It's as if they planned their great departures. It's as if one called the other one and said, "You go first and then I'll follow."
I wasn't ready, but we never are. Miss Maya's flight away was still new when news came yesterday of Miss Ruby's final ascension. I consider these two women great examples of how art and justice can meet at the human crossroads. I consider these two women great human pieces of my own life's puzzle. As a girl I had up-close mothers who taught me how to iron a shirt and sit up straight and other mothers off in the distance, but no less critical, who taught me to keep throwing my eyes to the horizon where my dreams were waiting for me to put them on and wear them down the street, so that my life might represent in the tradition. These far-off mothers whose words I read in books and magazines didn't teach me to play it safe as did the ones who were afraid for my life and brushed my hair every night. I'm of the age when it feels like many of my outer-rim mothers are leaving planet earth—one by one—all in a row.
Ruby Dee came to Talladega College during our Arts Festival in 1976 and left with one of my early poems in her pocket, a poem that she later requested that I allow her to publish in her column "Swingin' Gently" in the Amsterdam News, one of the great Black newspapers of the day. It was a poem I had written for my mother and Ruby Dee's column was focused on Mother's Day. This all happened before I graduated from college, circa 1978. I was a junior and before Miss Ruby's published my poem I had only seen my poems in regional student publications. When this small town girl saw her words—and her name—printed in that big city newspaper it was many days before she stopped staring at the newsprint. I eventually cut that part of the newspaper out, put it in a K-Mart frame, and nailed it in the wall above my desk. That little piece of newsprint inspired everything that came after it. Miss Ruby saw me and pulled my work out into the sunlight. Ruby Dee lived a life that taught me that I could do this art work in the world and I could also speak up against the injustices of my day—just as she had done. We have to keep fighting for each other. In the spirit of Miss Ruby and Miss Maya, and the hundreds of other women who raised us right, whose names didn't make it to the headlines, who also crossed over last night or last week without any mention in the news, who taught us to look hate and injustice right in the eye. Let us grow stronger in speaking out against homophobia, racist doctrines, greed, and now the proliferation of guns that are birthing a new kind of violence and sadness in the fragile places we call home.