Monthly Archives: November 2017

Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee raised three children of their own, and generations of Americans. From the beginning, they both wove their activism into their acting. In the jobs they took, the performing of their roles, and their own writing and productions, they taught their audiences about the possibilities of a world of equity. In his own words, from With Ossie and Ruby, Ossie explained, “…we triumphed, thanks to a strategy that assured us the victory: Simply, we learned how to belong to the people for whom we worked – mostly black people. They were, and still are, the audience that never made us rich, but never let us down.”

From the beginning, their work was a reflection of their lives, and the generations of racism and hope that came before them, and the dreams they had for those who would come after. During the McCarthy era, when a communist witch hunt attempted to silence Civil Rights dissenters, Ossie and Ruby were part of the growing number of artists in New York who refused to be silenced by their own government, and instead created conscious-raising art with Jews, like a middle finger to McCarthy. “We felt that we were among people who understood and appreciated what we had to share,” Ossie wrote (With Ossie and Ruby). Their work in the play The World of Sholom Aleichem brought them to Local 1199, Retail Drug Workers Union, a union representing mostly Jewish, Hispanic, and Black people interested in using art to further their goals of creating economic freedom for their members. Ossie wrote The People of Clarendon County for Union 1199, telling the story of the Briggs v. Elliott case, which was one of five argued under Brown v. Board of Education. Ossie and Ruby would continue to work on projects with 1199, the union Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would refer to has his favorite union.

Ossie and Ruby were personally committed to the Civil Rights movement- their lives, and the lives of their children depended on it. Ruby, specifically, was interested in bringing the two seemingly polar opposite Civil Rights leaders, Dr. King and Malcolm X together. Juanita Poitier and Ruby organized an informal summit to take place a year after the 1963 March on Washington (at which Malcolm was present, behind the scenes, Ruby reminds us in With Ossie and Ruby). They invited the luminaries of the movement, Dr. King, Malcolm, Dorothy Height, Whitney Young, Lorraine Hasberry, Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph. Sidney Poitier also attended. Dr. King, jailed at the time, could not come, and sent an emissary. Imagine, the static of frenzied activity, just barely contained in these bodies of those who took up the mantle of their people without questioning, why me, but only asking, how do we move forward? Ruby recalls the discussion flowed naturally, and a plan to formulate a Declaration of Human Rights for Black Americans was made. Malcolm would visit Ossie and Ruby one last time, days before he would unveil the plans he had for the movement, days before he was assassinated.

When they appeared or worked together, Ossie was clearly the more loquacious one; Ruby meted out her words, spending time listening, and considering before speaking. On The History Makers An Evening with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (10/18/2002), Ruby recalled an ancient regret. She had once asked Malcolm to put his iconic rifle away in a room of her home, rather than leaving it in the rear window of the truck he drove, because there were to be photographers at a party she and Ossie held for Malcolm, and she didn’t want anyone to get nervous, seeing the photos with Malcolm’s gun in them. “Oh God, I think about it now” she recalls, “and I missed all those pictures- because I was intimidated, too. And now that I am older, I feel I am no longer intimidated, I am old enough to do anything I damn well please.”

Ossie and Ruby’s activism only increased as they got older. They took roles in the upstart Spike Lee’s movies, they focused on speaking and reaching out to the next generation, on the ultimate need to educate so we would not forget the dark past and repeat it. For Ruby, this is the natural work of those “65 and older- We have a few brain cells left, a few dollars in the bank- it’s time to make it time again,” she said in 2002, her cadence increasing with the urgency of her words, “We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents.”

Ossie and Ruby’s legacy is that of education. They educated their children, their audiences, their people, and all Americans; they sought to lift us up, using their art as a vehicle. They never faltered, never let fear overcome or cower them. “We have to make absolutely sure that the materials of our lives are available to them,” Ossie said. And Ruby expounded, “I learned we have to cross-fertilize each other, in terms of thinking. And that the generations coming in do have something to offer and the frustrations that they experience are not to be taken lightly, and we can help, we can change, we can exchange ideas- And we can help save them- I think they’re waiting for us to-” (History Makers 10/18/2002)

Ruby’s words ring as true now as they did in 2002: We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents. And it’s time now that we save ourselves.

for more on Ossie and Ruby:

and, a bonus clip:


Playing Pretend

I felt him before I saw him. Something changed the air around me, and I looked up and saw him. I drank him in. Tall, dark, broad, with this natural ease. I couldn’t pull my eyes away, and then I noticed the book he carried- one I had read recently. I don’t even remember what book it was. I do remember we happily chatted for a while, I may have even let my train stop come and go to keep talking to him. And then we sat in the station at his stop, and talked some more. Of course he had someone. He was too good not to. But, for a train ride, he was mine.

In the end, it was a really good conversation with an interesting stranger. The kind of conversation that lifts you, gives you lightness under your feet. We chastely exchanged contact information, with no plot other than a distant friendly connection. Good people are still curious. And over the years, we’ve watched each other through the safe distance of social media. We sometimes catch up with a short conversation, we often forget about each other. But, one day, I met this perfect stranger on a train.

I didn’t ask about a silly book to start a book club with this handsome man on a train. I had looked at him, and in that moment had already imagined what it would be like to kiss him, feel him against me. The book was pretext. It could have been a great book, too. But I couldn’t have cared less about the damn book. I can remember the thrill of capturing his attention. I may have blushed. I probably did.

