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Ruby Dee: An Actress Who Marched On Washington And Onto The Screen

Jun 12, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 6:01 am

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in the early 1920s in Cleveland, actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee most identified with the part of New York City where she was raised.

"I don't know who I would be if I weren't this child from Harlem, this woman from Harlem. It's in me so deep," Dee told NPR's Tell Me More in 2007.

She died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She was 91.

Dee, who took the surname of her first husband, blues singer Frankie Dee, grew up in Harlem's rich cultural neighborhood, writing poetry. Over the years she would become a playwright, screenwriter, journalist and one of the most prominent actresses of her time, known for her roles in the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun and the 2007 film American Gangster, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.

Dee told NPR that as a child, she didn't know any black screen idols.

"It occurred to me that I was not white," she said. "It occurred to me that being what they call 'colored,' being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage."

But that didn't stop her. While studying at Hunter College, Dee joined the American Negro Theater. That's where she met Sidney Poitier; they starred in five films together, including A Raisin in the Sun, in which she played a suffering housewife in the projects.

It was during her time at the American Negro Theater that she also met Ossie Davis, the man who would become her husband.

She and Davis would become lifelong partners on screen and off. During the civil rights era in the 1960s, they marched for the rights of African-Americans, alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Both were emcees for the March on Washington in 1963 and were associated with nearly every civil rights group, from the NAACP to the Black Panthers.

"I never thought about myself as an activist when we were coming along," she said. "I love the people I love. I didn't care whether they could be a Democrat, Republican, communist ... anything but a racist."

Kenny Leon, who directed a revival of A Raisin in the Sun 10 years ago, says Dee and Davis inspired generations of actors and activists.

"A lot of us stand on the shoulders of her and Ossie Davis," Leon tells NPR, adding that Dee was "never didactic; art by its very nature is political, and that was the lesson she gave us."

Leon says Dee always brought herself to her characters, "which also gave it edge, gave it heart, and gave it a realness and a truthfulness that could not be denied."

Director Spike Lee was so inspired by the art and activism of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that he cast them both in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing and his 1991 film Jungle Fever.

On Instagram, Lee posted this tribute to Dee:

"I know Ruby has already been embraced in a warm loving hug from her life partner of 57 years: Mr. Ossie Davis. It has been one of my great blessings in life to work with two of the finest artists and activists. Ruby and Ossie were in the battlefields with Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Ruby And Ossie served as a living example that one could be an artist and an activist, too; That one could be an artist and still deal with what it means to be a Black woman and a Black man in these United States."

During her lifetime, Ruby Dee won a Grammy, an Emmy and also received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She told NPR how she herself would like to be remembered: "In those little flashes of moments ... that pick us up from some moments of despair."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

She was the epitome of grace and fearlessness onstage, on the screen and in her activism. Ruby Dee has died at the age of 91. She was at her home in New Rochelle, New York, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this remembrance.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: She was born Ruby Ann Wallace in the early 1920s in Cleveland, Ohio. But she most identified with the part of New York City where she was raised, as she told NPR's Tell Me More in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RUBY DEE: I don't know who I would be if I weren't this child from Harlem. It's in me so deep.

DEL BARCO: Dee grew up in Harlem's richly cultural neighborhood writing poetry, and over the years she would become a playwright, screenwriter and journalist but also one of the most prominent actresses of her time. She told NPR that as a child, she didn't know any screen idols who were black.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEE: It occurred to me that being what they call colored, being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage.

DEL BARCO: But that didn't stop her. When she was studying at Hunter College, Dee joined the American Negro Theater. That's where she met Sidney Poitier. They ended up costarring in five films, including "A Raisin In The Sun." She played a suffering housewife in the projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

DEE: (As Beneatha Younger) I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) That is just what is wrong with the colored women in this world - don't understand about building their men up, making them feel like they're somebody, like they can do something.

DEE: (As Beneatha Younger) There are colored men who do things.

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) No thanks to the colored woman.

DEE: (As Beneatha Younger) Well, being a colored woman, I guess I can't help myself none.

DEL BARCO: It was during her time with the American Negro Theater she also met the man who would become her husband. She and Ossie Davis would become lifelong partners on-screen and off. During the civil rights era in the 1960s, they marched for the rights of African-Americans alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Both were emcees for the 1963 March on Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEE: In all honesty, I never thought about myself as an activist when we were coming along. You know, I love the people I love. I didn't care. They could be Democrat, Republican, Communist, you know - anything but a racist, you know.

DEL BARCO: Kenny Leon directed a revival of the play "A Raisin In The Sun" 10 years ago. He says Dee and Davis inspired generations of activists and activists.

KENNY LEON: A lot of us stand on the shoulders of her and Dr. David. Art, by its very nature is political, and that was a lesson she gave us. So she always brought herself to the character, which also gave it edge, gave it heart and gave it a realness and a truthfulness that could not be denied.

DEL BARCO: Director Spike Lee was so inspired by the art and activism of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that he cast both of them in his 1989 film "Do The Right Thing."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

OSSIE DAVIS: (As Da Mayor) When I ever done to you?

DEE: (As Mother Sister) You a drunk fool.

DAVIS: (As Da Mayor) Besides that.

DEL BARCO: Spike Lee used the two again for his film "Jungle Fever." In 2007, Dee was nominated for an Oscar for her role alongside Denzel Washington in "American Gangster."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN GANGSTER")

DEE: (As Mama Lucas) I never asked you where all this come from because I didn't want to hear you lie to me.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Because I didn't want you to worry about it. Now, come on. I got to go.

DEE: (As Mama Lucas) Please, don't lie to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

DEL BARCO: During her lifetime, Ruby Dee won a Grammy, an Emmy and also received the National Medal of Arts and The Kennedy Center Honors. She told NPR how she herself would like to be remembered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEE: If I could be - somebody could think of me and feel encouraged, I'd like to be remembered. It's in those little flashes of moments, I think, that we remember each other that pick us up from some moments of despair. But that's how I'd like to be remembered, in the recollection to make the moment more bearable, if not enjoyable.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.