Sidney Poitier: The Anomaly of a Perfect 20th Century Black Man

When the news broke that Sidney Poitier died last week, I have to admit that I thought he had passed already. I mean, I guess that happens with elderly celebrities that fade out of the limelight (unlike Betty White). But on a more personal level – I knew that he was the same age as my Grandfather – who passed away in January 2017. And with his passing, there were so many things, including cultural memories, that got packed away and put on a shelf. And Sidney Poitier (his films at least) were included in that.

I can’t say for sure, but I think that Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner may have been the first film that I saw that starred Sidney Poitier. And I remember that when I watched it as a pre-teen, there was such a stark contrast between him and my Grandfather (who was his peer both racially and in age). In general, my Grandfather was not a big fan of interracial relationships. It wasn’t that he was a bigot; he more took the position of thinking that such relationships put both members on the outliers of their respective communities — and it leaves the children of those relationships with no community. Of course now, I am in my 40s and I have 3 multi-racial kids, and I have a much better understanding of where he was coming from on that; even if I still ultimately disagree.

The 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a pop culture response to those who were against interracial relationships

So it really made no sense to me at how Sidney Poitier (who married interracially in real life as well) could be so progressive when my Grandfather was not. What I totally did not understand is that Mr. Poitier and my Grandfather may have been contemporaries in time, but they were worlds apart socially. Here’s how:

Sidney Poitier Was Not Born in the United States

I have an American mother and Jamaican father and I can say, without a doubt, that it changed my perception of American society…in spite of being born here. I guess that came from being around Jamaicans and going to Jamaica — that I got that. So I can only imagine how much stronger that would be for a native West Indian (the ‘West Indies’ is a generic misnomer of a term that was created by the British to refer to all of their colonies in the Caribbean). How so? Well, there wasn’t this inherent shame that came as a package deal with Blackness and all things African. I mean I grew up in the 80s and there was a reason why reggae music back then (a product of Jamaica) was so widely loved and adopted by Africans. From a young age I heard about Marcus Garvey, and the ancient royalty and wisdom from Africa. All of the national heros of Jamaica were Black. And sadly I don’t think that my own Black-American peers had that same foundation in not only Black pride and Black history – but of actually seeing powerful and influential Blacks as commonplace.

So when watching an interview that Sidney Poitier gave in 2014, it didn’t surprise me at all when he citied his Bahamian background as having given him an advantage in life:

I think that people really underestimate the power that self-esteem and self-worth have over a person and the subsequent course of their life. I personally have suffered with incredibly low self-esteem for years. And that is what led me to (and kept me in) an abusive relationship. So getting back to my Grandfather, who was an African-American man; born in and lived in the same town in Pennsylvania all of his life; the child of two Black parents from the South who were sharecroppers — he had this very keen sense of the place of a Black man in society. And he wasn’t wrong. I mean he was a steel mill worker. He was not an educated professional, like many of Sidney Poitier’s characters on film. He also had no real close friends that were not Black. I mean if you compare my Grandfather’s life with mine — I grew up going to sleep overs at my White friends’ homes; eating countless meals with people from all races; I traveled internationally. My Grandfather had none of that. Not that he wouldn’t have liked to do those things. He just never, ever had the opportunity.

Educational Attainment

So I mentioned above that Sidney Poitier tended to portray educated characters. Doctors, a police detective, a school teacher. Even when he played a handyman (Lillies of the Field) or a simple office worker (A Patch of Blue), he was always still ‘in character’ – articulate and intelligent; with a steady temperament.

Now I don’t mean to imply that such behavior is out of the norm for Black men. Just like with White men, personalities and intelligence run the gamut. But there was an area where there was a great amount of variance, and that is in regards to education. In 1970, only 6% of Black Americans had a 4-year college degree or higher (vs. 22% today). So a Black medical doctor in 1967 would definitely be a man of incredible achievement. And even on that level, you get the side-eye from a pair of White parents who don’t want their daughter to marry you.

Here are homecoming queen contestants at Howard University, a Historically Black University, in 1947. My great-uncle, who was dark-skinned, attended Howard in the early 1940s and subsequently dropped out (later got a degree from the University of Pittsburgh). He always told me about the rampant colorism at Howard at the time.

Ironically, Sidney Poitier (like my own Grandfather) did not even finish high school, let alone college. Without a doubt, he was intelligent. But it takes preparation, stability and resources to go to college. And that is something that a great deal of Blacks did not have (and that still holds true, even today).

I hope the take-away from this post is not any discounting of the incredible significance of Sidney Poitier and his work. That is definitely not the point. I think that in 1960s America, if there was going to be a leading Black man in Hollywood, then it would have had to been Sidney and he totally understood the assignment in that regard. But the Black man that Sidney portrayed on screen was not the one that your were likely to encounter. Most African-American men in 1960s America were working class; socially disillusioned;  battling through a host of psychological trauma (that results from lifelong discrimination); and culturally marooned onto very specific areas of American society. And even so, it was groundbreaking for Sidney Poitier’s characters, who seemed to escape the aforementioned problems, to do what they did. I can only imagine how that made men like my Grandfather feel. Sure, they were proud – but ultimately, to them, what they saw on the silver screen was just a pipe dream.