This is Guy Davis’ first Mother’s Day without Ruby Dee.
In June the award-winning, actor, author, poet, activist and half of a beloved Hollywood power couple joined her husband, Ossie Davis, who died in 2005.
“The world knows them as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee,” Davis told me. “I knew them as mom and dad and that’s how they raised me.”
I met Davis, a multi-instrumentalist-blues artist, when he performed at the Dakota as part of the “American Roots Revue” produced by Larry Long, the Twin Cities-based singer, songwriter and activist. Davis’ next Minnesota appearance is scheduled for June 6 at Grand Marais’ Arrowhead Center for the Arts.
We shot my startribune.com/video interview in Minneapolis on March 7, the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day Civil Rights activists were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the first time protesters tried to walk from Selma to Montgomery in a quest for voting rights. Fortunately, Davis and Dee were not in Alabama for this tragic chapter in American history, but they internalized the lessons of those times, educated and shielded their children for better days.
Davis said he felt a sense of isolation as his parents were determined to give him best of everything, including “a white man’s education.” He recalls how his mother provided a firm hand that his smart mouth sorely needed. Ruby Dee had the swift hands of a boxer, something Davis laughs about now. Dee’s quickness was very much on display in a scene she had with a certain “American Gangster” heartthrob. It’s a movie clip about which Davis had an amusing observation.
Long before Dee died, Davis was able to fully appreciate the intellect and patience of his mother. When we talked it was as if he we reciting a love letter to her. As a result of being the father of a now 20-something musician, Davis has become even more astounded by what his mother and father tolerated into his 20s.
Davis now knows that Karma is as real as the love of his mother.
Q: What have been the special burdens you’ve had as a result of who your parents were?
A: I had to be a little quieter, sit a little straighter, act a little more civilized and I didn’t want to; I wanted to play in the dirt and the mud, stuff like that,[laugh] like all the other kids. Understand that having noted parents and having what they called “a white man’s education” in the middle of a black community, though it is for the ultimate good, it can be isolating. While not alone in that, in Native American culture and Australian Aboriginal culture there was a time when young folks were spirited away from their own communities to be brought up with a Christian education that cut their hair short and re-established their identity. They would come home and feel isolated, too. My isolation as far as having those parents is minor. This something Guy had to go through.
Q: Did you have a rebellious phase as a teenager?
A: Oh my gosh, I thought I invented the word. Rebellious phase when I was a teenager and beyond, into the 20s. Oh, Lord I got so smart at the mouth. I don’t think my rebellious phase was any deeper or more than the next young man’s, but there’s a time and place to be rebellious and when you’re a young man full of testosterone, talking a certain way in front of your mother is not the time or the place. Mom had hands faster than Bruce Lee. And she didn’t take nothing off no smart-mouth teenage boy. She’d come upside my head so fast that my knees were already buckling by the time I realized I’d been hit. My knees are sinking, “May Day, I’ve been hit. I’m going down!” I don’t think any of those hits came without me deserving it. Rebellious phase, it’s got to be had. I mean, young men have to find a way to do that, and young women, too. But in this world we’re living more informed and as parents, which I am now, you find a way to give your child a little latitude and a little space to do that and a little oversight. In the old days we lived in the neighborhood and so my child was your child and if I couldn’t reach ‘em you swatted ‘em. So I ran afoul of that even before the rebellious stage. I was in the stupid stage then. But the rebellious phase, yeah, I went through plenty of that.
Q: So when your Mother went upside Denzel Washington’s head in “American Gangster” she’d had a little practice?
A: Aw, man he got NOTHING! I was the one who got practiced on. Denzel, aw man, that was a little actor slap, a love tap. But I’ll bet Denzel didn’t see that slap coming either in the film. I could see his face like, “Where’d that come from?” That man’s [Washington’s character] armed with a gun. It shook him for a moment [Davis laughed as he shook his hand as though shaking off punch];had to remember himself.
Q: At what age did you stop being afraid of her, I ask as someone who didn’t stop until I was paying my own bills?
