We are just a few short weeks into 2022, and collectively many of us are mourning the passing of America’s last Golden Girl, a trailblazing fashion icon, and a remarkable actor who to me embodied poise and gravitas.
Grief to me is such a strange, intensely personal thing. When famous folks die and I find myself feeling emotional even though I’ve never met them, even in the strangeness I feel at experiencing grief over a stranger, I find solace in realizing that other fans of theirs are experiencing a similar grief alongside me.
Such is the impact of public figures whose work has moved us, and whose career accomplishments have opened doors for those who would follow in their footsteps.
And such is the case with Sidney Poitier.
Poitier’s decades-long career earned him the first Oscar nomination for a Black actor. His example, work ethic, and career trajectory resulted in numerous actors of color being able to achieve their own sky-high aspirations as they stood – and will continue to stand – on his proverbial shoulders.
When my husband and I were dating, we watched the movie Guess Who together, laughing at Bernie Mac’s goofy, exaggerated reactions to his daughter’s relationship with a white man, while relating to the romantic protagonists’ connection with each other.
Some time after watching – and later buying and rewatching countless times – this movie, we watched Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This was the first time I paused to take notice of Poitier’s groundbreaking body of work.
It would be years before I would begin to grasp the deep, broad impact that a 1967 big screen, full-color depiction of a white woman’s family grappling and ultimately having to accept their daughter’s interracial relationship.
And it would be years after that realization that I would begin to understand a fuller portrait of the man himself.
The youngest of seven children in a family whose parents were tomato farmers, Poitier was sent at the age of 15 from his Bahamian home to the United States to live with family and find what his parents hoped were more opportunities to succeed.
Poitier worked as a dishwasher, during a time in our nation’s history when such a position came with the racial slurs, poor salary, and the general degradation that were natural consequences of race-based segregation. In time, he took acting classes, worked to diminish his island accent so he could secure acting roles, and consciously chose roles which he felt reflected his own values, made his parents proud, and served his race well – even when that choice meant skipping a handsome payday.
The far-reaching impact of these decisions on Poiter’s part is undeniable.
Said Poitier of his own work, “It’s been an enormous responsibility…And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
To Sidney Poitier, whom I never met but expect I’ll see on the other side,
Thank you, sir.