Oprah: Growing up, your identity was about what you could offer as a human—and that was not connected to color. By the time you came to this country, you knew who you were. Weren't you 15 when you came here?
Sidney: Yes. But even when I was younger—11, 12, 13—I knew consciously who I was.
Oprah: And who were you?
Sidney: A boy who had a relationship with silence. I learned to hear silence. That's the kind of life I lived: simple. I learned to see things in people around me, in my mom, dad, brothers and sisters. At that time, there were only about 1,000 people on Cat Island. And no one ever told me, "You must be careful because there are things out there that are not friendly [for blacks]."
Oprah: So you didn't know yourself in the context of color?
Sidney: I had no idea. There were two whites on our island. One was a doctor, another a shopkeeper's daughter. And it never dawned on me that they were anything but people.
Oprah: So the word white was just an identification—like the word tall?
Sidney: Absolutely. White didn't mean power, so I wasn't prepared for anything out there that would not be friendly.
Oprah: And you weren't prepared for anyone who did not see you in the same way you saw yourself.
Sidney: Yes. Never in my early years was I told, "Be careful how you walk down the street." I never had to be conscious of stepping off the sidewalk to let someone pass. So I've got to tell you, I had no idea what was waiting for me in Florida. When I arrived at the age of 15, almost everything I heard said to me, "There are different values here. Here, you are not the person you think you are." But I came with 15 years of preparation. I was strong enough to say to myself, "The me that I've been for 15 years—I like that me! That's a free me. I can't adjust to being a restricted me." The law said, "You cannot work here, live here, go to school here, shop here." And I said, "Why can't I?" And everything around me said, "Because of who you are." And I thought, I'm a 15-year-old kid—and who I am is really terrific! Luckily, I had the beginnings that I did. And every time [restrictions] were in my face, I could say, "Let me remind you who I am."
Oprah: I read in your memoir, The Measure of a Man, that when you began acting, you were offered a role that you turned down because it contradicted your values, even though the role paid $750 a week. Can you tell the story?
Sidney: I was married with a young child, and I had one child on the way. I needed the bucks! The role was a janitor, to which I had no objection. This janitor worked for a gambling casino. Someone connected with his company was killed, and it was thought that the janitor had information about the death. The people who perpetrated the crime went to the janitor and said, "It is imperative that you don't speak of whatever you may know." Then the bad people, in order to cement their control over the janitor, killed his daughter. They threw her body on his lawn, and he didn't do anything. Mind you, the script implied that he was devastated....
We Hear You!