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A Remembrance to Ossie Davis

February 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: At the outset of Black History Month, Ossie Davis died. And his death recalled one of the reasons the life of Africa America matters to African Americans and to everyone else.

Ossie Davis was a first-rate actor and a first-rate man. Obituaries called him an “artist/activist,” someone who works for social justice while creating works that please the senses and move the heart. It is to say Davis embodied both the beauty and the struggle.

Harry Belafonte, his old friend, has done the same thing. So has novelist Toni Morrison, essayist Gayle Pemberton, dancer Judith Jamison, Ray Charles, and in his movie portrayal of Charles, Jamie Foxx.

Ordinarily, it’s a bad idea to mix art and message. The message tends to overwhelm the art; the art, more diffuse and forgiving, tends to drown out the message. But in much of the work of African Americans, art and message ride successfully together, to the enhancement of each other.

Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” is a despairing song of protest. Slaves sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a camouflaged prayer for freedom. Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” all equally were novels and outcries against prejudice and mistreatment.

The comedy of Richard Prior, Dick Gregory, Chris Rock, just the same. Take Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” whose message centers on the helplessness of the country, black and white, in the face of deep, historical irrational hatreds that flow into the republic like poisoned rivers and never seem to end.

MAN: Fight the power…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Of this dire situation, which has shadowed the country since before it began, Lee made a work of art. And in it he put Ossie Davis, the artist/activist, who played a boozy yet noble old swain as he courted his distant and disdainful Ruby Dee.

ACTOR: There is nothing like the smell of fresh flowers, don’t you agree, Mother Sister? Summertime, all you can smell is the garbage. The smell overpowers everything, especially the soft, sweet smell of flowers.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The rest of the movie was a kettle heating to boil over with violence in a nation as yet unable to do the right thing, and yet heightened, artistically and thematically, by the attempt.

Through our long, long winding story moved Ossie Davis– gifted, just, good-hearted Ossie Davis, who embodied the beauty and the struggle for us all. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.