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Actor-Activist Ruby Dee: Memories and Moving On

ED GORDON, host:

It's hard to think of the name Ruby Dee without adding Ossie Davis. It's as if the two names were one. Their 56 years of shared artistry and social activism earned them first-couple status in black America. A couple of months ago, I saw Ms. Dee for the first time since her husband's death in February. She was one of several women honored as legends at Oprah Winfrey's Santa Barbara home. More recently, the actress joined me in our studio.

Ruby Dee, welcome. So nice to have you here with us.

Ms. RUBY DEE (Actress): Thank you so much, Ed. I haven't been in NPR for a long time.

GORDON: Well, we're glad to have you back. Let me ask you this. I had the pleasure of attending Oprah's salute.

Ms. DEE: Oh, yes.

GORDON: And I'm curious what you felt.

Ms. DEE: It was an astonishing occasion. I was so busy talking to all the people I hadn't seen in so long. And then going to the cocktail party at this gorgeous place above the water--it was indeed `the promised land' that she called it. I was intrigued by the name she gave it. She treated us to a spa session. It sounds boring to say it was so exciting just seeing each other again. But that's, in a way, what I think she intended, that we get acquainted with the people we didn't know, which were most of the young people. I hadn't met all those--I'd seen them. I felt as if I knew them, having read about them in the paper and all. But I was thrilled to meet them and also thrilled at their reception of me and of the others of us as the elders. That was very touching and very rewarding to know that--that they really note that you notice your old folks, you know.

GORDON: Let me ask you, as relates to that, you've had such a long and storied career. I'm curious...

Ms. DEE: Say, `You are having.'

GORDON: You are having. And, in fact...

Ms. DEE: I am having.

GORDON: In fact, you are still...

Ms. DEE: Praise God.

GORDON: ...in the midst of it.

Ms. DEE: Yes, that's right.

GORDON: Perhaps midway through. But that being said, I'm wondering if you understand the impact? Often, when you're living it, you don't see it. You don't know it. And I'm curious if you now look midway through that career and know of the impact that you have had on so many people?

Ms. DEE: Well, I think I can judge by the people that I meet when I travel around, the sense of appreciation for the fact of me or something like that or I'm pleased that something that I may have done or that I represented affected others, because I certainly have been affected by the people that I met when I was young. It's a loving evaluation. It's not said in so many words, but it is a pat on the back, you know. You don't expect God to reach out of heaven. This is the way he does it, though, I think.

GORDON: We had the opportunity, the great opportunity, to celebrate your husband's life on air. And it's cliche-ish almost, but you all were really one of those couples that it's hard to fathom one without the other. And I'm curious if you have had, beyond the grieving process, the opportunity to celebrate his life.

Ms. DEE: Yes. Well, I just--the leaving just forces you to a stop and to look and stop and look at the flight and to look forward, trying as far as you can to see where the flight takes us, but certainly to look back to see where we came from. And so I'm--that's where I am now, trying not to grieve through that because I had so much to rejoice about, so much to be thankful for. I wish I'd been even more conscious than--death seems to brings us to a new level of consciousness of our blessings and our joys and our--before, we're so busy living the life and running around and, you know, we sometimes forget to pause and take stock of what it is that that divine spirit is trying to lay on us, you know, and trying to have us attend to. So I'm responsible for making sure that anything I have to pass on or show or do or accomplish I get it done now.

GORDON: Professionally, when you think of your life with him, what do you think first of?

Ms. DEE: Well, first of all, I think the most sense I can remember, he helped me see things. He was really a teacher, you know. He might have been a great professor in a university. And together--I had a little bit of the capacity to relate the events, the things that happen to me in the world to a larger picture. Even when I was a little girl, you know, I came fighting, you know, in a good sense and in a mixed-up sense, too. We both came from the struggle. We both--our earliest memories were of struggle, were of horrors that people around us were trying to rectify. So we had a great deal to talk about always.

And he read. He was a prolific reader, and so he shared with me so much. Because, first of all, I told him, `You see, I don't have time to read the paper, just being your housewife, you know.' And so--but so he would tell me things and leave things for me to read. And then we'd talk and talk for hours. You know, we--so that's what I miss most about--well, that's just one of the things. He helped me put life in perspective. He put a glow on it that I hadn't known before, and we were good friends. I don't know anybody that I've ever known that I was--respected more. He was a vessel for every kind of consideration that's discussable and that's conceivable.

And so he let me know something about who I was. And sometimes we would have arguments about men and women and so forth, but when it was all over, he had told me--he had brought me to a plateau I hadn't witnessed before, even about women. He would--he could travel from one point of view to another, and that was one thing that was so delicious. He had an open mind and a great sense of humor.

GORDON: Let me ask you, finally, about what we can look to. If you had your druthers, what would Ruby Dee like to do?

Ms. DEE: Well, right now, several things. He used to tell me, `Ruby, don't tell people everything you have on your mind. Just start with one thing, because people get lost, they get confused.' Well, one thing--I'll try and stick to this one thing because I'm sitting here in the newsroom at National Public Radio--and that is we did a series for three years on public television using the works of writers that we respected and personalities in the business. I think about Billy Taylor and Max Roach and James Baldwin and so many black and white--Odetta(ph). The rights have now reverted back to us and we're working on getting those stories out again. But things like that.

GORDON: Well, Ruby Dee, we just want to say--and I'd like to say personally--I'm so glad that Oprah was able to salute you and the others and to say thank you for all of us for being a national treasure. And it's my pleasure to spend some time with you today and be able to talk with you about so many things. And we thank you for everything you've done.

Ms. DEE: Yes. Thank you. How do you say thank you to so many people, like you, like Oprah?

GORDON: Just, `Thank you.'

Ms. DEE: You know, all the people who were so gracious after Ossie started on that journey. He died, you know, and so I'm very happy to be here.

GORDON: Oh, we're so, so very happy to have you. Thank you again.

Ms. DEE: Thank you.

GORDON: That, again, was actress Ruby Dee.


GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Gordon
Hard hitting, intelligent, honest, and no-nonsense describe Ed Gordon's style and approach to reporting that have made the Emmy Award-winning broadcaster one of the most respected journalists in the business today. Known for his informative on-air interaction with newsmakers, from world leaders to celebrities, the name Ed Gordon has become synonymous with the "big" interview.
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