The Measure of a Man: Sidney Poitier

Published by Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins

“… I decided that I wanted to write a book about life. Just life itself. What I’ve learned by living more than seventy years of it. …

“I have no wish to play the pontificating fool, pretending that I’ve suddenly come up with the answers to all life’s questions. Quite the contrary, I began this book as an exploration, an exercise in self-questing. In other words, I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.”

Sidney Poitier was one of the most respected Hollywood actors. His films have become part of our collective memory, and his work has helped future generations of Black actors. He was the first man of colour to win an Oscar for Best Actor (Lilies of the Field). As his memoir reveals, he made it a point to pick roles that portrayed a Black man as someone with intelligence and dignity, able to control and channel his anger.

Poitier was born on Cat Island in the Bahamas in 1927 to poor tomato farmers who raised their children with strong values. Although they had very little in material terms, Poitier says it never felt like deprivation. There was no television or radio to distract him, just the outdoors. He had the run of the island—46 miles long and 3 miles wide—and could climb a tree at four years old. The island had snakes, wasps and black widow spiders, but as he puts it, “there were risks and there were hazards, but I could go anywhere and I had myself as company”. His childhood also gave him a sense of self-worth, which later helped him break the barriers faced by Blacks in the United States.

His parents’ tomato farm eventually failed, and when Poitier was 10, the family moved to the capital, Nassau. They needed to find a new means of income. Nassau was a complete change from Cat Island. “At the age of ten and a half, I ran smack into Urban. Modern. Cars. Movies. Hotels. Restaurants. Night clubs. Bars. Urban launched me straight into manhood. By the age of fourteen, I was no longer a child.”

The next big move was to the United States. When Poitier was 15, he was sent to Florida to live with his elder brother, but he could not deal with the Jim Crow laws. He was very clear: no one was going to pigeonhole him, tell him what he could or could not do. If he was going to be put in a slot, then it would be a slot of his own choosing.

So he moved to New York, worked at odd jobs and eventually got into acting. He made a couple of films, including Cry, the Beloved Country in South Africa, but then went back to washing dishes in Harlem. He was contacted by Marty Baum, a big agent, about a role in a film. But Poitier didn’t like the script and turned it down. The character he was to play was too passive: someone who does not respond when he is attacked. According to Poitier, “He didn’t measure up”. And he wasn’t going to play a part that would dishonour his parents’ values, even though it meant he would not get another role for several months. But Baum was so impressed with him that he offered to represent him.

That incident encapsulates Poitier. He believed deeply in finding a way to make people understand their common humanity. He was sometimes criticized for not picking more confrontational roles, but that was simply not who he was. It didn’t mean that Poitier had no anger—it comes through in his films, especially in his performance in In the Heat of the Night—he just knew how to channel it.

This is an introspective book: Poitier writes about faith, values, shaping the next generations and creating a principled, humane society. He worries that as we give our kids more “stuff” and take them further away from nature, we are losing something precious.

The most lyrical passages are those about his childhood, a childhood without electricity or plumbing, and not much by way of schooling or jobs. But it was poverty “that didn’t preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, coca plum trees and sea grapes and cassava growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild. … In the kind of place where I grew up, what’s coming at you is the sound of the sea and the smell of the wind and your mama’s voice and the voice of your dad and the craziness of your brothers and sisters—and that’s it.”

I love the way Poitier writes, interspersing his narrative with phrases like “you know?” that makes the reader feel that he is talking directly to them. The Measure of a Man reveals that the person I first saw as a child in To Sir, With Love was someone who would have been a pleasure to know.

4 thoughts on “The Measure of a Man: Sidney Poitier

  1. Sophie

    Aaaah Sidney Poitier! I first saw him on telly when I was quite young too, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Then I saw In the Heat of the Night, much later. He was not only a tremendous actor, but a firm advocate of coloured people’s rights as well.

    1. suroor alikhan

      Yes, he was. I read his earlier autobiography, My Life in the 80s and was very impressed by him.

    1. suroor alikhan

      I am! I discovered the first autobiography at the staff library of the organization I worked for in India. That library was also where I discovered Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, through a biography of his called No One Here Gets Out Alive. Might reread that at some point.

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