Fantasies are tricky. They are easy to breathe life into, hard to control, you often find yourself stumbling over your own feet to decide how to move forward. What I like most about my stranger is that he is happy. He is happy to go with someone else’s plan, and he is happy to enjoy the moment he is in. He is happy to be in new places and meet new people and see new things. And it’s not about the novelty of it all, the saying he’s done this or that, it is because he actually finds happiness in these things.

That, and he is smart. Smarter than me, maybe- Smart enough certainly that I can learn a thing or two from him. An alpha in his field. Someone with ambition not just to make money, gain all those things the world around you tells you to, but ambition to excel at what he does. Ambition to do his job well and lead others to do the same. Ambition to change those things he can. So few people these days have that sort of ambition. Some never did, some have had it beaten out of them. He is these things, and compassionate and generous at the same time. Not just with things, that is easy, but with himself, his time.

I decided all this in a number of stops. I built him as he stood in front of me, with minimal contribution needed from him. Then I got on a train and went home. I left my perfect stranger- perfect because he’s a stranger- to his strange life, and rode the train back to mine. I met a perfect stranger one day. Reality doesn’t touch him, doesn’t burn the walls down around me; he’s fiction, beyond all that, and I do so love playing pretend.



Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

Of the 130 million books published (estimated by Google) 204 are Slave Narratives; autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs written about Africans enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Only one Narrative about an African enslaved in Brazil has been published, that of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua.

Dictated to Irish abolitionist Samuel Moore in Canada in 1854, Baquaqua’s Narrative is the only known Narrative of the approximately 5.5 million Africans brought to Brazil as slaves (4.8 million of whom survived the travel). ( Of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the Trans-Atlantic Trade (12.5 million were traded), approximately 6,000 Slave Narratives, including broadsheets and about 2,500 oral histories have been recorded, according to Marion Wilson’s 1964 dissertation, “The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History.” Baquauqua’s account is thus incredibly unique and valuable, and tragically brief, at just 20 typed pages, and with much commentary by Moore.

Brazil has been as reluctant as the United States in facing it’s dark history; Baquaqua’s Narrative was published in Portuguese (Brazil’s official language) for the first time at the end of 2015. The country has only mandated the teaching of Black History in schools since 2003.

There is no national mandate for teaching Black History in the United States. Only seven of 50 states have mandated Black History education in public schools. (King, LJ “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society” Social Education, 2017, National Council for the Social Studies). More embarrassingly, in 2014, the Teaching Tolerance project by the Southern Poverty Law Center graded 20 states as “failing” in their education standards for the civil rights era, and in five states civil rights education was completely absent. Of the 388,000 Africans traded to the US approximately 150 Narratives have been published.

Baquaqua’s Narrative depicts an Africa in which slavery is fairly common place between peoples of varying origin- slavery was used as a punishment for those who broke the rules of the kings of the lands they were living in. Prisoners of war also became slaves, and were often ransomed to their families, if they were of sufficient means. The treatment/status of those enslaved within Africa as described by Baquaqua was comparatively highly preferable to what he experienced in Brazil. The enslaved in Africa could one day be the master, and the master become enslaved, depending on which side won that day. This was not true in Brazil, where the enslaved had no chance of gaining their freedom.

After having been betrayed by his own people and sold into slavery to a rival army (a not uncommon practice), Baquaqua was sold to an African trader whose business it was to sell enslaved persons far from the individual’s home. Baquaqua was bought and sold several times as he was marched through Africa, finally to be placed in the hold of a slave ship. Before he was shipped by river to be sold to a slave ship bound for Brazil, Baquaqua fell into despair, “When we arrived here I began to give up all hopes of ever getting back to my home again…at last, hope gave way; the last ray seemed fading away and my heart felt sad and weary within me, as I thought of my home, my mother.”

In his narrative, Baquaqua seeks to educate those whom he sees as ignorant to the obvious fact of the humanity of the enslaved African. He is at times imploring, “Some persons suppose that the African has none of the finer feelings of humanity within his breast, and that the milk of human kindness runs not through his composition; this is an error, an error of the grossest kind; …the same impulses drive them to action, the same feelings of love move within their bosom the same maternal and paternal affections are there, the same hopes and fears, griefs and joys, indeed all is there as in the rest of mankind; the only difference is their color, and that has been arranged by him who made the world and all that therein is… therefore why should any despise the works of his hands which has been made and fashioned according to his Almighty power, in the plentitude of his goodness and mercy.” At other times his incredulity and sarcasm comes through, “Oh! friends of humanity, pity the poor African, who has been trepanned and sold away from friends and home, and consigned to the hold of a slave ship, to await even more horrors and miseries in a distant land, amongst the religious and benevolent.”

Baquaqua converted to Christianity in Haiti, after gaining freedom in New York where abolitionists forced the courts to interview the enslaved on trade ships harbored. He traveled to Canada when Haiti began drafting for militia. He dictated his memoirs, and looked to the future of humanity through the lens of his new, cherished faith, “Oh! Christianity thou soother of man’s sufferings, thou guide to the blind, and strength to the weak, go thou on thy mission, speak the peaceful tidings of salvation all around and make glad the heart of man, ‘then shall the wilderness be glad and blossom as the rose.’ Then will slavery with all its horrors ultimately come to an end, for none possessing thy power and under thy influence can perpetuate a calling so utterly at variance with, and repugnant to all thy doctrines.”