With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together

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This is the captivating, inspiring autobiography of a star couple who've celebrated 50 years of marriage.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are legendary stars of the American stage, television, and film, a beloved and revered couple cherished not just for their acting artistry but also for their lifelong commitment to civil rights, family values, and the black community. Now they look back on a half- century of their personal and political struggles to maintain a healthy marriage and to...

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Overview

This is the captivating, inspiring autobiography of a star couple who've celebrated 50 years of marriage.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are legendary stars of the American stage, television, and film, a beloved and revered couple cherished not just for their acting artistry but also for their lifelong commitment to civil rights, family values, and the black community. Now they look back on a half- century of their personal and political struggles to maintain a healthy marriage and to create the record of distinguished accomplishment that earned each a Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

With Ossie and Ruby overflows with consummate storytelling skill developed by decades in the spotlight. From their early years as struggling actors in Harlem's black theater to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, they regale the reader with colorful, entertaining tales of the places they've been and the people they've met. But their charming humor is leavened with a more serious side, as they share their experiences of keeping a family together in a world where scandal and divorce is the rule, and of being artists and political activists in an era of intense racial ferment. Born into the struggle, their characters were shaped by the dynamic collisions of life, politics, and art; and from those experiences, they achieved some sense of their worth as married people, friends, and lovers.

Warm, positive, and compelling, this is a book that will surprise and challenge readers everywhere — black and white, male and female, young and old. Lifting the veil of public image, media hype, and mystique, Ossie and Ruby speak of the real-life dilemmas and rewards of their lifelong search for purpose and value.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are legendary stars of the American stage, television, and film, a beloved and revered couple cherished not just for their acting artistry but also for their lifelong commitment to civil rights, family values, and the black community. Now they look back on a half- century of their personal and political struggles to maintain a healthy marriage and to create the record of distinguished accomplishment that earned each a Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

With Ossie and Ruby overflows with consummate storytelling skill developed by decades in the spotlight. From their early years as struggling actors in Harlem's black theater to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, they regale the reader with colorful, entertaining tales of the places they've been and the people they've met. But their charming humor is leavened with a more serious side, as they share their experiences of keeping a family together in a world where scandal and divorce is the rule, and of being artists and political activists in an era of intense racial ferment. Born into the struggle, their characters were shaped by the dynamic collisions of life, politics, and art; and from those experiences, they achieved some sense of their worth as married people, friends, and lovers.

Warm, positive, and compelling, this is a book that will surprise and challenge readers everywhere — black and white, male and female, young and old. Lifting the veil of public image, media hype, and mystique, Ossie and Ruby speak of the real-life dilemmas and rewards of their lifelong search for purpose and value.Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are legendary stars of the American stage, television, and film, a beloved and revered couple cherished not just for their acting artistry but also for their lifelong commitment to civil rights, family values, and the black community. Now they look back on a half- century of their personal and political struggles to maintain a healthy marriage and to create the record of distinguished accomplishment that earned each a Presidential Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

With Ossie and Ruby overflows with consummate storytelling skill developed by decades in the spotlight. From their early years as struggling actors in Harlem's black theater to Broadway and Hollywood stardom, they regale the reader with colorful, entertaining tales of the places they've been and the people they've met. But their charming humor is leavened with a more serious side, as they share their experiences of keeping a family together in a world where scandal and divorce is the rule, and of being artists and political activists in an era of intense racial ferment. Born into the struggle, their characters were shaped by the dynamic collisions of life, politics, and art; and from those experiences, they achieved some sense of their worth as married people, friends, and lovers.

Warm, positive, and compelling, this is a book that will surprise and challenge readers everywhere — black and white, male and female, young and old. Lifting the veil of public image, media hype, and mystique, Ossie and Ruby speak of the real-life dilemmas and rewards of their lifelong search for purpose and value.

