Ambassador, Oscar Winner or Activist?

Sir Sidney Poitier chats about the Queen, a Medal of Honor, and his new memoir The Measure of a Man

Sir Sidney Poitier talks with Charlatan Magazine's JOEL MCPHEE about the Korean War and an Ambassadorship to Japan, being the first African-American to receive an Academy Award for Best Actor (concurrent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and picking up the Presidential Medal of Honor along the way in his new memoir, The Measure of a Man.

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Poitier (left) at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston. Photograph Wikimedia Commons

Sir Sidney Poitier would like to talk to you immediately, the Assistant said, of the phone call I’d been waiting for with the Hollywood legend. Mr. Poitier and I are both from the Commonwealth of The Bahamas: a country consisting of more than 3,000 islands and, geographically speaking, that lies in the same inland chain as Communist Cuba. After a few seconds and what seemed to be an eternity, Mr. Poitier greeted me in his stately tone. “Mr. McPhee! How are you?” Thrilled beyond words I scrambled to respond, “I’ve written a book,” I began, detailing how systems in nature correspond to and compliment business systems. “I was hoping you could help?”

“It has been my experience that as individuals we are highly complex human beings, and, ultimately, we are very selfish," he began. "Therefore anyone picking up a book, deciding to see a movie, or who is interested in a product of this type wants to know one thing and one thing only—what’s in it for me!”

Poitier erupted onto the big screen with an electrifying and captivating energy seldom seen throughout Hollywood’s storied history. His image personified elegance, craftsmanship and Hollywood beauty. But what made Poitier’s meteoric rise so startling was how it came during one of the most tumultuous times in American History. We were in the midst of the Civil Rights era: a time when the country was struggling to deal with the issue of race, and, more specifically, the rightful place and role of blacks in America.

Poitier was the first Black actor to receive the Academy Award in the category of Best Actor in 1963. He was the first African American to receive a Knighthood by the Queen of England, and he was the single most successful draw at the box office in 1967. His contributions to America’s social dialogue on race are timeless! When President Obama recently awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom he stated, “He makes milestones: milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress. He shifted racial attitudes, broadened hearts and brought Americans together.”

Imagine the conversations that took place over America’s dinner tables between 1950-1968 during the apex of Poitier’s career? How his enduring image helped fuel a much needed dialogue among millions of white Americans? How the controversial roles he played such as Guess Whose Coming to Dinner forced America to see beyond racial boundaries and recognize the common humanity that exits in all men. Poitier quietly yet confidently communicated what he always knew: He was not just a black man. He was a human being! A truth our nation desperately needed to reconcile.

I never had the occasion to question color. Therefore, I always saw myself as what I was—a human being.
Sir Sidney Poitier

Who knows how a phenomenon like Poitier finds his way to the forefront of such a critical historic juncture. Some say its luck, others attribute it to fate, and many say its raw talent. I say it’s the convergence of these factors and more. A critical component of Poitier’s success is a direct reflection of the community and culture in which he was raised. This was a part of his mirror! As a fellow Bahamian and one whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Poitier family, I’m very familiar with these forces. He was shaped and melded in an environment where rich African roots and heritage merged with strong British influences to produce a citizenry of self-assured and elegant individuals. Poitier emerged from these influences and his life experiences with an energy and quite confidence that commanded the world’s attention.

Much has been said of Poitier and the controversial roles he played. However, there’s one thing of which I am sure. Anytime The Bahamas comes up in conversation, almost invariably people regardless of color associate my home with two things: White sandy beaches and Sidney Poitier. And the words that always follow? Beautiful.

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