Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, two of our most beloved performers, have long been known as brilliant actors and staunch activists for African-American human rights and social justice. But to their children, they were simply Mom and Dad. Their daughters, Nora Davis Day and Hasna Muhammad, spoke with EBONY about what it was like growing up in their household.
Nora Davis Day
I grew up in what I call the “bean days,” when we didn’t always have meat for dinner, so it was ordinary and extraordinary. If you open the door, here comes [the author] John O. Killens or Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte. But to us they were visitors, uncles and aunts.
We were still expected to clean the bathroom, take out the garbage, shovel the snow, do our homework and be excellent. We never got a sense of grandeur about it because, while these people were in the living room holding conversation, we’d be in the kitchen, maybe with our grandmother, making coffee for them. We got to eavesdrop a little bit on history. As we got older we’d participate, but when we were kids it was time to go to bed usually.
Education was very important [to our parents] but it wasn’t just restricted to school. Our education was much broader. We might find ourselves in a synagogue listening to Mom and Dad read poetry or in a mosque. It was a nontraditional life in a traditional setting.
We talked around the dinner table all the time. We didn’t watch television. It took us forever to get one because they said that when Black people were on television in a way that was respectful and inclusive then we’d get one. We finally did when I was around 13, but we couldn’t watch it except on the weekends.
I remember watching the March on Washington [in 1963]. We didn’t go to the march or to Malcolm X’s funeral because of security concerns. Mom and Dad were very much involved and focused on their roles and would not have been able to adequately supervise or protect us.
As far as Malcolm’s death was concerned that was a blow, because we had family connections to Malcolm and his family. I remember telling Mom and Dad [he had been assassinated] when they came to pick us up from our grandmother’s house. I’ll never forget, both of them just crumbled in grief right there. But they set about as usual, protecting the people and standing up for Malcolm. In that instance, Dad did write the eulogy.
It’s important to remember that we also laughed and danced and listened to Daddy’s stories (all of which involved a mule from when he grew up), or Mommy talking about Harlem. We weren’t so serious that we were standing every moment of every day in the line of the march, but it was our milieu.
Our parents’ relationship taught us that love took work, like everything else. It wasn’t just about being in love. You had to be in love around or about something.
What kept them together all those years was, of course, their intense love for each other and for us, but they also had the struggle that kept them grounded.
When Dad died [in 2005], it was like the lens through which Mom saw light was shattered. She was a tough woman, but you could see that her heart was gone. It took her a while, if ever really, to get her bearings. As a family we encircled her with ourselves to help her make it through the rest of her life without the other half of herself. She continued to talk to him and proclaimed that in truth he really wasn’t gone. She could feel his presence.
I think what got me the most was when we would go out and they would be recognized. Here we are, we’re just having dinner with Mom and Dad and it’s like, “Why are you coming here and talking to us while we’re eating? This is my time. Why are you interrupting us?”
There were times when Mom, especially, was very clear that we were just like everybody else. But we did have special exposures. Nora has told me about coming into the dining room and there being Paul Robeson, or going to W.E. B. Dubois’ home or Malcolm coming over. We have this collective memory. And the artists, oh my God! The folks who would call on the phone: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Langston [Hughes].
The importance of education was clear and that encompassed the tenets of social justice. For example, Mommy would tell us why Emmett Till’s mother had an open casket. She wanted us to know why.
We would have these discussions and we would have to answer. They would ask, “What are you going to do about poverty?” And we were expected to answer and have some suggestions.
We were part of boycotts. After the little girls were killed in Alabama [in the 1963 church bombing], we did not participate in Christmas, in commercialism. We made our Christmas gifts. We needed to pay attention to the act of terrorism that had taken place that killed those four girls that very well could have been Nora, me and our brother, Guy. We needed to make a statement. One of the things we were taught was the power of economics, in terms of when withheld en masse, you can make a statement.
Our parents taught us about commitment, trust, honesty and honor. Dad said, “Some people want to love a lot of women, but the best thing is to love one woman well.” And they treated each other well. We saw them talking to each other, laughing and hugging. They shared their love with us. We could not go to bed without kissing them goodnight.
If our parents were around today they’d be in the streets, I’m sure. That’s something they were known for, always showing up when they were needed. I remember waking up one morning to go to school and there were Black Panthers hiding out in different rooms throughout the house. They always answered the call.
There is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks called Paul Robeson, the last sentence of which is, “We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” That is something they quoted often and believed deeply.
—As told to Marissa Charles
Click here to read more from EBONY’s “In My Lifetime” series.