pull her character to you, the audience, and her stage presence is so alluring, regardless of the character she is playing, once she appears and opens her mouth, you give her your undivided attention; she is that enthralling. Dee was equally compelling as Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, 1979, a miniseries. And for those who are younger and not acquainted with these stalwart African American actors such as Ruby Dee, then more likely you saw her in the film American Gangster (2007).
Similar to so many of her generation, Ruby Dee did many things and did them well. She authored two children's books, Two Ways to Count to Ten, which is a reworking of a Liberian folktale and the other, Tower to Heaven, also an African folktale with its origin in Ghana. But most impressive of Dee's literary offerings is, My One Good Nerve, a collection of poems and short stories, somewhat autobiographical, and which span the gamut, detailing her life with Ossie Davis, and equally important her values, convictions and ideas about activism. Ruby Dee performed this work as a one-woman show, and I understand her delivery was as spellbinding as ever.
Ruby Dee was not merely a superb actress, she was also a staunch activist, very much involved and engaged in and by the world. Like others of her generation, Ruby Dee married her art with social consciousness, carefully selecting and deciding on the roles she would play, roles that did not stereotype or demean African Americans. Rather, the characters that Ruby Dee played where always multidimensional, always engaged and engaging. In so many ways, Ruby Dee's astonishing, robust life allowed her to infuse charisma in every character she played.
I believe in the old ways so I know that Ruby Dee, although she has moved into the realm of ancestors, is not dead to us and never will be. Countless generations will watch footage of her and her physical beauty, her sultry voice, her breathtaking performance will continue to inform and inspire countless. I hail you, Ruby Dee, and I thank you for being such an uncompromising actress and unceasing advocate for racial quality.
Opal Palmer Adisa, a Professor at California College for the Arts, is the author of 14 books, including, 4-Headed Woman, poetry (Tia Chucha Press, 2013) & Painting Away Regrets, novel (Peepal Tree Press, 2011) Visit her site to learn more: www.opalpalmeradisa.com