Davis Inspires to 'Reach High, Reach Back'
by Steve Charles
November 12, 2013
When Willis "Bing" Davis was a grade schooler growing up in East Dayton, OH, his mother spoke the words he’s lived his life by: “Reach high, reach back, and always walk with dust on your shoes.”
Last Thursday as he delivered the John Evans Lecture for the College’s Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies, the renowned artist and cultural leader shared those words with the Wabash community. In a talk tailored particularly to students of color and those growing up under difficult circumstances, he described how that mantra had shaped and inspired his art, teaching, and service to others.
Speaking without notes and from the heart in the Lovell Lecture Room, the 1959 DePauw University graduate, Athletics Hall of Fame honoree, and that institution’s first professor of black studies explained how his liberal arts education had “reinforced” and helped him live out “what I had learned from my mom, my coaches, and my pastors.”
“She said, ‘Reach high—go as far as you can with your gifts, your talent, and education.” Davis smiled as he recalled being raised as one of six children by a single mother he called “the smartest woman in the world—except for your mama.
“But reach back, because you’re no one if you can’t reach back and encourage someone else.”
The man whose art has been shown around the world, has “met with kings and queens in Africa,” and was celebrated at the White House by three U.S. Presidents wondered aloud how his mother had foreseen this journey:
"She insisted, even then, that I always walk with dust on my shoes.”
Overlooking other honors and positions—including his award as Ohio Educator of the Year being the first director of the Paul Robeson Cultural and Performing Arts Center at Central State University—Davis said he preferred to talk about his life the way one reads “between the lines,” focusing on his childhood in the first black neighborhood in Dayton, a town he described as in many ways an extension of Appalachia.
"I received two blessings: being born black, and being raised in East Dayton," Davis said. "I’m both a brother and a hillbilly! It’s a unique worldview that gives me strength.”
Outside of school, Davis said the Baptist church, the park where he played sports and the urban center where he played basketball were all within four blocks of his house, and coaches helped him become a talented athlete early in his life. But he was drawn in what seemed a contrary direction.
Davis recalled the day his sixth grade teacher asked each person in his class to stand up and proudly declare what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“For a moment there, I wanted to hate that teacher I loved so much,” Davis said. “When it came my turn, I was sweating. I was going to have to admit to my buddies I was running and playing sports with what I really wanted to do. I said, ‘An artist.’”
Many of his classmates were incredulous; others laughed.
“At recess and over time I learned that I might have to cut some people loose if I was going to be what I wanted to be.”
In junior high, Davis’ reputation as “this little kid who could score points and wanted to do art” spread throughout the city, and coaches from different high schools scouted him. Coach Dean Dooley of Wilbur Wright High School was the first DePauw grad the young man had met.
“We talked a little about basketball, but most of the time we talked about what I wanted to do with my life. I chose that high school, and came to assume that DePauw men worked hard and cared about other people. Coach Dooley was more than a coach—he was a father figure."
Track coach and DePauw grad Paul Wagner become another mentor, and in his Davis' junior year in high school, Dooley took Davis to visit DePauw “on a hope and a dream, and the financial aid folks found a way.”
"My liberal arts education reinforced what I had learned from my mom, pastors, community center directors and coaches. I am the luckiest man in the world.”
But when he was studying art in his undergrad and graduate work, “no one mentioned any artists that looked like me,” Davis said. He returned to Dayton, taught art in high school, and he went “back to school to learn.”
"One of the most difficult things to do in higher education is to not lose sight of who you are," Davis said. "In the 1970s I finally realized that I would be learning all of my life. I was reminded, too, that your gift is not only for you, but for those around you. I had a bunch of teachers who encouraged me to find my voice.
“As a teacher, I stopped teaching art and started teaching people, to help students understand themselves.
Davis seemed proudest not of his own work, but of others'. He projected on screen pieces from Kin Killin' Kin, a traveling exhibit of work by James Pate organized by SHANGO and his EbonNia Gallery recently shown in Chicago which Davis calls "a visual experience with which we hope to engage our youth and community in acknowledging the harsh reality of gun violence."
The KKK in Kin Killin' Kin is no coincidence, Davis said. "Black and black crime has now caused deaths exceeding those caused by the Klan—we're putting the Klan out of business." The interactive exhibit includes a "Wall of Shame," a poignant display of news articles on gun violence in the Dayton community, and offers a Grief-to-Grace support group with parents who have lost a child to violence.
"We've had healing circles after the shows," Davis said. "Beside knowledge, we need wisdom. We need to embrace youth, teach them their culture.
"And young people have solutions; I have learned so much from this project."
Davis opened his talk Thursday with lighthearted mention of the upcoming week's Monon Bell Game between his alma mater and rival Wabash. He paid tribute to the lecture's namesake, John Evans, the first African American graduate, and to Wabash Trustee Emeritus Robert Wedgeworth ’59, who he competed with on the basketball court during his college days.
"This is like Christmas to me," Davis said. Fifty four years ago was the last time I was at Wabash, and I’m so grateful to be back, to see my dear friend Bob Wedgeworth."
Davis recalled their competition on the court as rivals in games when Wedgeworth was assigned to guard Davis. Wedgeworth recalled Coach Bob Brock assigning him to Davis because "we knew if we could stop Bing, we could win the game."
"When you sweat, toil and try to shake someone who’s defending you for 40 minutes, you become good friends out of respect," Davis said. "My expectations of young African American scholars at Wabash is very high, because my introduction was Bob Wedgeworth and knowing of John Evans. Every time I hear about Wabash men, they’re exceptional, and destined to do something with their lives beyond themselves."