A: I can’t say for sure what age. But toward the end of her life, I discovered that I feared her awesome intelligence and wit and ability to love me after all the crazy stuff I’ve done in my life. I feared such a beautiful, intense living human and think I learned that there is a meaning of fear and a time and place of fear that is the right time and place. You have to learn that respect and once you learn that respect then everything opens up and you become more and more aware of love and the expanse of the energy she gave me so I could be alive today.
Q: As we sit here on this 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, I wonder how many times you met Martin Luther King?
A: I never met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I met his dad. I met his widow, Coretta. I met his eldest son, Martin, and I met Yolanda, Yoki back when she was a freshman in New York City and I went to see her in a play. So quietly we had been friends over the years. I was on the road playing music and came home from overseas and found out that she died. It upset me more than I thought it would. … When I met Daddy King, he came over one Sunday afternoon to my grandmother’s house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and we assembled there having a meal, which included greens and all the things my grandma from Georgia made. Daddy King, unbeknownst to us, was guest preaching at the Baptist church in town that day. Somebody informed him that my grandmomma made the best greens, so he shows up at our door. Knocked on the door and asked if he could have some greens.[Laugh] I said, “Well, if that don’t beat it all. Go ahead, Daddy King.” So no, I never did get to meet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I did get to meet Malcolm X when I was a very little boy. I remember reaching up what felt like an eternity to catch his hand so I could shake it. ‘Cause I was that little and he was that tall [Laugh].
Q: Speaking loudly and clearly, tell me two things you know for sure?
A: One thing I now for sure I’ve heard paraphrased many times. I had an uncle named Kenneth, my dad’s brother, who in some way helped me to understand my own father better. He said to me, “And this too shall pass,” meaning all things change no matter how much the same they seem to be, year after year. All things, all conditions change. I have discovered it in terms of this day we are celebrating, 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march. Those who perpetrated the hurt, the harm, wielded the clubs, the fire hoses, who drew the blood, I don’t think were necessarily born that way. I think that is what they were taught by those whose descendants they were. And I’m going to say the general spirit of Dr. King was that when you repay harm with kindness, you might be opening a person’s heart to an understanding they did not have before you gave them that grace of your understanding. This is not a law for all situations, because sometimes there is clear and present danger that cannot be avoided. Another thing I know and this is after becoming a father. Karma is real. Remember when I was talking about saying silly teenage things to my mother? Well, that included my dad and sometimes I said silly teenage things even when I was in my 20s. That’s how dumb I could be on occasion. I was beholden to Father and Mother as a son. Now, I’ve got a son. He’s a young 24 years old. So he’s got that sort of continuing teenage thing happening, too. Oh, holy Lord, Mother of God. Whatever I did that may have, let’s just say, annoyed in any way my parents, well, I have discovered it goes through the generations and comes back at you. I’m getting a chance to see the same phenomenon from two sides: the side of being a son and the side of being a parent. Karma is real and all things must change.
Q: So you are saying, your son knows how to work, if I can borrow the title of your mother’s book, your “One Good Nerve”?
A: On occasion. I have to look at it philosophically. Virtually ever parent in this country is discovering the same thing. So it’s not something I should seek to change as much as I should seek to expand his consciousness and my own as best I can.
Q: Is your son a musician, too?
A: It turns out, yes, he is. He is a musician, young man is going to film school so there is art in him. He does a great deal of writing, he reminds me of his grandfather, my father. I would come home and see my father at 5 o’clock in the morning — I guess I would be slipping in the door — he’d be at the dining room table with his bathrobe on, his pajamas, slippers. He’d have two yellow legal pads on the table, an oatmeal canister, chopped down with pencils in it, erasers — that was his word processor. And he’d have a piece of Scotch tape wrapped around his pinkie knuckle, to keep from [smearing] the graphite as he wrote. There was an important lesson to learn from seeing him there so very often, because I wasn’t often awake at 5 in the morning, [unless] tiptoeing in. Dad never made a lecture out of it but he let me know that talent is a mighty fine thing, and you are blessed if you have it. But craft, when you take that talent and turn it into something, means practicing, working at it whether you feel like it or not. If it was 50 pages that he wrote, 50 pages that got scrapped just so he could get to the 51st page, then that’s what it’s about. I have found this out by looking at what I do in the same way: I have to work at it. I’ve got to practice it. You’ve got to work like the devil, no freebies.