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Editorial Reviews

Victor Navansky
This book reads as if Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. . .talked it, in alternating chapters, paragraphs and sometimes sentences. A conversation studded with anecdotes. . .and also some inspiration, wisdom and gossip. —The New York Times Book Review
Beth Johnson
...[T]he pair give testament to the rewards of a lifetime spent honoring commitments.
Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly
In 1998, renowned actors Davis and Dee celebrated 50 years of marriage by penning an engaging memoir of their life together, musing on the theater, the struggle for civil rights and what they considered their most important roles: being parents. Between the book's publication and Davis's death in 2005, the couple recorded this stellar audio version. It's a marvelous blend of readers' theater and classy, old-married style, with Davis and Dee trading off portions of their narrative and sometimes gently correcting each other's version of events. ("It takes two of us to get this story told," Davis chuckles after his wife amends his account of a particularly funny 1950s incident when the two were being pursued backstage by Joseph McCarthy's men, intent on serving the alleged Communist sympathizers with subpoenas.) The book has humor and pathos, pain and nostalgia, all told with Davis's deep, resonant baritone and Dee's fast-as-lightning wit. Most of all, it's a personal walk through the 20th-century African-American experience, with both reflecting on the many luminaries they have known, including Father Divine, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier. Available as a Harper paperback (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In December the co-authors will mark their 50th wedding anniversary, an almost unheard of milestone for two stars of the performing arts this century. Even before their marriage, according to Davis, "we were in love, head over heels, and stuck with each other forever!" Rather than just telling the story of a successful marriage, however, their book (related in alternate voices) provides a panorama of the 20th-century African American experience, or, as they label it, The Struggle. Both socialists and militant battlers for African American rights, Davis and Dee have known, and worked with, such leaders as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. And they haven't shied away from the consequences of taking a public stand: during the flowering of McCarthyism, Dee was called a Communist sympathizer in the press. Still, with refreshing honesty, they steer clear of self-congratulation, as when Davis tells how, as a little boy, in exchange for a few pieces of peanut brittle, he acquiesced as some racist local cops mistreated him. Of course, Dee and Davis also chronicle their careers as pioneers on stage, film and television, from their involvement with New York's African American theater scene during the Depression to their work alongside stars like Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne. From Davis's youth as a "Negro boy surrounded by white hoods, burning crosses, and stories that brought the smell of burning flesh," to Dee's concern for the future of African American theater, this is a compelling read, effectively evoking the challenges and rewards that have attended the authors' roles as black leaders over the past 60 years. Photos not seen by PW. Appendix, index. Agents, Betty McCort and Susan Crawford. (Nov.) FYI: Also out this November is Ruby Dee's My One Good Nerve, a collection of verse based on her one-woman show of that title. (Wiley, $16.95 192p ISBN 0-471-31704-7)
Library Journal
In this memoir, actors Davis and Dee reflect on their struggle to maintain a healthy marriage, relate stories of the places they've been and the people they've met, and share their experiences as Civil Rights activists.
Beth Johnson
...[T]he pair give testament to the rewards of a lifetime spent honoring commitments. -- Entertainment Weekly
Victor Navansky
This book reads as if Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. . .talked it, in alternating chapters, paragraphs and sometimes sentences. A conversation studded with anecdotes. . .and also some inspiration, wisdom and gossip. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688175825
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Ossie Davis illumined America's stage and screen for two generations. He distinguished himself as a writer, actor, director, and narrator. A short list of his film work includes: I'm Not Rappaport, The Client, Grumpy Old Men, and Do the Right Thing. He and his wife Ruby Dee were 1995 recipients of the National Medal of Arts Award. On Feb. 4, 2005 Ossie Davis died at the age of 87.

Not only is Ruby Dee one of the most respected African-American actors of her day, she was also an important part of the civil rights movement. She is probably best known for her role in A Raisin in the Sun, which she performed on both the stage and the screen.

Dee has also written plays, fiction, and a column in New York's Amsterdam News.

Born in Cleveland, she worked initally with the American Negro Theater in Harlem, where she grew up. She is married to the actor and author Ossie Davis.

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Read an Excerpt

I was born to laugh. The midwife who introduced me into existence by slapping my behind expected me to cry. And cry I did. But, knowing me, I probably cried to keep from laughing.

The first child of Kince and Laura Davis, I was born into a world of jokesters, black and white, waiting to tickle my feet. Take, for example, the matter of my first name. I was named after my father's father, Raiford Chatman Davis. (He put twenty-five cents in my fat little hand for the privilege.) In the South, we tend to use initials. So when the clerk at the Clinch County courthouse asked Mama who I was, she said, R. C. Davis." He thought she said, "Ossie Davis," and wrote it down that way. Mama would not have argued with him. The man was white. Mama and I were black, and down in deepest Georgia. So the matter of identification was settled. Ossie it was, and Ossie it is till this very day.

