Commentary: The Legends Ball in the Sky

Remembering Ruby Dee, Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King.

Posted: 06/12/2014 03:10 PM EDT

It's hard to believe it was nearly a decade ago when Oprah Winfrey convened her Legends Ball in California, honoring 25 legendary African-American women who had made a difference in the world.

Three of the most prominent legends among the star-studded guests were widely respected elders in the Black community. There was Coretta Scott King, the activist who carried the torch of the civil rights movement when her husband was slain. There was Maya Angelou, the author, poet and actress who had spoken at President Clinton's inauguration ceremony. And there was Ruby Dee, a legendary actress, poet and activist in her own right.

Mrs. King passed away in 2006. Dr. Angelou departed us last month. And Ruby Dee took her last breath just this week. They were three resilient Black women born in middle America in the 1920s.

Coretta Scott's life would take her from small-town Alabama to the most famous Black church in Atlanta. Maya Angelou, born exactly 40 years before Coretta's husband, Martin, was assassinated, would travel from St. Louis to the ivory towers of Wake Forest University. And Ruby Ann Wallace, of Cleveland, would relocate with her family to New York, where she would launch a prolific career in theater and film.

The three women were honored widely during their long lives. Coretta Scott King received the Gandhi Peace Prize from the government of India. Maya Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. And Ruby Dee received the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal. But more important than the medals and honors they received is that they lived their lives with dignity and grace.

Nevertheless, death has a tendency to silence the living into reverence of the deceased, where rose-colored memories dishonor the true legacy of the people we wish to celebrate. What made these three women strong was not the decoration of accolades they received but rather their willingness and ability to persist through the challenges of real life.

And thus, we need not sugarcoat the totality of their lives. We should remember that Coretta, Maya and Ruby each violated social norms and public laws of their time. Mrs. King was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting against apartheid in the 1980s. Ruby Dee spoke candidly about her open marriage with her husband, Ossie Davis. And Maya Angelou wrote about her experiences as a sex worker in her book Gather Together in My Name. These experiences did not shame them but instead helped to shape them into the powerful women they were.

We remember them today as legends. But they lived among us as humans. And yet by remembering the full story of their lives as real people making real decisions about how to move throughout the world, we enable the living among us to identify and aspire to the greatness they achieved.

We live in a world where the media feeds and the public heartily consumes images of scepter-raising, hair-pulling, bullhorn-yelling Black women on reality television. Make no mistake, these images are real too. But they are not the only images. Nor are they balanced images even of the very women they seek to portray. As Oscar Wilde once said, "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." Whether you are a struggling single parent or a famous author, you are a child of God, just like everyone else, and you, too, deserve love.

And as we remember these three strong African-American women, we must not forget that they taught us with their words and their example that they could be as powerful as they were elegant, that they could live their lives authentically, and that they could rise and fall like the rest of us. And rise again.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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