Photo: Kwaku Alston
Just hearing the word "linoleum" makes me recall the exact moment that awakened me to my possibilities: Milwaukee. 1964. My mom's place. I am 10 years old, black people are still "colored"—and colored folks don't ride in limousines unless their kinfolk have just died. I press my knees into the cold linoleum and stare into our RCA black-and-white TV. My mouth falls open as a towering Sidney Poitier steps from a limo and into the Academy Awards. Awe. Freeze. Thaw. Run. "Everybody, come see: A colored man is in a limo—and nobody's died!" The next day—the next moment—I see myself in an entirely new way. Thirty-six years later, I get to tell Sidney Poitier what that moment meant to me.
"In my spirit I knew that because you had won the Oscar, I too could do something special—and I didn't even know what it was," I say. "I thought, 'If he can be that, I wonder what I can be.'" Poitier and I are sitting across from each other at the Bel-Air hotel in Los Angeles—and I'm admiring that, at 73, this man still personifies grace, ease, strength and courage. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word. In my more than 25 years as an interviewer, I've talked to hundreds of people—yet today, I'm giddy. When I admit this to him, he grins. "That flatters me," he says. "I've never done anything to warrant that."
Not so. The youngest of seven children, Poitier lifted himself from extreme poverty—his parents were tomato farmers who worked on Cat Island in the Bahamas, where they had no running water or electricity. At 15 and with no education, he went to live with his older brother in Miami, Florida, where he had an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. A few months later, he arrived in New York with only $3, and then he answered an ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theatre. But when he flubbed his lines and spoke in a thick Caribbean accent, the director told him, "Stop wasting your time—get a job as a dishwasher!"
The rejection galvanized Poitier. After months of mimicking American newscasters in order to lose his accent and of working in exchange for acting lessons, Poitier returned to the same theater company and landed a role in Days of Our Youth. That began his ascent to becoming one of the most bankable actors of any race. In his 50 years in film, he has starred in and directed more than three dozen movies whose titles read like a time line for our memories: The Defiant Ones, 1958; A Raisin in the Sun, 1961; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love, both in 1967. And when he won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, Poitier changed film history: He became the first and only black person to receive an Oscar for best actor.
However remarkable his achievements, Poitier will tell you that he doesn't measure himself by these things—really. Especially during the Civil Rights movement when nonblacks often defined him solely in terms of race—and conversely, when some black people branded him an Uncle Tom who wasn't enough of a race revolutionary—Poitier's fight became not about race but about self—"In America," he tells me, "it is difficult to be your own man." But by focusing on the big picture—the breadth of who he is as a man, not confined by color—he has indeed embraced the fullness of his humanity.
Poitier and I talk about the convictions his parents passed on to him and how his family perceives him. He has four daughters from his marriage to his first wife, dancer Juanita Hardy; he and his second wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus-Poitier, have been married since 1976 and have two daughters. When Sidney and I part, I weep—he leaves me feeling expanded, more hopeful and more human, and willing to engage in the complete arc of life. And after sitting with him through four hours of conversation, I am still in awe of him—and I am as inspired as I was as a 10-year-old colored girl colored girl.
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....