Cogdell, the little town in Georgia where I was born, was home to some four hundred souls, mostly black, who lived under the civic paternity of Alex K. Sessoms, the white man who owned Cogdell and everything in it, including the Waycross and Western, a little railroad that ran twenty-three miles from Cogdell to Waycross. It had one jitney, which had once been a streetcar that seldom carried passengers; a donkey steam engine; some boxcars and some flatcars, most of which carried timber from the swamps and stumps, and sometimes cattle, off to Waycross.

My daddy, who couldn't write his name, helped to build the Waycross and Western. I don't mean that he just labored with picks and shovels, crossties and sledgehammers; Daddy was a self-taught railway and construction engineer. He could build a railroad line fromscratch, which in that day and age was a white man's job. Daddy, of course, was black, but was not afraid and didn't give a damn about the Ku Klux Klan. The bad blood between them was the source of my first adventure.

Daddy had moved the family to Zirkle, Georgia, for a while, to help another white man build a small railroad, which ran right in front of the shack in which we lived. I was but three or four years old, and ran outdoors early one morning to play in the yard. There I found a long, tall stick driven into the ground. The stick was split at the top with a folded sheet of paper stuck in the split. I took the paper into the house and showed it to Mama, who looked at it, and let me look, too. Somebody had drawn a pistol in red ink, firing a stream of red bullets into a big, black heart from which red drops of blood were falling into a coffin. I didn't know what it meant, but Mama did.

"Oh my God, the Ku Klux Klan!"

She called a neighbor to watch me and my baby sister, put on a pretty dress, and stuck the letter and my father's pistol in her bosom. Then she walked out onto the middle of the railroad track — the one my daddy and his crew were building — and started up the road as fast as she could go, to the spot a couple of miles away where Daddy and his men were working.Everybody loved my daddy, Kince Charles Davis. Everybody except the Klan. At least that's what I thought. Daddy was a local legend, the hero of many a story told by black and white folks. It was common knowledge that he had once spent time on the chain gang, for shooting a preacher in Kissimmee, Florida, it was rumored; the preacher, it was said, had made Mama leave the church in the middle of his sermon because I was crying too loud.

My first memory of him was as a presence looming out of the myth and mystery that always surrounded him. Mama was sitting on the floor in the back of a horse and buggy giving me lunch from her breast. Daddy was sitting in the driver's seat next to Grandpa Sam, Mama's father. Cradled in her arms, I was slurping away as the old horse farted along. I remember looking up at my daddy's big broad shoulders spread across the horizon, and knowing, just from that look, that I would never die.

There were stories about Daddy told by the men who worked in his construction gang. There were stories Daddy told of himself, some of which were not quite satisfactory. For example, when we asked why he didn't have a left forefinger, like other people, he'd laugh and tell us that a bullfrog had bitten it off. Some of his men said that he had lost it long ago in a gunfight. Daddy refused to clarify the matter when we pressed. Rather he'd laugh, pick up his guitar, and play a funny tune.The letter in the split stick was to warn him to run for his life. But Daddy didn't run. He was big and strong and easy, and laughter trailed after him like a long, warm scarf in the wintertime. Everybody looked up to him and laughed a lot when he did. Everybody knew that Daddy wasn't scared of anybody, black or white. But when he got angry, a great silence could be heard in his vicinity.

The crew of men, who called him "Chief," built a big fire in the yard and kept watch all night. I was the little, big-eyed boy allowed to stay up with the rest of the men standing guard. Daddy went inside and went to sleep with his pistol on the bed right next to his hand.

The Klan never came. But that was not surprising. A black man with Daddy's skill was a rare and precious commodity to Sessoms and the other big men who ran things. They didn't mind giving him a white man's job as long as they didn't have to give him a white man's pay. It was all right for the Klan to try and run him off, but they didn't dare touch him, not while he worked for Sessoms. Daddy knew that as well as they did.

The job in Zirkle was only temporary, and when it was over, Daddy moved us back to Cogdell. As I remember it, Cogdell was a warm, country world, full of family — Grandpa and Grandma, a whole lot of uncles and aunts, but no cousins yet. I was the first grandchild, a boy, and everyone must have been waiting. They loved me to death.

Cogdell had one country store where the railroad and the dirt road intersected. It had two or three churches for black folks, a lot of woods and paths and gatherings of shanties here and there where the black folks lived. Most everybody, black and white, worked for Alex Sessoms.Sessoms had a scientific bent, and had gone all the way to France to bring back the latest method of distilling the gum from pine trees into turpentine. He also planted acres and acres of sweet potatoes; the leaves from the growing sweet potato vine were fed to his cattle while the potatoes under the ground were left for his Negroes. Cogdell was Sessoms's industrial and agricultural base, but it had no school for black folks. So off I had to go, at the age of five, in search of an education.

