Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon
- The University of North Carolina Press
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Sidney PoitierMan, Actor, Icon
By Aram Goudsouzian
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePatches (1927-1943)
Sidney Poitier would stand tall, six feet and two inches. He would have broad shoulders, long legs, and perfect posture-almost a regal bearing. He would exude grace in every movement, emotion in every expression, conviction in every word. If only one quality could define him, it would be this energy, this vigor-this life. But in Miami, Florida, on 20 February 1927, he was born small and sickly. A premature baby of seven months, he weighed less than three pounds, and he seemed closer to death than life.
Reginald Poitier accepted that fate. The gaunt farmer had come to Miami to sell tomatoes, not bear a son. The Miami Produce Exchange offered the best prices for his goods, which he harvested and packed on his native Cat Island in the Bahamas. He arrived expecting to unload his crates, haggle with some merchants, and return home. The newborn delayed matters. He had endured similar ordeals before-previous children had died in infancy, by stillbirth or disease. It was fairly common on isolated Cat Island. Reginald found an undertaker and purchased a tiny casket, no bigger than a shoebox.
His wife, Evelyn, resisted this surrender. She, too, remembered her own lost offspring. But she resented Reginald's stoic realism. She had been only thirteen when she married the twenty-eight-year-old Reginald. Seven children and a lifetime of farming later, this dark, thin woman had hardened. Shy and inarticulate, she could barely communicate her frustration. Desperate for some reassurance, she paid a visit to a soothsayer.
Evelyn had never been to a fortune teller, but she was willing to suspend disbelief. She sat before a wizened old clairvoyant with gray, braided hair and a string of beads tumbling over a loose dress. Soggy tea leaves congealed in a cup, portending the infant's fate. The room was silent. Finally the soothsayer's face trembled and twitched. A raw rumbling emerged from deep in her throat. "Don't worry about your son," she began. "He will survive and he will not be a sickly child. He will grow up to be"-she paused, amending her prophecy-"he will travel to most of the corners of the earth. He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all over the world. You must not worry about that child."
Evelyn might not have believed such grandiose predictions-the child of a poor tomato farmer, walking with kings?-but she cherished the words. She paid fifty cents, marched home, and insisted that Reginald expunge any trace of lost hope, starting with the miniature casket. For the next three months Evelyn and Reginald Poitier remained in Miami, far from their other six children, nursing Sidney back to health.
The ordeal was the first link in a chain of improbable events that proved the soothsayer correct. Sidney's premature arrival in Miami gave him automatic citizenship in the United States, a twist of fate that benefited him fifteen years later. Fortune smiled on him, sparing him where others fell. But Sidney Poitier also shaped his life through his singular personality: proud, stubborn, intelligent, restless, resourceful, virile, outwardly confident, and inwardly insecure. He would return to the United States to become a man, an actor, and an icon. But he was a child of the Bahamas.
The Bahamas lies close to the American mainland, its northernmost isle only fifty miles from Florida. Hundreds of tiny islands and cays stretch to the southeast, creating a flimsy shield between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Since 1942, when Christopher Columbus weaved his way through Long Island, Rum Cay, and Crooked Island, the Bahamas has been a crossroads between the Old and New Worlds.
Its history combines intrigue with exploitation. By 1542, the conquering Spanish had deported over 20,000 native Lucayans to Hispaniola, enslaving them on encomiendas under Spanish overlords. The islands soon became a popular corridor for European explorers. Ponce de Leon passed through in search of the Fountain of Youth, a legend gleaned from the Lucayans. English colonists landed at Cat Island in 1585 on their way to the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke. By the late 1600s, the international quest for gold had infested Nassau. British colonial governor Nicholas Webb complained that the capital city had become "a receptacle for all rogues." By 1713, over a thousand pirates called Nassau their home, including Benjamin Hornigold, the "lady pirates" Mary Read and Anne Bonney, and Edward Teach-better known as Blackbeard.
The islands remained under British control well into the twentieth century, but the fortunes of Bahamians were more intertwined with their American neighbors. Following the American Revolution, hordes of scorned British Loyalists sailed to the Bahamas. The accommodating colonial government attracted the wealthiest Loyalist planters with huge land grants. Over 80 percent of the Loyalists came from Georgia and the Carolinas; most brought slaves. Slavery had flourished in the Bahamas since at least 1671, when the first list of settlers noted 443 slaves. By 1787, slaves composed 75 percent of the islands' 12,000 people.
The Caribbean slave system differed from that of the American South. Because of the black majority, Caribbean slaveholders never developed an elaborate paternalistic ideology. Unlike their northern neighbors, they did not expect their slaves to act like appreciative children. They ruled through coercion, often working a slave to death. So Caribbean slaves more frequently organized rebellions and planned escapes. The Poitier ancestors, in fact, probably arrived in the Bahamas as fugitive slaves. "Poitier" is a French name, and there are no white Poitiers from the Bahamas. One of Sidney's uncles claimed that the family forebears hailed from Haiti-an accepted assertion, since that was the nearest French colony. Runaway slaves from Haiti established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island.
