Remembering Ruby Dee

Having brought immense talent, fire, and above all love to this world and to each of us, our beloved Mother Sister, Ruby Dee, has gone on to her final resting place, where we know the ancestors are dancing as she returns. Dee died at home, surrounded by her loved ones, on June 11.

For many of us mourning her death, at the beautifully seasoned age of 91, words are difficult to muster, to put together, to express what we’ve lost as she transitions. How does one do a life like Ruby Dee’s justice on the page? What adjectives describe everything that she gave, what she taught, how she called each of us to action—not through clichéd speeches, but through unyielding movement? She was a movement, a fully realized, self-possessed “city of a woman” (as Lucille Clifton proclaims in her fem-affirming poem, “What the Mirror Said”).

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In many ways, she was my greatest model, a person whose life I could look to and proclaim, “That’s it.”

Like many of my generation, I was introduced to Ruby Dee through the vision of Spike Lee in the epic 1989 film Do the Right Thing, where she played the community’s beloved Mother Sister and acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis. She reminded me of my own grandmother in the film: strong-willed, tough but tender, boisterous and unafraid.

Lee’s film opened to many protests and was believed to be the type of social commentary that would force Black folks to riot. Little did I know then that, for Ruby Dee, there was always a riot going on. Resistance had become synonymous with her name since childhood, as was determined and committed.

When one examines Ruby Dee’s body of work, it’s impossible to call her simply an actor, for actors don’t generally hold careers that span seven decades, aren’t nominated for Academy Awards at 86. So we’ll more aptly call her a force

Ruby Ann Wallace was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922 to Gladys Hightower and Marshall Wallace, but was raised in her beloved Harlem, New York. A cherished member of Delta Sigma Theta, Dee graduated from Hunter College in 1945. Determined not submit to the typical careers available Black women in those years, Dee chose an apprenticeship at The American Negro Theater, where she worked beside legends like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. 

When one examines Ruby Dee’s body of work, it’s impossible to call her simply an actor, for actors don’t generally hold careers that span seven decades, aren’t nominated for Academy Awards at 86. So we’ll more aptly call her a force.

Dee broke many barriers as a Black woman actor, appearing in stage productions as early as 1940, and was the first Black woman to earn major roles in Shakespearean productions presented by the American Shakespearean Festival. Moreover, who could forget Dee’s feminist portrayal of Ruth Younger alongside a dashing Sidney Poitier in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s daunting drama A Raisin in the Sun? (She’d reprised her role from the original Broadway production for the silver screen.)

It was during a production of Jeb, in 1946, that she met her life (and everything) partner, Ossie Davis. I recall reading about the couple’s meeting, courtship and marriage in their joint memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. I continue to hold their conversations on marriage and life closely, like gold, like a bible, to remind myself that joy, love, career, art and activism can exist simultaneously. 

In speaking on activism, and their dedication to social change as a couple, Ossie Davis (in EBONY’s “Is This the Love Affair of the Centuty?”) expresses, “One of the things I appreciate more was how important struggle was as the instrument that helped to keep us knit together.” 

As we view photo after photo of Ossie and Ruby Dee’s life together in the coming days, we’ll see magnificent images of them looking earnestly and deeply in love, at galas and events being honored for their contributions to the arts. But none will move me as much as seeing the couple standing together, often with their children in tow, fighting for us, believing in us, and loving us in ways that few others have had the courage and audacity to. 

As a member of CORE, SNCC, SCLC and the NAACP, Dee demonstrated, again and again, her commitment to the collective work of building and sustaining a movement that would make life better for not only her, but for all suffering under the historic and continuous oppression we witness daily in America. Dee served as the MC at the historic March on Washington, which celebrated a 50th anniversary last year. And to provide a timeline of how long she’d been committed to social change, we should recall she was arrested in 1999 at the headquarters of the NYPD for protesting the callous and senseless murder of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo.

On her and Ossie’s “moral assignment,” Dee offers the following reasons as to why she continued to stand for justice: “We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized.”

As I remember the stunning and amazing life of Ruby Dee, as we all mourn our loss of her but rejoice in her being, another quote from her remains etched in my mind: “The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within—strength, courage, dignity.”

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.