Grandpa Sam had moved away from Cogdell after Coot, Mama's Mama, died. He now lived in Waycross with a newly acquired wife, a schoolteacher who had little use for any of Grandpa Sam's children, including Mama. They sent me there. I remember Mama telllng Grandma that she was my mother. Then Grandma took me away.

Grandpa Sam, Mama's father, was a Methodist preacher. I don't remember ever hearing him preach. What I do remember is that he was also a carpenter, and that he called me "Jack," and enjoyed very much showing me how to use his tools.

I remember even less about my grandmother, Martha, or Coot, as they used to call her. My only memory of her places me somewhere along a country road, walking, with her and two of her women friends. They had on long, colorful dresses that covered their high, buttoned shoes. I am told that when she was buried, I was found somewhere close to the graveyard chasing a rabbit. Somehow, even now, I know that I was special to her, that she loved me, and that I returned that love with all my heart.

Cogdell of course, has vanished; it is no more, gone with the wind carrying down with it all the small things that made it seem that someday it might be a city as big and as important as Homerville, including the cemetery. Nobody knows now where Coot lies buried, not even Mama. Her resting place is grown over now with grass and brush and trees, as so many southern black cemeteries are, when a city gives up the ghost and the people who inhabited it move on. I certainly wish I knew where to find her grave. But I don't.

Still, wherever she is, I hope the spot is quiet and peaceful, with some sense of respect for the love, suffering, and sacrifice that must have filled her bosom. I hope she knows that her first grandchild would like to know her again, now that he has come to some understanding of who you really are, Coot. You and Daddy's Mama, deep people of the shadows, were the backbone of the black man's survival and existence. No one yet has chronicled the peculiar woman's price you paid that kept us all alive. Coot, wherever you are and wherever lie your remains, you are still very much a part of the family.

Copyright ) 1998 by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

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Table of Contents

Prologue xiii
PART ONE Before We Met
CHAPTER 1 Ruby Is Born at Seven 3
CHAPTER 2 Ossie Is Still a Mistake 7
CHAPTER 3 Under One Roof 12
CHAPTER 4 The Waycross Years 20
CHAPTER 5 From the Fire Escape 30
CHAPTER 6 Center High School and Valdosta, 1930-1934 41
CHAPTER 7 Ruby's Harlem 56
CHAPTER 8 The Howard Years, 1935-1939 72
CHAPTER 9 Steps Along the Way 88
CHAPTER 10 Ossie's Harlem 99
CHAPTER 11 Some Men in My Life 120
CHAPTER 12 World War Two, 1942-1945 124
CHAPTER 13 Ruby Turning Corners 139
CHAPTER 14 Home Is the Soldier 144
CHAPTER 15 We Meet 147
PART TWO
CHAPTER 16 Jeb: The Play Is the Thing 151
CHAPTER 17 The American Negro Theatre: Anna Lucasta 157
CHAPTER 18 The Fight Never Ends 172
CHAPTER 19 Hookin' Up 182
CHAPTER 20 Movies and Complications 187
CHAPTER 21 Giant Steps 202
CHAPTER 22 Tall Targets 222
CHAPTER 23 Connections to the Left 231
CHAPTER 24 The World of Sholom Aleichem and Beyond 239
CHAPTER 25 The Plot Thickens 252
CHAPTER 26 New Work, New Territory 271
CHAPTER 27 Big Breakthroughs 280
CHAPTER 28 Struggle, Realities, and Art 295
CHAPTER 29 Marches, Movements, and Martyrs 304
CHAPTER 30 Sex Comes out of the Closet 315
CHAPTER 31 In Control, but Still in Crisis 326
CHAPTER 32 The Family Comes of Age 346
CHAPTER 33 A Teaspoonful of Power 364
CHAPTER 34 We, the Family, Become a Company 377
CHAPTER 35 Going Through the Fire 396
CHAPTER 36 My One Good Nerve 404
CHAPTER 37 Now That We Are Elders 415
CHAPTER 38 Love, Marriage, and Struggle 425
CHAPTER 39 A Bridge to Ourselves 440
Appendix 447
Index 459
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Ruby Is Born
at Seven

I remember consciously acknowledging myself, the fact of myself as a girl and a part of a family, as I stood alone facing the window in apartment 24. I was wearing a brown dress and I had been looking at my hands because just a few minutes before, in the kitchen, my mother was explaining to a neighbor, Marie Taylor, who was rubbing some cream on them, that as I got older, the hands would probably get softer and smoother.

