I say and say again: actors give breath and life to the words of poets, playwrights, and screen writers. Ruby Dee, a great American actor, has died. We will miss her because the breath she breathed into words contained our own hopes, dreams, fears, anger, and love. Ruby Dee was great because her art was not for its own sake; it was for the sake of humanity becoming both more human and more divine.
Her long career started in the 1940s when opportunities for African-American women to play more than a servant were few and far between. In the 1960s she played Cordelia in King Lear and Kate in Taming of the Shrew. She became the first African-American woman to play major roles in the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.
One of her most memorable roles was as Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Ruby Dee played the role in 1959 on stage and again in 1961 in the film version. She continued her long career on stage, screen, and television well into her elder years. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as the mother of a drug smuggler in the 2007 film American Gangster.
Apart from her work as an actress, Ruby Dee was also important for her work for social justice. She, along with her husband actor Ossie Davis, was active in the civil and human rights struggle. She and her husband hosted a portion of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and with Malcolm X. Beyond that they were friends with the poets of the Black Arts Movement who wrote of the resistance, persistence, and determination of African-Americans and others who were determined to be free. They breathed breath into jazz, blues, rhythm and blues words insisting upon radical love and more justice. Always more justice.
When she entered into a role, she became us. As Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun, she speaks of her hopes for a brighter future and of her willingness to work hard for it, voicing a universal truth that millions of women of all colors and nationalities know. Toward the end of her life, she plays a grandmother who has raised her two adult granddaughters in the 2011 movie Video Girl. She becomes all of the grandmothers who have shouldered this burden. She becomes every parent who wants their child to make good decisions. When a young man who has brought violence to her family enters her home, she turns from a loving grandmother into a woman possessed with pain and grief who would take him apart with her bare hands if she could.
Later, toward the end of the movie, when her granddaughter who has made a series of bad decisions returns home, she hugs her with a hug that banishes shame and blesses both the fictional character and the viewer with the salvation of unconditional love. Ruby Dee has gone to join the ancestors, but she will be with us as long as her filmed performances survive.
We have lost great souls in the past few weeks – Vincent Harding, Maya Angelou, Casey Kasem and Ruby Dee. Their passing causes us to pause and to honor their lives, remember their sayings, and to give gratitude for their contributions to humanity. They remind us of our own moral obligations to the world. In her poem When Great Trees Fall, Maya Angelou reminds us that when great souls die, the space they leave is filled with “a kind of soothing electric vibration.” Our senses tell us:
“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
Better. For they existed.”
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.