Sidney Poitier & Black History Month

Sidney Poitier always comes to mind when I think about Black History month. Thinking about him reminds me an incident I experienced a year or so after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated the Gulf Coast Region. I and two other disaster response workers, both Black men, were walking along the famous Bourbon Street area of NOLA. We were in town to assess needs and address the unrelenting challenges wrought by the hurricanes. One companion was a retired Army Chaplain hired to oversee recovery efforts from Houston through Louisiana to Mississippi. I worked with him in the Houston area. The other man focused in the Mississippi area.

They were escorting me back to our hotel after our dinner out together. It occurred to me at the time how truly remarkable that was. Two Black men having dinner and walking down the streets of NOLA with a White woman, brought together by storms that uprooted thousands of people in the region.

Speaking of Dinner

When I got to my room, I turned on the TV where I found a channel showing the 1967 classic movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,”  one of my favorite movies. My husband and I watched it again a few weeks ago as a way to pay tribute to Sidney Poitier who died January 6. As I watched the movie that night, I thought about how, decades after Poitier portrayed a Black man wanting to marry a White woman, I could walk with two Black men without raising so much as an eyebrow.

We still have much work to do in achieving full racial equality; but we’ve also made progress. Indeed, I believe it is precisely because we’ve made so much progress, that we now have people showing up at school board meetings demanding that we not teach about racial inequality and campaigning to ban books that make White parents uncomfortable. I doubt that the children they’re trying to protect from reality are uncomfortable with the books in question. In spite of the current ruckus, we have made some progress. We have overcome previous taboos; taboos that made it illegal for a Black to marry a White in the 1960s when “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was released.

Be Careful What You Teach Your Children

If you’ve not seen this movie, I strongly recommend you watch it.  The basic plot is that husband and wife Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn have raised their daughter, played by Katharine Houghton, to be open minded and as prejudice-free as possible. They succeeded.  Their White daughter falls in love with an extraordinary young Black doctor portrayed by Sidney Poitier. The young woman is absolutely color-blind and cannot understand why her father objects to her decision to marry him. Spencer’s after dinner speech is one of the most powerful and eloquent speeches I’ve heard in the hundreds of movies I’ve watched over the years.

Sidney Poitier is one of my heroes, in part because of his sublime acting skills; but more because of his quiet, gentle, and effective way of addressing the injustices and tensions between the Black and White cultures. He impresses me as someone who was comfortable in his own skin, especially when around others were uncomfortable with it.

As we honor Black History month again this February, Sidney Poitier strikes me as an excellent famous Black man to honor. He was a Bahamian-American actor, film director, and diplomat. When he won an Academy Award for best actor in 1963 for his role in “Lilies of the Field,” he was the first Black actor, as well as the first Bahamian, to do so.

A Life Well Lived

Poitier grew up in The Bahamas and moved to the United States as a teenager. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving in a medical unit. When he left the Army, he applied to the American Negro Theatre (ANT), but was turned down because of his Bahamian accent. After practicing a more common American enunciation for several months, he reapplied and was accepted.  His first Broadway performance was in “Lysistrata.”

He got his start in movies in the 1950 film “No Way Out,” where he played Dr. Luther Brooks who treats a bigoted White criminal. Poitier was a trailblazer for other Black actors by refusing to play roles that portrayed him in common racial stereotypes. He maintained dual citizenship in the United States and The Bahamas, serving as an ambassador from The Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007. In 2009 then President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I can’t claim to have seen every movie in which he’s had a role; but I have cherished all the ones I have seen. February 2022 seems like a great time to binge on Sidney Poitier movies.

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  1. Margie A. Faulkner

    Pr. Kathy – I appreciated your comments about serving in NOLA with two black men. It brought back memories of my first public encounters with 2 black men. I was in college in the Los Angeles area (back in the early ’60s) and on the Debating Team with 2 young black gentlemen. When traveling to Debating Tournaments it was I that had a car. I never will forget the looks I received and the comments that were made in my presence in a variety of situations. None of those looks or words were positive and I was not well accepted.

    I liked your report of positive interaction and applaud our culture for changing perspective.

  2. Yes, I’m grateful for the positive changes, and longing for more of them. We’ve still got a very long way to go, but at least we seem to be on the road and the majority of people now wanting to go the right way.

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