    "Yeah," Ms. Taylor said, "children with these kind of dried-out, wrinkly hands are old souls come back with work to do."

    "If you're a woman, don't care what kind of hands, you got work to do," Mother said.

    They laughed as Ms. Taylor screwed the lid back on the jar and rubbed her own hands, as if putting on gloves. I felt bad about my hands. My mother and Ms. Taylor had pretty hands. Mine were ugly.

    I put the incident out of my mind. Standing, looking out the window, I announced out loud, "I am seven years old. I am one, two, three, four, five, six, seven years old." A kind of excitement came over me.

    Since that realization, snatches and bits of life before age seven crop up in my mind--but are unclear. To this day, it seems as if most of my life, I've drifted through waves of experience--like an embryo in amniotic fluid--accommodating tides, brushing by sensations, reaching out to stimuli, but not certain enough to grab and hold on. I am plagued by long gaps of unremembered years, fuzzy focus, and doubts about even my strengths. I believe deeply, however, that each generation must share some of its experiences with the next generation. I tell myself that it is time to find focus, get solid, and to be a fully conscious traveler on this trip that doesn't repeat.

I almost didn't get to make the trip. It was the third pregnancy for the teenagers, my parents. Two had already been born--a boy when my father was seventeen years old and my mother fifteen, a girl eleven months later--and now this. What, again! Everybody had a remedy. Potions, lotions, oils, and prayers. Everything ever heard of, short of knitting needles was applied to the condition, but I came anyway.

    That was the end of school for Edward Nathaniel Wallace and Gladys Hightower in Cleveland, Ohio. Get a girl pregnant, you married her. By the end of about three years, though, Gladys had found religion. She left her husband and her brood to follow a preacher man, a way-shower to glory, forgiveness, and salvation.

    Grandma Wallace introduced my father to his next wife, Emma Amelia Benson. Emma was thirteen years older than Edward, but they hit it off. They genuinely liked each other, and they needed each other. He and his mother wanted to keep the family together. Emma always said her heart went out to this young man with his three children. Having grown up on a farm, riding horses all her life, her insides were severely damaged; but she wanted children. "I married your father for the sake of you children," she would repeat for many years.

    Emma Amelia Benson had gone to Atlanta University and had studied under W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the nation's greatest philosophers and historians; she had been a teacher and had saved money to continue her studies at Columbia University. But there was this young man and his three children, whose mother had deserted them, and she knew what to do for these children. With the money she had saved, she paid for his divorce, bought an apartment for $500 on Seventh Avenue in a just-turning-colored neighborhood, and sent for and married the man, with the hope and expectation that he would finish high school, and maybe go on to college.

    According to my sister Angelina, Grandma Wallace brought the babies--Thomas Edward, aged four; Angelina, three; and Ruby, not quite one--from Cleveland, Ohio, on a dark, wood-paneled, chandeliered, and red-velvet-curtained train to New York; to the good woman Emma, to the good address, the Rangely Court, 2340 Seventh Avenue, in Harlem.

    There was some complication with the divorce, however, that put the legitimacy of this marriage in question. Daddy had to make several trips back to Cleveland to deal with legalities. During one such trip, Grandma Wallace revealed to Emma that there was another baby about to be born to Gladys. Despite Daddy's raging denials, and Emma's tears, arguments, and accusations, she demanded that he bring her that baby, too. His children must be raised together, she decreed. Gladys got to at least name the baby before she let her go.

    Three months later, the divorce and other parental issues were resolved, and baby LaVerne arrived at the good address. All I remember about the time is a wicker baby buggy with big wheels.

Looking back is tricky business. It is seeing through time, people, events; it's remembering subtleties and attitudes. It's getting the facts straight, even though the facts may have little to do with "telling the truth." So much depends on who does the looking back and why. What is the condition of the vision mechanism--one-eyed, shortsighted, farsighted, or no-sighted, blind?

