Dear Ossie Davis

Dear Ossie Davis

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Throughout your life, you have been careful to watch the company you keep. So watchful, that the company you left behind included Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, and Alan Alda who referred to you as a Black prince.

You surrounded yourself with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Bill Clinton who asked to sit in the back at your funeral out of respect for your work during the civil rights movement.

He even boasted, “I would proudly ride [in] the back of Ossie Davis’ bus any day.” Over time, they were privy to the multiple dimensions of your craft, which is to use entertainment as rebellion towards oppression.

Before you were known as Ossie, you were born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell Georgia on December 18, 1917. As the oldest of five children, your dad, a railroad engineer, and mom nicknamed you Ossie due to your mother’s pronunciation of your initials, R.C. After three years at Howard University in Washington D.C., you left to pursue your calling from the performing arts world.

However, in 1942, the United States entered World War II, and you answered another call by enlisting in the army. In your four years of service, you continued entertaining by writing and acting in shows for the troops until you were honorably discharged. During your short run in the Broadway debut, Jeb, you found yourself in good company once again when you met your future wife Ruby Dee.

From the 1950s through the 1960s you held a solid television and film career which eventually blossomed into writing the Broadway musical, Purlie Victorious. While many actors are content with steady acting roles, you were eager for much more.

Hand in hand with Ruby, you were both masters of ceremonies during the 1963 March on Washington. You helped to raise money for the Freedom Riders when its members were arrested for violating segregation laws, and later wrestled with the federal court to ensure voting rights for African Americans.

You chose to go beyond the common expectation of just witnessing history. Instead, you were an active participant, advocating for the type of change from which future generations would benefit.

Mr. Davis, you added directing and producing to your resume in the 1970s and started the production company, Third World Cinema, to assist fresh talent from the African American and Puerto Rican filmmaking community.

ossie

In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, young audiences got a glimpse of your raw talent and ability to bring characters to life from opposite ends of the spectrum. Though you received numerous awards such as the National Medal of Arts, the 2000 Screen Actors Guild and Life Achievement Award, I suspect the 50th anniversary of your marriage to your equally-talented wife was one of the most rewarding accomplishments. I also suspect that your death of natural causes at 87 left an overwhelming emptiness in Ruby that echoes in the hearts of the African-American community, whose members considered your relationship an impressive example of Black love.

You worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral because you were a part of a movement whose impact we are still feeling today.

You were a change agent who inspired a nation of freedom riders, and with sincerest gratitude, 

THANK YOU!

 

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As a reading specialist and language arts teacher, Melissa Harris has witnessed the power in picture books when creating life-long readers. Her diverse background has allowed her to relate to middle school students in Elgin, Illinois where she has great fun writing stories for her daughter Madeline and eighth graders. She hopes to expand her audience and capture a piece of them in one of the stories she writes.