I had planned that the new format for In The Spirit would be the endnote, the last page of the magazine-until I had this conversation with Ruby Dee. She offered so much wisdom and intelligence, has too much grace and style to contain on a single page. So this month and moving forward, these pages in the heart of the magazine are the new home for In The Spirit.
I have adored and admired Ruby Dee for decades and felt passionate about beginning my new monthly wisdom conversations with her. Ruby Dee’s life has been a treasure trove of experience: as a gifted, award-winning actress, writer, producer, activist; as mother of three great children and grandmother of seven; as a partner in a 56-year marriage to the phenomenal Ossie Davis, who died last February and was crazy in love with her. Share tender moments with us as Miss Ruby talks about success and difficulty, about long-term love and partnership, and about how deeply she misses her beloved Ossie.
Miss Ruby, you’ve been so courageous and way ahead of your time. You pursued a career that took you away from your family in an era when absolute dedication to the home was demanded and expected of women. How did you find the courage to claim the freedom that most men take for granted but women don’t?
I never really had that freedom and I felt envious of what I thought was the male prerogative. In the beginning of our marriage, Ossie would come home, sit down, kick off his shoes, and read the paper while I struggled with the dinner, the dishes and the babies. I was resentful knowing that he’d get another acting job, be around all these exciting people, and leave me with all the real work. But that resentment faded as we began to work out the details of our marriage. Ossie started pitching in and trying so hard to please me. He became an active husband, and he began to include me more when he got a job. He’d ask if there was a part for me. And when I got a job and he wasn’t working, he’d say, “I’ll stay here and take care of the children.” Sometimes he’d say, “I’ll go with you,” and we’d take the children along. Ossie was marvelous with the children. He’d get up in the middle of the night to bring the babies to me for feedings, he’d wash diapers and take the children out on Sundays to give me a break.
You admit to being plagued by fuzzy thoughts and doubts about your strengths. But still you’ve been a brave explorer and have achieved so much. How do you push through doubt and fear?
The worries and fears about personal lacks are immobilizing and make me dream the dream too long. But the dreams stay in my head, they haunt me, they push me and become a kick to my consciousness, making me act. The Divine Impulse—it’s always safe to follow it. We’ve got to trust it and go wherever it takes us. Especially women. We women have a great function to perform. The world needs us. Feminine sensibilities are not being acknowledged, and we’ve allowed the antipeople to steal the children and are tolerating far too much: the assault on ourselves, the families of the world, permitting war and rape. More women are becoming enraged about these things and I think we’re on the verge of doing something about them.
I see that, too—women creating more humane societies as we discover our wisdom and courage and learn to trust using our feminine powers more fully. Was it difficult for you to cut out the superfluous in order to cultivate the things that you really wanted and that mattered most to you?
Yes. And I haven’t totally succeeded. My constant battle is putting aside time wasters, and I have to watch out for procrastination. Staying on the path of something you’re trying to create has much to do with having confidence in yourself and in your capacity to realize the things you want out of life.
Do you think we have a moral assignment?
Yes. Ossie would speak about this frequently. We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized. I dream of getting prisons off the stock exchange. It is a dastardly crime and an insult to the word democracy to make a commodity of jailing people.
The Dee–Davis union is a way-shower for our community. But no couple can be married for 56 years without rough spots. Did you and Ossie have any hurdles you thought you wouldn’t be able to overcome?
Yes—Ossie’s not wanting anything. I knew that once he had lived outdoors because he couldn’t pay his rent. He was a creature of the earth, and he didn’t worry about things like that, because he felt he was always going to have a place to stay and something to eat. That used to gall me, because I was a worrier. He’d say, “I’ll think about so-and-so when we need money for something, but damned if I’m going to worry about it.” And true enough, something would happen, and we’d always come out of the difficult times.
You had blowups, but did you ever break up?
