U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and the Black Public Sphere

Since the passing of actress and activist Ruby Dee last week, much has been made of her and husband Ossie Davis’ activism. For decades, the two held up the standard set by such African American performers as Paul Robeson, both entertaining crowds and remaining staunch supporters of agitation and activism. Today I think it’s important to pause and reflect upon the importance of people such as Davis, Dee, and others who both entertained and, in many ways, tried to educate others about social topics. In the process, it’s important that we think about such individuals and their role in the creation and maintenance of a “Black Public Sphere”, something I’ve written about before.

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were members of the Black Public Sphere in a variety of ways. Their very presence as an acting pair, together for decades and starring in various films, served as an inspiration for many African Americans. That, at the very least, was an element in their appeal you drew from reading numerous obituaries of Dee. The symbolism of the pair—and, indeed, of other prominent African Americans—is something that can’t be forgotten when thinking about a Black Public Sphere in the late 20th century. Of course, for African American entertainers coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, it was almost impossible not to be part of the Black Public Sphere.

The late Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic offers an excellent section on the intersection of the political, social, and cultural for the husband and wife couple in the 1950s. He pointed out that during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Davis, Dee, and actor Sidney Poitier and performer Harry Belafonte were all at some point under suspicion for either being Communists or, at the very least, being fellow travelers. Iton wrote that they operated in an age that forced them to adopt different tactics from those of Robeson: “Absent, though, would be the explicit leftist/Popular Front political aesthetic and the diasporic consciousness that had defined the older activist’s work…like a number of individuals who sought to establish and maintain careers in the McCarthy era and afterward, Belafonte and Poitier made conscious efforts to distance themselves from any possible red taint or radical association.”[1]

The links from Robeson to Dee, Davis, and other performers who were activists during the Civil Rights era and beyond can’t be forgotten. As Iton himself noted, “Those young actors who were closest to Robeson—such as Belafonte, Poitier, Dee, and Davis—would also become relatively close to King.”[2] In considering questions of the “Long Civil Rights Movement,” along with cultural and political trends in the 50s and 60s, people such as Dee and Davis are important for any study. To go a step further, consider that Dee and Davis were close to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They co-emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963. Ossie Davis would give a memorable eulogy for Malcolm—which he co-wrote with Ruby Dee. And, of course, consider how Dee was an important actress in early version of fellow activist/artist Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, starring alongside Poitier in the 1961 film version.

In the 1970s, both Davis and Dee would take a further step into the Black Public Sphere, writing for various publications such as Negro Digest/Black World and serving on the editorial board of Black Scholar, just to provide two examples. Dee also served as a contributing editor to Freedomways, further cementing the links between herself and Davis to the legacy of Paul Robeson’s radical activism. What we as intellectual historians can take away from this is to consider how popular performers like Davis and Dee played an intellectual role in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. They didn’t simply provide their name to causes, although that was important; they also tried to develop ideas in various radical publications that were read by activists, intellectuals, and (in the case of Negro Digest/Black World) individuals curious about new and big ideas being developed by African American intellectuals.

As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, the passing of an intellectual and cultural generation for African Americans, one that witnessed the tumult of the Civil Rights era and the radical promises of it and Black Power, is taking place. And when considering the lives and legacies of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee—not to mention Poitier, Belafonte, or athletes such as Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali—their activities should be conceptualized as part of a larger Black Public Sphere, an intellectual tradition firmly ensconced within a larger American intellectual and cultural tradition.

[1] Richard Iton. In Search of the Black Fantastic. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 59.

[2] Iton, p. 60.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, excellent stuff, like usual. But I will like to push you a bit in your conceptualization of a “Black Public Sphere.” First, why the capitalization of public sphere, does that gesture mark the concept in a different way? And what does the concept itself bring to the table in terms of understanding the interventions of disparate actors such as Ruby Dee, Malcolm X, MLK, and Harry Belafonte?

    There has been much debate about the public sphere since Habermas became fashionable in US academia during the 80s and 90s, as exemplified by anthologies like The Phantom Public Sphere, Habermas and the Public Sphere, and The Black Public Sphere. I tend to be bit wary about the concept myself, at least as Habermas and his followers have utilized it. As Harold Mah explains cogently in his excellent article “Phantasies of the Public Sphere” (published in 2000 in The Journal of Modern History), Habermas sees the public sphere as a “unitary entity” where different social participants intervene in rational communication; this conception tends to flatten out the conflicts between social participants and groups, specially their affective identifications and disidentifications, reducing thus everything to an exchange of ideas between supposedly “universal” actors. Political theorists, historians and literary critics such as Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner have responded to this by proposing the articulation of multiple, overlapping public spheres–alternative spheres, counterpublics whose “claims to the public sphere to the public sphere are underwritten by their social or group particularity” (Mah 166). At the same time, they have attended to the significant role of embodied, material, and affective practices in the constitution of such alternative public spheres.