Q: How did you choose music or did it choose you? VIDEO/ PERFORMANCE
A: Ooooo, you sneaked up on me there. Trying to ask me questions with my own answers.[Laughter] The music that I heard, and I’ll start by saying the blues, but all music, I felt was already inside of me in some kind of way. Hearing it was reminding me that it’s there and in a way unlocking it from whatever I had around it. It’s some of both. Yes, I chose it but I didn’t have to, I could have ignored or pushed that thing, the closeness to music, away from myself. The music in its own way did choose me. What I’ve heard; it’s beautiful and oftentimes wordless but it opens something inside of you. It’s like breath, it opens you. My talent and hopefully skill now, allow me to share that and to expand it outward to others, filled with the knowledge that though I have given birth to a song, in a way it’s not mine.
Q: Do I intuit that you got along better with your mom than your dad?
A: I would say the reverse. That has to do with personality and things. Me being a boy and thinking my mother is prying. None of it’s the case but I was able to relate a little more closely and easily to my dad, in that I think he had an intuitive understanding of what boys are all about in the process of becoming men. Now my mother, a bright person, grew up in a household were there was violence, there were beatings and her older brother was, she thought, treated badly. Their father was a pounder and he really jumped on my uncle Tommy, her brother. I think my mom by habit sometimes challenged me in ways that came out of recollections of things from her childhood; things that weren’t healthy or helpful and sometimes that sort of gleened into my upbringing. It was never done to me in a harmful way, but I felt like I was intruded on, I needed my privacy, like any boy needs. My [mom’s] greatest talent had to do with cutting to the truth, getting to the bone and laying it out there, the way she was on stage. When she was on stage she laid it out, it wasn’t about shuffling around. Oh, So-and-so is feeling all fluffy today, so I’ll go around him this way. Naw, she cut right through that stuff. If I was in my fluffy mode, well, maybe I’d better change modes. Yeah, dad was a little easier to get along with day to day. But I LOVED THEM BOTH, wholly and equally. I needed both, ’cause dad let me get away with too much sometimes. [Covering his lips with his index finger, in a keep this quiet gesture.]
Q: What about the year that your parents canceled Christmas?
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That year not only had the President of the United States been murdered, in front of everybody, a president who promised a progressive new beginning for America, but there were four little girls in a church in Alabama that was bombed. My parents were so heartbroken by this. And before that broken by the death of Medgar Evers. My parents decided our way of celebrating was not going to be to get this little Christmas tree and decorations and get piles of things and toys. It was going to have to be something meaningful. Christmas in the sense of giving to humanity was not canceled but the commercial aspect of Christmas that just had to do with money and consumerism, those were let go of that year. I think we might have taken a branch from a tree with some pine cones and laid that as a centerpiece on the table. Christmas was forever changed. It didn’t look like the Christmases I had before. We had to grow up that year.
Q: What social ills would you eradicate if you could?
A: Homelessness. I know that’s an easy one. But I have performed at homeless shelters for women and children and that’s … that’s too much and to have these CEOs pulling down ridiculous amounts of money and have such poverty here in the greatest economic force in the world. You know if I had that power I would be assassinated the next day, ’cause what I said sounds a lot like socialism. Maybe I’m not entirely in favor of socialism, but there has got better a balance. Companies are getting economically more healthy but what about the employees? Is the economy here to serve us or are we here to serve the economy? The economy is supposed to be here to serve us, to educate us.
Q: I’ve always wondered, was Ossie your daddy’s given name or a nickname?
A: He was not born into that name, until it stuck and became his legal name. His real name was Raeford [spelling unknown] Chatman shortened to RC. Down there RC comes out Ossie. I have an uncle KC, Kenneth Curtis. There was a sister name Essie, I don’t know if that was shortened from anything. One of the first African-American heads of the Veterans Administration
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch FOX 9 “Buzz.”