To the chagrin of colonial slaveholders, British reformers passed an 1833 Emancipation Act. But the end of slavery did not mean black prosperity. Black Bahamians now endured a more subtle, indirect form of exploitation. The white-dominated government established property qualifications to limit the black vote. The black majority won few land grants or educational opportunities, and the Bahamas never developed a stable class of black farmers. Without black autonomy and political power, the islands' economy stagnated.
The malaise continued, mostly unabated, until 1919, when the United States government adopted the eighteenth amendment, banning the sale and manufacture of liquor. Nassau reclaimed its pirate roots and began bootlegging alcohol. "Adventurers, businessmen, soldiers, including a renegade officer or so, sailors, loafers, and at least one minister, they sought to make their fortunes by keeping America wet," wrote one observer in 1921. Bay Street, the city's main strip, "was no longer a sun drenched idle avenue where traffic in sponges and sisal progressed torpidly. It was filled with slit-eyed, hunch-shouldered strangers, with a bluster of Manhattan in their voices and a wary truculence of manners." William McCoy sold such quality whiskey that it earned a lasting nickname: the Real McCoy.
The fortunes of bootlegging rarely trickled down to the black majority-especially not to poor Out Island farmers such as the Poitiers. Most blacks outside Nassau were subsistence farmers. Sometimes enterprising Out Islanders prospered from booms in demand for cotton, pineapples, sisal, or sponges, but the markets for these goods inevitably collapsed. Reginald's trips to Miami continued a long trend: Out Island farming families struggling within the web of the American market economy, operating in near isolation.
On a map, Cat Island looks like a thin wisp. Fifty miles long but only ten miles wide, the island is divided by a long ridge that runs its entire length and affords spectacular views of the azure Atlantic, sandy beaches, and rocky cliffs, dotted by colorful explosions of poinsettias, casuarinas, bougainvillea, sea-grapes, and sapodillas. The Poitiers lived in the scattered community surrounding Arthur's Town, a village on the island's northern tip. It contained only a simple church, an all-age school, a lockup, and a wooden courthouse. Farming on Cat Island was a dicey proposition. The soil was fertile but thin. There were few rivers or streams. Wells drilled too deep produced brackish or salt water. Hurricanes, droughts, and disease posed constant threats.
Yet Reginald grew fat and delicious tomatoes, thanks to superior resources, backbreaking labor, family cooperation, and ingenuity. Unlike most Cat Islanders, the Poitiers owned a horse, donkey, and cart. Reginald frequented a cave that held the key to his juicy tomato harvest: bat guano. He loaded the cargo and returned to his farm, where he created a rich base by mixing the topsoil with his precious bat feces.
A large, strong family was not a luxury on Cat Island-it was an economic necessity. Cyril, the firstborn, was fifteen years older than Sidney. Following Cyril was Ruby, Verdon (nicknamed "Teddy"), Reginald, Carl, Cedric, and Sidney. From age six, they worked in the fields. The hardest labor came from October to March, when they lopped down bushes and prepared new fields. Farming, however, was a year-round undertaking. Besides growing tomatoes, the family kept an acre for subsistence farming. They grew string beans, sweet potatoes, navy beans, yams, okra, onions, peppers, and corn.
After working in the fields all morning, Evelyn would come home to prepare their large mid-day meal. In a cast-iron pot, she simmered hog lard with onions, tomatoes, green beans, and okra, and then added grits, water, seasoning, and perhaps some fish or chicken to create their dietary staple. They ate by hand or by a spoon improvised out of a sea-grape leaf. On rare occasions they had mutton or goat, and they ate rice on Sundays-a luxury, since it was imported from England.
But despite such symbols of opulence as a donkey, horse, and sporadic rice dinner, the Poitier family lived daily with poverty. "We were poor, man!" exclaimed Sidney years later. "I mean, we were bus-ted!" The entire family lived in a three-room stone hut with a thatched roof and an outhouse in back. Reginald built the home himself. As the family patriarch, he instilled the discipline that ensured survival. The children not only worked in the fields, but also fetched water, shucked corn, shelled beans, fed chickens, washed clothes, ground grits, and slopped hogs. Evelyn reinforced that ethic by insisting upon proper manners: if Sidney sassed her, she slapped him across the mouth. He learned to respect his elders and himself.
Poverty was no excuse. Evelyn tore empty flour sacks into two-yard strips, bleached them in a big pot, and made shirts for the boys. "She used to say that it was all right to wear patches as long as you were clean," remembered Sidney. "Well I want you to know that I wore me some patches!"
