Sir Sidney Poitier at his passing had become a world renowned artist, cultural figure, social activist and humanitarian. He won an Academy Award, a Tony and a Golden Globe. But these all pale in comparison to what he means to me and meant to me as a Black Bahamian boy growing up in Gibbs Corner, off East Street, in the 60s and 70s.
In the coming days, weeks and years, there will be many assessments made of Sir Sidney’s life but what can never be overstated or exaggerated is his colossal presence on the silver screen and the enormous effect it had on little Black boys of my era.
In the early 1960s, I lived in an apartheid state. Although we didn’t call it that, its presence was as ubiquitous as the air I breathed. In early 1964, the tainted atmosphere of my existence was filled with an excited and persistent whisper. Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian actor, was nominated for an Academy Award.
It was all a whisper to me because, at seven years old, I didn’t know who Sidney Poitier was, what an actor was or what the hell an Academy Award was. Then, he won. There was celebration in Mr. Gibbs’ yard through Gibbs Corner.
I had only recently arrived in the capital, Nassau, from Grand Bahama, and had recently become a peanut boy, selling peanuts on East Street. The corner boys introduced me to the cinema and later The Capitol Theatre.
I don’t even have the words to adequately describe the absolute euphoria, the mind-bending, surreal experience it was walking into the cinema for the first time. They had me at hello; hook, line and sinker. I was in love with the picture show and, particularly, the western genre.
Soon, I encountered Sir Sidney on the silver screen. There was “Lilies of the Field”, Sir Sidney’s quiet dignity—speechless!
“The Defiant Ones”, his controlled, explosive anger—stunned! And when I walked into the theater to see the western “Duel at Diablo”, his cool, debonair, defiant, pride—blown away! Of course, there was “Buck and the Preacher”, “Cotton Comes to Harlem”, “Let’s Do it Again”, “A Warm December”; his artistic brilliance, power and presence—shackles breaking.
By the time I walked into the theater to see “In the Heat of the Night”, among the corner boys, Sir Sidney was as important as Jesus. Both names were spoken with a deep reverence. Yet, Sir Sidney’s influence was more immediate, more concrete, more socially and culturally relevant. For us little Black peanut boys, it was Hollywood’s other movies that were fantasies; Sir’s movies were real. They were about life — exposing the underbelly of existence, highlighting the struggles of life at the margins.
Even today, it is still difficult for me to engage the memory of that time and adequately articulate the extraordinary depth of pride and self-worth I experienced sitting in either theater watching that beautiful, Black, Bahamian colossus striding across the silver screen. Sir represented protest; protest against an apartheid state, under which I lived, but didn’t fully understand; nonetheless, I could feel it pressing down upon me, trying to limit my possibilities, limit my hopes and dreams. Sir’s presence on the screen screamed: no limits!
And how can I forget being yanked into the spell of “A Raisin in the Sun” by Sir’s riveting performance? He was a seething volcano; a man with a dream that was deferred.
The words are etched into my mind: “Willy! Don’t do it, Willy! Not with that money…That money is made out of my father’s flesh.”
And his hypnotic soliloquy about the takers and the “tooken”! Even almost five decades later, I’m still deeply moved by those scenes. Then, Sir’s act was primarily didactic; now, with my life having been touched by the precarious hand of experience, his extraordinary performance is testimony.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, heart pounding with excitement and trepidation, I made my way along Sixth Terrace, to Mackey Street, up the steep hill, then down to Shirley Street to the Shirley Street Theatre, which was in the dreaded environs of the infamous Kemp Road. And there, on that day, in the Shirley Street Theatre, I witnessed two monumental things: the command for respect that shook the foundations and the slap heard around the world.
The white, Southern sheriff asks, “What do they call you up there in Philadelphia, boy?” The defiant, immediate response: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
I held my breath for a number of seconds, waiting for the ground beneath my feet to return to stillness.
And when black Mr. Tibbs, from Philadelphia, slapped white Mr. Endicott, from and in the heart of Dixie, I could hear the shattering of the proverbial glass ceiling cracking above my head, the thump of the concrete hitting the ground, as the walls that confined me crumbled and the clanging of the chains fastened to my feet, falling like heavy rain.
What I witnessed in that slap was the demystification of “whiteness”, the dismantling of a myth. After that slap, everything was possible for little Black boys like me; the latent fear of ‘whiteness’ was swatted and crushed, like a fly on the wall. Dante had his Virgil to guide him through hell, and I had Sir Sidney.
Sir Sidney had long given me the self-respect and courage to free my mind from its colonial prison by the time I read his memoirs “This Life” and “The Measure of a Man”. I spent many years, since the freeing, acquiring tools because as Sir was deficient early in his career in the spoken language, I was lacking in the written.
Four novels, one collection of short stories, one play, critical essays, and numerous op-ed pieces later, I declare, emphatically, that Sir Sidney Poitier has had a tremendous influence on my writing, on my art, on my manhood, on my life.
As Lulu sings in the movie, “How can you thank someone who has brought you from crayons to perfume/a friend who taught me right from wrong, and weak from strong? That’s a lot to learn.”
It isn’t easy to say thank you but I have tried. So, here’s to you, Sir, with love!
— Keith A. Russell