The world lost one of its greats Thursday. And while he lived a long and dignified life, his death at age 94 presents a solemn moment to honor his accomplishments.
Sidney Poitier, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1927 in Miami, where his parents traveled to deliver produce from their tomato farm on a small Cat Island in the Bahamas. His mother delivered him prematurely – he weighed just 3 pounds – but he became a larger-than-life figure who defied the odds in a racially oppressive America.
The family lived in poverty with no plumbing or electricity, yet he described his simple upbringing as happy and regarded his parents with deep respect.
“In the kind of place where I grew up what’s coming at you is the sound of the sea and the smell of the wind and momma’s voice and the voice of your dad and the craziness of your brothers and sisters … and that’s it,” Poitier recalls in his 2000 memoir, “The Measure of a Man.”
To help support his family, Poitier quit school at age 12 and at 15 was sent to live in Miami with his brother, where he was quickly introduced to extreme racism.
“I couldn’t go into certain stores and try on a pair of shoes,” he said in a 2008 interview with Larry King. “I had to travel in the back of a bus and I had never had to do that before. It was a big disappointment to me.”
His first foray into acting did not go well. Biographers and his own writings tell the story of how, after moving to New York City at 18, he responded to a call for auditions at the American Negro Theater. He’d never stepped foot on a stage, and wasn’t sure what an actor or a script was. With a heavy Bahamian accent and poor execution of his lines, he was shut down.
“You can hardly talk. You’ve got an accent. You can’t be an actor with an accent like that,” the director told him. “And you can hardly read. You can’t be an actor and not be able to read.”
He wasn’t discouraged, he would say, just angry and determined. He worked as a janitor to pay for acting lessons, tutored himself in reading, and bought a radio, imitating broadcasters in an effort to shed his accent. When he returned the American Negro Theater he was cast in “Days of Our Youth.”
That was the beginning of a career in which, during the height of the civil rights movement, he rose not only to stardom, but also changed the landscape. “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “To Sir With Love,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – he churned out hits and was the first Black to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in 1964’s “Lilies of the Field.”
Relentlessly, he broke down barriers, committed to playing strong characters not at all unlike himself.
Poitier was also a prolific writer. He penned three memoirs, characterizing himself as being less political than some of his peers. If this is true, his steadfastness and moral compass – the very fabric of his being – made him so.
Upon the news of his death Friday, an outpouring of respect, sorrow, and gratitude flooded social media.
“For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” Harry Belafonte said. “He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”
Denzel Washington wrote, “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentleman and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years.”
Oprah Winfrey posted, “For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier.”
And former President Barack Obama, who bestowed Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2009, wrote, “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together.”
In “The Measure of a Man,” Poitier describes his reason for writing.
“I have no wish to play the pontificating fool, pretending that I’ve suddenly come up with the answers to all life’s questions,” he wrote. “Quite the contrary, I began this book as an exploration, an exercise in self-questioning. In other words, I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.”
While the country remains in the throes of unrest borne of deep-seated systematic racism, it is still far, far beyond the days when a 15-year-old Sidney Poitier arrived in the United States.
As a change-agent in the American Black experience, Poitier certainly met, and surpassed, his goals.