Cat Island operated on an informal combination of barter and cash economies. Most farmed but others fished, built boats, kept shops, or dug wells. For these services, one offered goats, pigs, chickens, or labor in lieu of cash. The small population, good weather, and lack of taxes made this system possible. Cat Island culture also incorporated both African and European customs. African folk traditions included beliefs in ghosts and witches, "obeah-men" who charmed fields and bewitched enemies, and occasional desperate turns such as Evelyn's visit to the soothsayer. The Anglican church service in Arthur's Town allowed the Poitiers to connect with the rest of Cat Island. Occasional Saturday dances, holidays, or weddings also provided welcome breaks from farming.
Adults scratched out sustenance, but for young children, Cat Island was a gigantic playground. After chores, Sidney often roamed the island unsupervised, wandering down narrow flower-lined paths, building mud huts, collecting turtle eggs, swimming in the Atlantic, and climbing sapodilla trees to shake down the plump, gray-brown fruit and eat until his stomach ached. He caught fish, added peppers and limes, and stewed it in a can over a fire on the beach. His imagination drifted out to sea, to the world beyond Cat Island. "I'd stand on the piers," he recalled, "and watch the ships until they disappeared and then I'd just stare at that line and dream. I was a real dreamer. I'd conjure up the kind of worlds that were on the other side and what I'd do in them. So many hours I stared at that line...."
From his earliest years, Sidney loved to act. He rustled up old clothes-even his mother's dresses-and wandered into the backyard, where he created characters and acted out scenarios. "When he was missing from the family group," remembered his brother Reginald, "we were sure to find him, off somewhere by himself, rigged up in different clothes and costumes." He had space and time to indulge his creativity, and he grew both confident and introspective-ideal qualities for a future actor.
His unfettered existence centered around the ocean. Before he could walk, he could swim. When he was ten months old, Evelyn threw him into the ocean. Reginald fished him out. His mother tossed him back. This training occurred for days, until Sidney paddled about comfortably. He later joined his brothers on fishing expeditions. Constructing rafts out of bound coconut trunks, fishing lines out of thread waxed with tree sap, and hooks out of bent pins, the brothers floated out to sea. Holding the thread between their thumb and forefingers, they awaited the tug of Caribbean shad, turbot, grunts, and goggle-eyes.
He never wore shoes. "They were tor-ture," he winced, remembering the pinching. Shoes half a centimeter too large belonged to an older brother or sister. His parents forced him to don footwear, however, during their weekly visit to church. After squirming through the service, Sidney would bolt out the front door, take off his shoes, tie them together, and sling them over his shoulder for the walk home.
By age nine, Sidney grew curious about the fairer sex. He and his best friend, Fritz Campbell, cast a spell by placing two dead frogs in matchboxes. If one week later the frog bones formed a "V," they would wrap two strands of hair-one of theirs, and one from the object of their affection-around the bones. Whether because of the spell or his own charms, Sidney attracted a girl named Lurlene to an abandoned home, where they clumsily fondled each other. Smitten, he soon wrote her a love note: a brown paper sack with the words "I love you" scratched in pencil. Lurlene's parents found the note and gave it to the Poitiers. Sidney returned home one day to find his parents and siblings laughing on the front porch.
Excerpted from Sidney Poitier by Aram Goudsouzian Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Goudsouzian offers the reader an engaging and fully rounded portrait of Sidney Poitier that not only cuts through his subject's famous guardedness but also places him not on a pedestal but in the midst of the American racial landscape in all its complexity.Thomas Cripps, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Morgan State University
In this intriguing biography, Goudsouzian thoughtfully depicts the actor's efforts to handle both praise and damnation. . . . Goudsouzian understands the dynamics behind Poitier's pictures. . . . Intense anecdotes . . . keep [Poitier] from appearing as a distant icon.Publishers Weekly
Poitier deserves a full, perceptive biography [and] . . . Goudsouzian provides just that. . . . [He] is an excellent guide.ForeWord
In his scrupulously researched, wide-ranging biography of Sidney Poitier, history professor Aram Gousouzian offers the reader an intimate portrait dealing with all facets of this black superstar's life.Sanford Herald
The book illuminates the breadth of Poitier's impact on film and culture. . . . A well-written, invaluable resource for devotees of film and social history, the book recalls the courage of many of the actor's peers and mentors. . . . Goudsouzian's analysis shows us how a career fortuitously intersected with and benefited from the demands of African Americans to level legal and social barriers.Black Issues Book Review
[Goudsouzian] borrow[s] a page from many great literary biographers of the past half century. . . . [His] willingness to consider all aspects of Poitier's life and image accounts for why this biography reads like a well-written, highly addictive novel.Booklist, starred review
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