This is my most recent read and I found it intriguing. My memories of Sidney Poitier were of seeing films like “To Sir with Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, and “A Raisin in the Sun” when I was a teenager. At that time I was enthralled with Poitier though I couldn’t have explained why. Back in those days I rarely heard about the real lives of famous people, so knew nothing of the actor beyond what I saw on the screen. The persona I saw there always seemed serious, and deep in a way that I related to but certainly didn’t understand.
Having read Poitier’s autobiography I think I understand more now. The book was published fifteen years ago. I happened across it in one of my favorite book stores, Green Mountain Books and Prints, a few years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting. Recently I picked it up for a vacation read and I am so glad I did.
First of all, I had no idea that Poitier had such an interesting and diverse life. I wouldn’t say his is a rags to riches story, exactly, but it is certainly the story of adaptation. It is also the story of understanding where you come from and how important that is to where you are going. I was mesmerized by Poitier’s accounts of his early life.
I often think about my own ties to nature – the value in connecting with the earth – particularly as I watch much of the world get further and further from that essential connection. Reading about his early life on Cat Island, which he refers to as his ‘Cat Island curriculum’, Poitier says:
I had an inner eye that watched the terrain and watched the circumstances, especially when I was in hostile territory. This was my education, my Cat Island curriculum. This watchful way extended to human nature – words, motivations, actions, and consequences. The quiet and simple level of the subtle body language that came at me from my parents and my siblings. On that tiny island I had gotten to know these signals really, really well. I had learned to read them just as I had learned to read the cliff and the tides. I didn’t understand them all, but over time I could use them as a reference point in trying to understand what others were saying, what they were doing, why they were behaving toward me as they were. I think that this is the basis for what has come to be called “emotional intelligence.” It’s a capacity that’s nurtured by silence and by intimacy, and by the freedom to roam.
As I continued reading it was evident that this emotional intelligence learned in Poitier’s early years was invaluable in his life. It seemed to aid him in many circumstances and nurtured his intelligence as he continued to mature and experience life. While discussing his observations of the world around him during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, he says:
Anguish and pain and resentment and rage are very human forces. They can be found in the breasts of most human beings at one time or another. On very rare occasions there comes a Gandhi, and occasionally there comes a Martin Luther King, Jr., and occasionally there comes a guy like Paul Robeson or a guy like Nelson Mandela. When these people come along, their anger, their rage, their resentment, their frustration – these feelings ultimately mature by will of their own discipline into a positive energy that can be used to fuel their positive, healthy excursions in life.
Understanding this led Poitier to recognize that it was
‘. . .some discipline, some vision that allowed them to convert that anger into fuel, into positive energy.’
He goes on to say that while he recognizes that he is unable to live that ideal on a day to day basis he can still believe it. I think reading this about Poitier, in his own words, helps me to understand the appeal he held for me as a teenager. This understanding allowed him to acknowledge his own flawed self,
‘readily admit to [his] sins. . .[his] weaknesses, [his] frailties, [his] shortcomings.’
He also recognized that he was also
‘. . .willing almost always to try [his] best.’
We are of like minds, Sidney and I. This, I think is the essence of life – to understand human forces, to recognize ones own position in the universe, and to be willing to try ones best – that’s all, really.
Later in the book, Poitier goes on to talk about memory and how human beings are able to understand experiences that they have never actually had. His answer:
He goes deep inside himself into a place where all his individual sense memories are stored, and that place then connects him with the universe. That connection gives him access to more than just the memory of what anger is like and what unfairness is or other kinds of impositions or slights or offenses that would trigger anger are like. There’s a network of intuitions and instincts. I mean, the raw instincts – a genuine network of connections of those forces, energies, and awareness that drive humanity.
I was reminded of long ago conversations in philosophy class of the idea of all of humanity having this collective memory of the ages. At the time, and still, it makes great sense to me as a way of explaining so many things in life; ones ability to empathize, knowing a place you’ve never physically been to, sensing that something will happen before it does. . .
Poitier covers a multitude of philosophical ideas, couched in his life experiences and specifically his acting experiences, but at the heart of it all is the book’s title – The Measure of a Man – a spiritual autobiography. This title came from Poitier’s father who said, “the measure of a man is how well he provides for his children.”
The line had me thinking a lot. About men, and fathers, and growing up, and life in general. I think I can agree with Reginald Poitier. How a father provides for his children is a very telling thing, is it not?
Going back to my own ties to nature, as relates to this book, Poitier talks about what I would call a universal consciousness. In his words:
I believe that this consciousness is a force so powerful that I’m incapable of comprehending its power through the puny instrument of my human mind. And yet I believe that this consciousness is so unimaginably calibrated in its sensitivity that not one leaf falls in the deepest of forests on the darkest of nights unnoticed.
I believe this as well. Thus, my teenage relationship with Poitier is understood. Perhaps it was some aspect of collective memory, or universal consciousness that tied me to Poitier 45 years ago. Whatever it was, I am grateful it brought me to his book and look forward to returning to his films – the ones I’ve seen already, and the ones I have not.
I will leave you with his closing words:
We’re all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.