I threatened to leave him once, and the next day he said to me, “Well, if you ever decide to go and marry somebody else, just tell him to make a space for me, because I’m coming with you.” Ossie always had something funny to say about everything. We had marvelous arguments. I learned that if I stuck to my guns, when I was right he’d come back to me sometimes and improve on my argument to him. We had no unusual salvation from the problems of other couples—we fought about family, money, ruined business, infidelity. We had terrible fights. But there was never anything that happened, no matter how incredible it might seem, that we didn’t forgive each other for or agree to let go. Ossie and I both finally understood that there wasn’t any reason we could come up with to ever leave each other.
In your book With Ossie and Ruby, you both discussed having had what was called an open marriage for a short time during the 1960’s. You allowed each other to have outside lovers. That’s a huge leap for Black folks.
Ossie couldn’t lie. He refused to lie. He felt strongly that extramarital sex didn’t destroy marriages, but that lies and deception did. Of course this was before AIDS and at a time when ideas about sex and marriage were changing rapidly. We both understood that there were absolutely marvelous, beautiful people in the world, that there were temptations to be with them, and that we two weren’t the only ones we’d be attracted to. So we gave ourselves permission to have other partners if we wished to, as long as we were honest, kept it private, and didn’t expose the family to scandal or disease. Ossie prided himself in not being a jealous person. “The most miserable thing,” he would say, “is to love and not trust.” And he was such a loving and giving person. Not just to me and not just in a romantic sense.
How did this period in your marriage end?
It didn’t last long, and when Ossie put an end to it, I was glad it was over. He saw that it could hurt many people and break up families. It’s too dangerous; you could come up on somebody you can’t let go of. We saw that what you treasure most could be lost. And Ossie and I had matured. We began to understand that it is possible to be married to one person and be faithful to that person all your life, and that in a marriage loyalty and fidelity and trust cannot be compromised.
If there is anything I could ask forgiveness for, it is this.
What do you think Ossie would say to brothers today about infidelity?
I think he’d say that no matter what you may feel for someone outside your marriage, he realized that you can’t mess up your family, you can’t mess around with love because there are serious consequences. There really is no such thing as an innocent affair. Preserving the family means everything to our community now. One of Ossie’s sayings was, “You can rise no higher than where you have your feet planted in the community.”
At this tender time, what would you say it was that made the fullness and longevity of your relationship with Ossie possible?
The fact that we worked together, thought a lot alike, and came from the same background. Ossie, his soil was the South, in Waycross, Georgia; mine was the North, in Harlem. But we both came from like soil in different places. And we both loved words and ideas. Some of our best times were just talking to each other, and as we got older, we talked about everything. There was nothing we couldn’t tell each other, nothing too private for us to share.
What advice would you give to us sisters and brothers that will help us walk the long road together?
Get to know each other as human beings. Black women have to know the historical and everyday struggles of Black men, and our men have to know the struggles of Black women in America. Even before I knew Ossie, even before we fell in love, I knew the man, because I knew the situation of Black people. You have to help each other know who you are. You have to sanction each other’s gifts and encourage each other. “I want you to be the best you were put here on this earth to be, even if it costs me,” Ossie would say, and he lived it. He told me on so many occasions, “I love you means I want you to be the best you can be, whether it benefits me or not.”
How does it feel to have loved so deeply for so long and to have been loved so deeply in return?
I have an incredible feeling of thanksgiving. When I feel like complaining, I remember how blessed I am to have been married to Ossie. I miss him incredibly, especially in the mornings. He would get up early and read the papers and discuss it all with me over breakfast. At night he’d wait for me to come to bed and sometimes I’d be messing around, doing this and that, and by the time I got to bed, he’d be asleep. I’m so sorry I didn’t hurry up. We just loved being together. When I wasn’t working, I started going to work with him. I’d visit the set, and it was great being in hotels together. It was like our little honeymoon.
Did you know he was leaving?
I knew because I could see him wasting away. He had a pacemaker and only one kidney, and his breathing was being affected. I think it was his heart. I do miss him so, I can’t tell you. I still have him upstairs; Ossie was cremated. He just wanted an urn big enough for both of us.
What will you have inscribed on the urn?
“We’re in this thing together.” Ossie made that up.