Sidney Poitier was a dual citizen of the Bahamas and the United States, born in Miami when his parents were in Florida. He has shown brightly in my life since 1966. The Bahamas’ national flower is the Tecoma stans, commonly called the Yellow Elder. It is bright yellow with a trumpet-shaped bloom; it is tolerant and thrives in the warmth. For 94 years, Mr. Poitier blared his trumpet of talent, tolerance, and activism. He fought past rejection and thrived in a world that questioned his color, his ability, and even his voice.
I grew up in a bustling and prosperous business district in northeast Washington, DC. The Atlas movie theater sat in a pre-riot black neighborhood of shops, bars, and restaurants. I first saw Mr. Poitier in his full glorious color in Duel at Diablo. I had heard of Mr. Poitier and had even seen the movie Blackboard Jungle on tv in which the 28-year-old appeared as a high school teen—a testament to his forever-lasting good looks. From the moment Mr. Poitier walked on camera and glistened, he, as my great granny would say, ‘shined like new money.’ I was an impressionable young boy always on the lookout for visions of myself on screen, big and little ones.
Along came Sidney Poitier…
He strode on screen in a powder blue suit resplendent in a matching brocade vest and topped with a crisp pale blue Cowboy hat. He wore pearl handle guns and the classy touch of two cigars peeking from the breast pocket of his fitted vest. I was enthralled, and adding to my excitement, he confronted a white man [James Garner] on screen. In the movie Heat of the Night, he returned a slap from a bigot [Endicott] a year later, played by Larry Gates. It was not the slap that excited me; it was the dignified audacity. At ten years old, I had never seen anything like that in my life.
Mr. Poitier made me lift my eyes. I had come from a generation where black men still averted their eyes when they came in contact with white people. The TALK, for black boys then, was to keep your hands in plain sight, say yes sir and yes ma’am, and keep quiet. The quiet confidence and brash reactions of Mr. Poitier made him a hero. He was black Hollywood for my peers and me. Mr. Poitier once said it was “his time” about his first break in films, and for me, he gave me the courage to know my time was coming.
I would be remiss not to mention the great Sidney Poitier’s off-screen accomplishments; Bahamian Ambassador to Japan, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Civil Rights activist, Kennedy Center honoree. Over the years, I was in awe of his performances, and for my money, nothing will ever be better than his portrayal of Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “ A Raisin in the Sun.” In 1964 Poitier became the first black man to win an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field. As Amen, the gospel song played in the background, he floated down the aisle, greeted by his presenter Anne Bancroft. They leaned into each other, and she kissed him on the cheek. The only persons not surprised in the room were the white Ms. Bancroft and the black Mr. Poitier, who smiled that brilliant smile and moved ahead with his acceptance speech. He closed by saying with a wide grin “all I can say is a very special thank you.”
Thank you, Mr. Poitier; you were extraordinary.