December 18, 1917-February 4, 2005
I have not been present at many events in my lifetime, events of great magnitute, that I imagine I will be able to recount (god willing) to my descendants. I suppose I should be able to testify to four years at a historically black women’s college. I hope to herald the nurturers, the inventive intellects, the fearless activists, the autonomous black women of Spelman and their life affirming legacy. Their strength of spirit is one seldom seen elsewhere. But when driven to recall a single event, a transformative moment in time, freedom times, I fear that I will be at a great loss.
TV, sexy, seductive and insidious as it is, might paint my spirit’s conundrum more vividly. A painting that we as African Americans used to hang in our battered but hardly heavy hearts hung in Clair and Cliff Huxtable’s home for 8 memorable years. Ellis Wilson’s “The Funeral Procession”, as familiar to fans of The Cosby Show as the colorful ‘Cosby’ sweaters that clothed the fictional patriarch each episode graced the far wall bearing down on the assemblage of the supremely talented black artists who tread through the elegantly appointed parlor. One such episode found the family in their lived-in room reflecting black. Cliff and Clair’s parents with Rudy, Vanessa, Theo, Denise and Sondra looking on, told of a March on Washington. They told the story of putting down posessions, skipping out on work, putting on sunday’s best and assembling on the capitol steps. I imagine they love to tell the story. I would not be so foolish as to wish I could have experienced segregation, but I would love to tell the story of community, resistance, of integrity, of black beauty, of goodness, and most of all Godliness.
There was a man, a regal man, “a shining black prince” of the same rare earthen composition as his dear red bone revolutionary El Hajj Malik El Shabazz who served as one of the Masters of Ceremony for that great day in a morning with his equally grand wife, an equally accomplished actor and activist. Raiford Chatman Davis better known as Ossie was that man; Ruby Dee his divinely ordained mate. That great man loved to tell stories who dreamed of writing above and beyond performing, wrote as brilliantly as he spoke and performed perfection.
As I crawled around the periphery of Riverside Church this frigid morning with thousands of homegoing well wishers, huddles together for warmth I bantered with two beautiful black women, elders and a black man. The man, a Howard alumnus, classically trained musician, and educator refuted the existence of Rock and maligned Rap. Rock was far less than genre. Rap was little more than rubbish. We got at it. I spoke in relatives. He spoke in absolutes. I tried to bridge the generation gap. Some salt and peppered men echoed his condemnation of hip hop, of Foxy’s, Jay-Z’s and Kims. We stood apart but when I found myself in an overflow room I saved them seats. I would love to tell the story of intergenerational communication of unjadedness. We stood apart in ideas but together in mourning of a foregone moment, of black communities with a long gone connectedness although just as much disagreement. It was the communal concern that we lacked and that I mourned. Because I would love to tell the story of Ossie’s time, though I know it was painful, maybe that’s why a quarter into the service I snuck from the overflow room into the full balcony to find an open seat but not without my slow moving elders for whom I finagled seats as well. I wouldn’t have felt right up there by myself.
I cried and I cried at the ceremony. I cried for Ossie Davis. I cried for his seemingly barren legacy. I cried for the end of an era. I cried for myself. I cried for I have few communal stories to tell. Oh, how I’d love to tell the story.
I cried for black families oppositional of Ossie and Ruby’s unconditional love and responsibility. I cried for myself. I am not a crier but I cried and I imagine I will cry in fear of the end of a generation that defines blackness to me. If they leave, what will happen to me? What will happen to us? What if they have already left?
I will not join the funeral procession of blackness, black people, black liberation which is women’s liberation, which is universal equality as exemplified by Ella Baker and Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and A. Philip Randolph. I will remember Ossie’s life. I must. His living would be in vain and that of every bone black ancestor if I did not live my life with the ultimate integrity.
I send my love to Ossie’s spirit, immortal and blessed, swirling through the universe. I bring greetings and I extend my thanks: Thank you Ossie for the gift!
by Jalylah Burrell
“He belongs to us. He exists in us. We can be more, Everyday we can be more because Ossie Davis existed and belonged to us.” Maya Angelou, 2/12/2005
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