To understand the world that produced Raiford Chatman Davis, it is perhaps enough to understand how he got his name changed.
It happened when his mother went to register his birth certificate. She told the man at the counter that her son was known as R.C. Davis. The clerk misheard her, but she didn't correct him. He was white, she was black, and this was Georgia. So R.C. spent the rest of his life under the name that resulted from an uncorrected error: Ossie Davis.
He died Feb. 4 in Miami, a courtly and elegant man of 87 years, justifiably lionized for his accomplishments as a writer ("Purlie," "Cotton Comes to Harlem") and actor ("Do the Right Thing," "Evening Shade," "Roots: The Next Generations") in a career that spanned six decades. But for all that, his most compelling legacy may lie not in his work as an entertainer, but in his effort to change a world where a black woman dared not correct a white man's mistake.
Davis and Ruby Dee, his wife of 56 years, were tireless advocates for what used to be called "the cause," meaning the struggle against systemic racial oppression. Perhaps his politicization was inevitable given that he moved to Harlem as a young man and found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the most towering figures of black protest: W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Weldon Johnson and more. Or maybe it was made inevitable by having grown up in Georgia at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was virtually a shadow government.
However it came about, his political awareness frequently animated his art and his actions. Davis defended his friend Paul Robeson when the latter came under fire for his communist sympathies. He eloquently eulogized the often-reviled Malcolm X. He wrote plays about the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott and the absurdity of racism. In 1963, he and his wife served as master and mistress of ceremonies for the March on Washington.
These were, it is important to recall, controversial — even dangerous — things to do. He could have lost work, could conceivably have lost his life. But he did them anyway.
Consider that, and then consider what Nike pitchman Michael Jordan reportedly said once in declining to support a Democratic Senate candidate: "Republicans buy shoes, too." Or think of Tiger Woods refusing to speak against gender bias in golf. "Everybody wants you to support their cause," he complained.
Hearing that, you want to slump your shoulders and bow your head. Once upon a time, black celebrities understood fame to be a currency they were obliged to spend on causes higher than their own comfort. They recognized a responsibility to take a stand. Muhammad Ali understood. So did Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Bill Russell, Nina Simone.
You don't see that understanding too much anymore. The modern black actor or athlete is a political cipher, his views unreadable and opaque. He is a blank slate upon which anybody can project any philosophy or affiliation, the better to sell fast food and soft drinks. He donates to good causes, makes corporate-sponsored public-service announcements for issues nobody opposes. He — or she — is pro-literacy, pro-Boys and Girls Clubs, pro-troops in Iraq.
These are different times, yes. Nobody has the right to choose somebody else's causes, yes.
But the self-preserving silence of modern black celebrity, the all-things-to-all-people muteness of it, only makes you appreciate that much more the courage of those like Davis who were — are? — willing to risk celebrity for the greater good.
"We can't float through life," he said in a PBS radio interview in November. "We can't be incidental or accidental."
To his everlasting credit, R.C. Davis was neither of those things. That's more than many of us can say.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.
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