    I want to, need to, look back though, like Lena in the play by Athol Fugard, Boesman and Lena. Lena had to know the towns in South Africa from which she and Boesman had been forced to flee. Her meaning as a human being, her sanity, depended upon getting all the towns in the right sequence. The truth of the order of things, in immediate terms, centered her in the cosmos. She needed to know that her life mattered.

    Perhaps that is why I, Ruby Ann Wallace Davis, known as Ruby Dee, must offer this account of myself. Also, I may have something of use to share with people who, like me, sometimes process information in peculiar ways.

    One of the dilemmas of my life is that I can arrive at a point of view, a solid conclusion, and in the blink of an eye, betray it in favor of an opposite and equally compelling conclusion. Another dilemma: Maybe my story has already been told. Much of my life is like the lives of others. Only the names have changed. Your memory, Ruby, is like your vision was for many years--fuzzy and unreliable--I tell myself.

    I believe that God puts every creature on earth for a particular reason, and looking back, even a blind person can see and can have impressions, can connect the dots of recognition and make a picture. So relying on my family and friends, calling out to the dead to visit me in dreams, and especially calling on God in prayer, I take on this task of lighting up the territory of myself.


Chapter Two

Ossie Is Still
a Mistake

I was born to laugh. The midwife who introduced me into existence by slapping my behind expected me to cry. And cry I did. But, knowing me, I probably cried to keep from laughing.

    The first child of Kince and Laura Davis, I was born into a world of jokesters, black and white, waiting to tickle my feet. Take, for example, the matter of my first name. I was named after my father's father, Raiford Chatman Davis. (He put twenty-five cents in my fat little hand for the privilege.) In the South, we tend to use initials. So when the clerk at the Clinch County courthouse asked Mama who I was, she said, "R. C. Davis." He thought she said, "Ossie Davis," and wrote it down that way. Mama would not have argued with him. The man was white. Mama and I were black and down in deepest Georgia. So the matter of identification was settled. Ossie it was, and Ossie it is till this very day.

    Cogdell, the little town in Georgia where I was born, was home to some four hundred souls, mostly black, who lived under the civic paternity of Alex K. Sessoms, the white man who owned Cogdell and everything in it, including the Waycross and Western, a little railroad that ran twenty-three miles from Cogdell to Waycross. It had one jitney, which had once been a streetcar that seldom carried passengers; a donkey steam engine; some boxcars and some flatcars, most of which carried timber from the swamps and stumps, and sometimes cattle, off to Waycross.

    My daddy, who couldn't write his name, helped to build the Waycross and Western. I don't mean that he just labored with picks and shovels, crossties and sledgehammers; Daddy was a self-taught railway and construction engineer. He could build a railroad line from scratch, which in that day and age was a white man's job. Daddy, of course, was black but was not afraid and didn't give a damn about the Ku Klux Klan. The bad blood between them was the source of my first adventure.

    Daddy had moved the family to Zirkle, Georgia, for a while, to help another white man build a small railroad, which ran right in front of the shack in which we lived. I was but three or four years old and ran outdoors early one morning to play in the yard. There I found a long, tall stick driven into the ground. The stick was split at the top with a folded sheet of paper stuck in the split. I took the paper into the house and showed it to Mama, who looked at it and let me look, too. Somebody had drawn a pistol in red ink, firing a stream of red bullets into a big, black heart from which red drops of blood were falling into a coffin. I didn't know what it meant, but Mama did. "Oh my God, the Ku Klux Klan!"

    She called a neighbor to watch me and my baby sister, put on a pretty dress, and stuck the letter and my father's pistol in her bosom. Then she walked out into the middle of the railroad track--the one my daddy and his crew were building--and started up the road as fast as she could go, to the spot a couple of miles away where Daddy and his men were working.

    Everybody loved my daddy, Kince Charles Davis. Everybody except the Klan. At least that's what I thought. Daddy was a local legend, the hero of many a story told by black and white folks. It was common knowledge that he had once spent time on the chain gang for shooting a preacher in Kissimmee, Florida, it was rumored; the preacher, it was said, had made Mama leave the church in the middle of his sermon because I was crying too loud.

    My first memory of him was as a presence looming out of the myth and mystery that always surrounded him. Mama was sitting on the floor in the back of a horse and buggy giving me lunch from her breast. Daddy was sitting in the driver's seat next to Grandpa Sam, Mama's father. Cradled in her arms, I was slurping away as the old horse farted along. I remember looking up at my daddy's big broad shoulders spread across the horizon, and knowing, just from that look, that I would never die.