    Yet, as Mah points out, such conceptions of the public sphere still “assume the form of a single collective subject.” What’s helpful about Mah’s article is that it points to the construction process of multiple publics, to how peoples imagined themselves (or not) as part of them, and how we as scholars delimit the boundaries of such publics (a very messy affair to be sure!). In this regard, Mah’s main contribution is to underscore that the public sphere is not a given, but a “fiction” or “phantasy” (with very real, material implications) whose “enabling condition” is “the ability of certain groups to make their social or group particularity invisible so they can appear as abstract individuals and hence universal” (168). In the case of the March on Washington, it could then be read as a site where multifarious peoples “united” in demanding civil and economic rights for blacks as “full” US citizens. Furthermore, the specter of a “rational autonomy” arises in this narrative of “unity” against the powers that be (in this case, the shaping of a Black Public Sphere), potentially effacing the disparate “subject positions” (and affects) that took part in the struggle for civil rights.

    Following Mah, we could very well ask ourselves then the following questions: what is the “Black Public Sphere”, how did it operate as “a fiction”? What and who is occluded when we think in such terms? What are the limits (and advantages!) in proposing this notion? By saying all of this, my aim is not to put into question its very existence or your use here. Indeed, replacing it with other conceptual frameworks, from “discourse network” to “affective community” also brings up other issues. Not to mention that solely focusing on a narrative gaps and fractures–of the irreducible disparities of figures such as Bayard Rustin and Stokely Carmichael, for instance– is just the other side of the coin, yikes.

  2. This is wonderful. I was hoping you’d respond to this just because I’m wrestling with the black public sphere concept myself. First, in regards to capitalization, that was just my rhetorical flourish, nothing more than that. But on to your points: that essay that you mentioned has been on my reading queue for quite some time, but it’s just moved up for sure.

    Now, I have to admit I’m a bit more of a fan of the Civil Sphere theory, where different groups compete with each other within a larger, civil whole so to speak. So while I’ve used black public sphere in this essay, it’s an idea I’m still tinkering with. However, that doesn’t address your cogent point about why Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and others should be lumped in with King and Malcolm X. I was attempting to consider how we think of, for instance, Dee’s writing in various Black-owned publications that would be studied by intellectual historians as key pieces of Black thought in the past (such as Freedomways, Black Scholar, and Negro World/Black Digest) merits to me, at least, some investigation of hers and Davis’ relationship to larger currents of Black intellectual thought.
    .
    One other important way all these figures are connected would be through memory–which Houston Baker brings up numerous times in his introductory essay in The Black Public Sphere book. Something I briefly considered mentioning in my essay, but ultimately didn’t, was how Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are being remembered by different groups–especially by fellow African American activists. There’s a lot more I want to think about here, but I want to thank you for pushing me on these questions. I might even post something else here in the comments section!

    • Yes, historical memory is significant and cannot be ignored, as a retrospective fiction that ties our own processes of identification to conflicting visions of the past, seeking to establish a narrative of origins for a unified subject–Latinos, Blacks, queer i.e.—with a clear lineal story propelled by protagonists and secondary characters and their particular milieu. This is about writing history itself in the end.

      One thing I didn’t mention is that, in Mah’s usage, the phantasmatic, contingent character of the public echoes Chantal Mouffe and specially Ernesto Laclau’s theorization of hegemony as a construct, which is not exclusive to the dominant class: importantly, hegemony for them is also the articulation of the different, non-dominant social elements and their demands through a chain of equivalence, a historical bloc in opposition–antagonism is the key concept here–against the dominant order (in his later works, Laclau developed this to defend a populist hegemony, anchored in the so called pink wave in Latin America and its populist leaders). One problem that this theory has (and this also goes for theories based on the idea of a coherent, rational “civil sphere” or “civil society” delineated as an autonomous space, outside the webs of state and capital) is that it doesn’t take into account the messiness I was alluding to in my first comment, specially the affective, non-rational components that are part and parcel of the constitution and flows of social groups and the individuals that conform them. In the case of Davis and Dee into the repertoire of Black activism in the 60s underscores the importance of grappling with such components: the body not as a mere vehicle for ideas, but as a producer of affective forces that cannot be reduced to the field of representation and simultaneously give form to ideas (not in a cause-effect logic, but as a continuum, in immanence).

      These observations owe a bit (ok, a lot) to my recent ventures into affect studies, as theorized from a Deleuzean perspective (I recommend the chapters on cultural studies and populism and civil society in Jon Beasley-Murray’s book Post-Hegemony, which I have mentioned before; it presents a clear, cogent critique of these ideas, through Deleuze and a bit of Bourdieu and Negri). I am grappling myself with these substitutes and how useful they are (or aren’t) for my work. Mostly, I still think there’s a lot we can do with the concept of the public, in particular because it brings a spatial element to understanding the dynamics of my subjects. In this regard, like a lot Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics (along with his earlier The Letters of the Republic) because he also emphasizes how publics are also constituted through circulation (a notion that can be use not only for discourse, but also other forms of production).

      • You’ve made some more wonderful points here. And I think the idea of the “public” is something we have to keep in mind, ESPECIALLY when it comes to what era we’re talking about. I’d suggest that the “public” itself changes over time, esp. with technology and forms of communication.

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