Remembering Ossie Davis 1917-2005

by Carl Dix

Revolutionary Worker #1268, February 20, 2005, posted at

I imagine a deep rich voice commenting on the life of Ossie Davis, speaking to the majesty of his presence and the depth of his commitment to the struggle for a different world. This voice asks me, "Did you ever meet Ossie? Did you ever see him on stage or screen, I mean really see him? Did you ever talk with him? Did he ever smile at you?"

I’ve heard this voice before. It was the voice of Da Mayor in Do The Right Thing. Of Elder Johnson in Let’s Do It Again . Of Reverend Purify in Jungle Fever . I heard recordings of this voice delivering the eulogy for Malcolm X. I heard it deliver a challenge to the young generation in the mid 1990s to find its mission, to take up the fight to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal and free him from prison. The voice was Ossie Davis himself, but now I am only hearing it in my head—the way memories jump into consciousness when you know you will never see a person again.

We lost Ossie Davis on February 4, 2005. But he resonates as deep and rich as his unique voice.

Speaking of Paul Robeson, Ossie once said: "What was the assignment of the Black actors who came along when he did? We had to present a face of our people in an effort to reinstate our dignity and to establish an identity that said to the world, we are human beings." Ossie took up this assignment with an unmatchable determination. He created great beauty as an actor, a playwright and a director. And he inspired us with his eloquent spirit in addressing the injustices of today and challenging people to join in resisting.

In displaying this eloquence, he had to withstand tremendous pressure and vicious attacks. During the 1950s he and Ruby Dee—married to Ossie for more than half a century—stood firm in defense of Paul Robeson when the McCarthyite witch hunts for communists and their sympathizers wreaked havoc among artists and throughout society. In describing this period, Ruby Dee said they didn’t work for long periods, but you couldn’t tell if it was because they were blacklisted or because they were Black, since there was so little work for Black actors and actresses at that time.

Ossie continued that kind of daring all his life, in the face of the great and rising pressure on artists to avoid enlisting in the fight against injustice. And many times he walked point — creating space for others to stand up for what’s right.

The great revolutionary leader Mao Tsetung once said that a life lived for the people is weightier than Mount Tai. Ossie Davis’ life was heavy indeed. He will be missed by all who stand against injustice and strive to bring a better world into being.

rise up fallen fighters

unfetter the stars

dance with the universe

& make it ours

oh, make it/make it ours

oh make it/make it ours.

— Ntosake Shange Rise Up Fallen Fighters