    There were stories about Daddy told by the men who worked in his construction gang. There were stories Daddy told of himself, some of which were not quite satisfactory. For example, when we asked why he didn't have a left forefinger, like other people, he'd laugh and tell us that a bullfrog had bitten it off. Some of his men said that he had lost it long ago in a gunfight. Daddy refused to clarify the matter when we pressed. Rather he'd laugh, pick up his guitar, and play a funny tune.

    The letter in the split stick was to warn him to run for his life. But Daddy didn't run. He was big and strong and easy, and laughter trailed after him like a long, warm scarf in the wintertime. Everybody looked up to him and laughed a lot when he did. Everybody knew that Daddy wasn't scared of anybody, black or white. But when he got angry, a great silence could be heard in his vicinity.

    The crew of men, who called him "Chief," built a big fire in the yard and kept watch all night. I was the little, big-eyed boy allowed to stay up with the rest of the men standing guard. Daddy went inside and went to sleep with his pistol on the bed right next to his hand.

    The Klan never came. But that was not surprising. A black man with Daddy's skill was a rare and precious commodity to Sessoms and the other big men who ran things. They didn't mind giving him a white man's job as long as they didn't have to give him a white man's pay. It was all right for the Klan to try and run him off, but they didn't dare touch him, not while he worked for Sessoms. Daddy knew that as well as they did.

    The job in Zirkle was only temporary, and when it was over, Daddy moved us back to Cogdell. As I remember it, Cogdell was a warm, country world, full of family--Grandpa and Grandma, a whole lot of uncles and aunts, but no cousins yet. I was the first grandchild, a boy, and everyone must have been waiting. They loved me to death.

    Cogdell had one country store where the railroad and the dirt road intersected. It had two or three churches for black folks, a lot of woods and paths and gatherings of shanties here and there where the black folks lived. Most everybody, black and white, worked for Alex Sessoms.

    Sessoms had a scientific bent and had gone all the way to France to bring back the latest method of distilling the gum from pine trees into turpentine. He also planted acres and acres of sweet potatoes; the leaves from the growing sweet potato vine were fed to his cattle while the potatoes under the ground were left for his Negroes. Cogdell was Sessoms's industrial and agricultural base, but it had no school for black folks. So off I had to go, at the age of five, in search of an education.

Grandpa Sam had moved away from Cogdell after Coot, Mama's Mama, died. He now lived in Waycross with a newly acquired wife, a schoolteacher who had little use for any of Grandpa Sam's children, including Mama. They sent me there. I remember Mama telling Grandma that she was my mother. Then Grandma took me away.

    Grandpa Sam was a Methodist preacher. I don't remember ever hearing him preach. What I do remember is that he was also a carpenter, and that he called me "Jack," and enjoyed very much showing me how to use his tools.

    I remember even less about my grandmother, Martha, or Coot, as they used to call her. My only memory of her places me somewhere along a country road, walking with her and two of her women friends. They had on long, colorful dresses that covered their high-buttoned shoes. I am told that when she was buried, I was found somewhere close to the graveyard chasing a rabbit. Somehow, even now, I know that I was special to her, that she loved me, and that I returned that love with all my heart.

    Cogdell, of course, has vanished; it is no more, gone with the wind carrying down with it all the small things that made it seem that someday it might be a city as big and as important as Homerville, including the cemetery. Nobody knows now where Coot lies buried, not even Mama. Her resting place is grown over now with grass and brush and trees, as so many southern black cemeteries are when a city gives up the ghost and the people who inhabited it move on. I certainly wish I knew where to find her grave. But I don't.

    Still, wherever she is, I hope the spot is quiet and peaceful, with some sense of respect for the love, suffering, and sacrifice that must have filled her bosom. I hope she knows that her first grandchild would like to know her again, now that he has come to some understanding of who you really are, Coot. You and Daddy's Mama, deep people of the shadows, were the backbone of the black man's survival and existence. No one yet has chronicled the peculiar woman's price you paid that kept us all alive. Coot, wherever you are and wherever lie your remains, you are still very much a part of the family.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2000

    A wonderful and charming book

    This is one of the best memoirs I've read. Davis and Dee have always had great chemistry together onscreen, and they manage to convey this same chemistry through the printed word--not an easy task! The book discusses not only their marriage and careers, but also the civil rights movement, McCarthy era, and other fascinating cultural events. It's a wonderful autobiography from two of our great artists.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2009

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