Sunday, January 9, 2022 10:00 am
By Ononiyi Ibietan
Sidney Poitier, whose parents toiled in the real agrarian and bucolic contexts growing tomatoes – whose life set out from economically-poor conditions, and therefore had limited formal, institutional education, but became an iconic thespian, and pioneer Black winner of Oscar in acting category – has transited in a blaze of glory. By my reckoning, he was a substantial part of our television and activistic art experience, right from our childhood to his last days.
Many books and other artistic creations on Poitier are in the public space for us to glean the significance of his life and times. Aram Goudsouzian made a brilliant totalising anthology, characterising the man, the actor and the iconic essence of the man the world has come to see as an embodiment of racial progress in America. Percival Everett, Carol Bergman, and Emily Smith (who presented on Poitier, an equivalent of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”), have done masterpieces, discharging the burden of proof that Poitier was not an ordinary being. Many more works on him still dot our complex landscape, all of them enthralling and illuminating.
However, the most significant work on Poitier, arguably, will be, THE MEASURE OF A MAN: A SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The book is largely an exploratory and meditational work that serves as a crucible and a self-evaluation attempt of his life, particularly the twists and turns. In another book of his, LIFE BEYOND MEASURE: LETTERS TO MY GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER, Poitier wrote, “A tiny bit of myself is lost when my friends are gone”.
A friend of the discerning world, Poitier, sadly, is not here to behold how many fragments and bits from millions of people that got lost with his own transition. It is impossible to collate what everyone said but Presidents Biden and Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other eminent persons, and the not-so-eminent, even in this space, have paid Poitier very fitting, glowing tributes.
President Biden’s tribute, carrying with it a legal and moral authority, totalises what Poitier meant to America. Using words, including grace, grandeur, power, dignity and more to describe Poitier’s works, Biden characterised Poitier as “once-in-a-generation actor and activist”. To Biden, and in truth and indeed, Portier’s works carried power on and off the television. David Mermelstein, opinionating in the Wall Street Journal, and in context that amplifies Biden, says, Poitier was “An actor of a broad range and uncommon bearing”. Mermelstein contends that Portier’s death closes more than a chapter, it concludes an entire book, in the chequered history of Hollywood.
Poitier, evidently of Black African origin, ancestry, and civilisation, had his more immediate ancestors deposited as part of the African Diasporan community by tragic historical circumstances, in The Bahamas, an archipelago of the West Indies axis of the Atlantic Ocean. But he was born in Miami, while his parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, came to the United States to sell their tomatoes.
I had earlier written on many threads of friends in this space that Poitier gave an inspiring expression to the potentials, the possibilities, and the rare power of the African, and the human spirit. In many ways, through the instrumentality of arts and very civil activism, Portier creatively re-storied the Black Man’s beauty, significance and glory, changing the narratives in a distinctive portrayal that has helped to restore the dignity of the Black man. By that remarkable and quantifiable fact, Portier has enriched our civilisation, he has become a defining matrix of the best of us, and he has raised for us a banner, a framework, to continue the good works where he stopped.
May God rest his soul.
Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal