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The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier

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With a career on stage and in film that has spanned more than five decades, actor Sidney Poitier has gained recognition for his work. Through his "Spiritual Autobiography," we learn something of the man behind the "star," from where he came, how he moved forward, and his views on life after having lived more than seventy years of it.

Poitier begins his narrative by giving background, taking us back to his early childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas. We're introduced to his parents, the values that they instilled in him, and the adventures of a young boy that helped to shape the worldview of a man who improbably became a Hollywood star. Life on Cat Island was uncomplicated and a boy could roam his territory without much concern.

The next major phase in his life came when economic necessity prompted his father to take the family to Nassau. The innocence of Cat Island would become a memory. Innocence would recede further still when he moved to Miami as a teenager to live with his brother. Poitier describes the harsh reality of belonging to a race not widely welcomed and even persecuted. The irony that this would take place in a land that considers itself founded by a document that proclaimed “all men are created equal” was not lost on Poitier, nor can it be lost on the reader.

Another major shift comes when Poitier strikes out on his own, moving to New York. Harlem, he imagined, would make a much easier place to build a life. Giving a glimpse into a difficult existence there, Poitier gives us a view into his earliest work as an actor and how he supported himself when the income from acting proved insufficient to eke out an existence. From this point on, Poitier discusses his career, often making references to his well-known work to make his points.

He concludes by looking reflectively upon his life and his work, assessing himself against the standards of his parents and the impact that he has been able to make on issues that he found personally important.

Poitier's story is an interesting one. In many respects, it is the American dream: where you wind up is a reflection of how you've worked, rather than from where you came. I especially appreciated his perspective, though, as he describes many of the challenges that he faced, challenges that he likely would not have had to confront were he the member of another ethnic group. Fortunately, he does correctly recognize that virtually every identifiable group that has come to this country has had to win over the group already here. In the earliest group, it was European settlers “winning over” the natives by force. When they became the natives, they then discriminated against the Irish, Catholics, Jews, etc., etc., etc.

Shaped by the experiences of his lifetime, Poitier has some strong opinions that include the notion that it's too early to stop apologizing for the history of mistreatment of black Americans. While no liberty-loving person can justify the scourage of slavery or the attitudes of people who seek to limit the living space of others, I must point out that this is a tricky business. Using this same logic, some have tried to extract an apology out of me as if I bear some culpability. Well, it was my ancestors, some will claim, without bothering to trace back my family's history and to learn that most of my ancestors have only recently come to this country and those that haven't were too far north and subscribers to belief systems that would not permit them to be involved in any such madness. That said, Poitier's remarks are fortunately within a context that helps us to understand exactly “where he's coming from.” Poitier and I might well have different ideas regarding the most important properties of a just society, but much of that likely comes from our differences in experience. The fact is that in my lifetime, racism is more readily recognized as an evil because it was addressed so prominently by people in his lifetime. Lack of agreement on every detail of every opinion will not prevent me from holding him in esteem for the successes that he has achieved.

I was less than delighted with the presentation of the story, however. His style is simply too conversational. Questions used in speech like “you know?” and “you follow?” serve the purpose of coaxing an acknowledgment out of the listener, keeping the listener engaged. It doesn't work in print; it's completely superfluous and creates a tone of excessive informality. The excessively informal tone is further driven by the gratuitous use of strong language. The F-bomb simply loses its effect when used excessively and once that has taken place, it's just an extra word that wastes space.

The Measure of a Man proved a worthwhile read and I'm happy to have been given fuller exposure to the life and ideals of someone whose work I admire.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-05-18 08:45 PM

a bit surprised

Posted by abbyp at 2007-07-01 11:05 AM
My impression, based on television interviews, was that Mr. Poitier was more dignified, had more self-respect, than to use profanity even in his writing. Apparently, he really is good at acting.

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn

Posted by mfreeman at 2009-01-27 01:26 AM
I recently came across an obscure "made for TV" of his that I really enjoyed. You might want to check it out:
In Print

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