Developed in collaboration with HarperSanFrancisco, publisher of The Measure of a Man
1. From Sidney's vivid description of growing up on Cat Island, specifically the ways in which he entertained himself—fishing with a piece of thread and straight pin that he had bent into a hook, swimming, climbing trees to eat the fruit—the reader can assume that growing up outside of modern culture had an empowering effect on the author. What are your strongest memories of growing up? How did you entertain yourself as a child? Do you share Poitier's opinion that modern children are negatively affected by the bombardment of television, radio, cell phones, the Internet and video games? If so, what are some ways parents can curb or counter these influences?
2. The first movie Sidney ever saw was a cowboy movie and when he was asked later what he wanted to be, he replied, "A cowboy in Hollywood." Even though he didn't understand that he was saying he wanted to be an actor, it's obvious that his first contact with cinema changed his life. What was the first movie you saw in a theater? What role have movies played in your life? Can you remember one film in particular that had an extraordinary impact on you?
3. According to Sidney, growing up on Cat Island gave him a unique freedom from the racial tensions in other parts of the world. He writes that there were no mirrors in his house or even on the island that he can remember, and that the color of his skin held no more meaning to him than the white sand or the blue sky. What effect do you think this unique childhood had on the development of Sidney's character as an adult? How did your hometown or neighborhood differ from Sidney's? What was the first time you became aware of your race?
4. In chapter 2, Sidney writes about an interaction he has with a white kid named Carl in Nassau. How do you feel about Carl when he is first introduced, of his matter-of-fact assertion of the social status quo based on the color of one's skin? After Carl's family situation is revealed, how does your opinion of him change? What kind of emotions do you think drove Carl to act the way he did?
5. Sidney goes through increasing degrees of culture shock and racism as he moves from Cat Island to Nassau and then to Miami. In chapter 2, he delivers pharmaceuticals to a white woman's home in Miami, and by not knowing the rules of society, he inadvertently puts himself and his brother's family in physical danger. Have you ever been in a situation like this one, where not knowing the rules of a specific society put you in harm's way? Have you ever been discriminated against racially or for any other characteristic that makes you different? Have you (honestly) ever discriminated against someone else—even unconsciously or unintentionally? How did you become aware of your unconscious prejudices? Was it through a friend, co-worker or family member? What can you do to correct that impulse?
6. Sidney refers to his first two years in New York as his "time of ashes," referencing an African tribal ritual where the young boys must cover their faces with ashes before their initiation into manhood. This down-and-out time for Sidney taught him what it's like to be tested and what it's like to scramble for our livelihood and our dreams. What would you consider your personal "time of ashes?" Does any one event or time period in your past stick out as a time of great challenge, learning or change for you? Who were your inspirations during this time? How did it change you?
7. Sidney is not one to hide his flaws throughout this autobiography, and his description of how he left the Army is no exception. Poitier asserts that bad decisions are part of being human and a necessary part of character building for every human being. What bad decision in your past resurfaces when you read the passage about Sidney throwing a chair in the direction of his superior? Did your bad decision have major repercussions for you? What were they and how did it change the path of your life?
8. At the end of chapter 3, Sidney turns down a role that would have paid $740 dollars a week—money that Sidney and his family desperately needed. Sidney reveals his motives for turning down the role to the readers (something he would not reveal to his agent at the time) as being related to the character's lack of dignity. What do you think of his decision? Would you consider it foolish or brave? Where would you draw the line for yourself? Would you be able to make this kind of sacrifice for dignity?
9. Sidney describes meeting a 19-year-old girl named Louise in acting class at the American Negro Theatre. He quotes Louise as saying, "If I have anything to say about it, by the time my grandchildren get here, this hypocrisy democracy is going to do some changing." Do you think that America has come a long way in regard to racial issues since the 1960s? What has changed? What still needs to change? What can we do to help eliminate "hypocrisy democracy"?
10. When asked by a major production company to sign a loyalty oath denouncing one of his friends, Sidney refuses at the risk of losing his next acting job. What does this situation tell you about Sidney as a person? Has your workplace or social circle ever asked you to take sides against a friend or colleague? Explain. Would you be able to stand up for your principles at the cost of your job or social circle?
11. In chapter 5, Sidney explains the title of his book when he writes that his father always said that the true measure of a man was how well he provided for his children. Obviously, family was, and continues to be, the most important thing to Sidney. What do you think of his definition of the measure of a man? What is your own personal measure of yourself? How would you measure your own success?
12. In chapter 6, Sidney discusses anger, its causes and its outlets. He writes, "This injustice of the world inspires a rage so intense that to express it fully would require homicidal action; it's self-destructive, destroy-the-world rage" (p. 128). Have you ever felt anger like this? If yes, what was the situation that caused it? How do you deal with your anger at injustice?
13. On page 161, Sidney writes, "My work is me, and I try my damnedest to take very good care of me, because I'm taking care of more than just the me that one sees. I'm taking care of the me that represents a hell of a lot more than me." Do you feel this passionately about your work? If not, is there something in your life that inspires the drive he describes? Given the demands put upon you, how do you take care of yourself?
14. Sidney's vacation to Acapulco with his agent Marty Baum took a deathly turn for the two men when they were overtaken by the undertow. Have you or anyone close to you ever had a brush with death? If so, describe it. Other than survival, what was important to you in that moment? Did your life flash before your eyes? Did you have any regrets? What hopes and dreams suddenly became most important to you? In what ways did the brush with death—your own or someone close to you—change your life?
15. What do you think of Sidney's explanation of the concept of Gaia on pages 202 and 203? He uses the story of the baby monkeys and the wire mothers to make a point about his fear of humanity's movement away from nature and nurturing relationships toward a virtual reality that he believes will ultimately end in the earth becoming humanity's "wire mother," and it will result in the withering of our souls. Has technology changed the way we relate to our children, our partners, our friends and even strangers? In what ways are these changes good or bad?
16. When you were a child, what would you have said to the question, "Who are you?" Would you have had a quick answer like Sidney, "I'm the me I chose to be," or a more reflective one? How would you answer that question today? Do you think that who you are as a child is a pure representation of your true self? Or do you think that people can truly change at the core as they grow up?
17. In the last chapter, Sidney deals with the devastating loss of a friend to prostate cancer—the same cancer Sidney had battled against and beat. Have you ever lost someone close to you? How did you deal with your grief? What helped you heal?
18. Sidney Poitier has long been a Hollywood legend admired by many, yet in The Measure of a Man he honestly shares his faults as well as his strengths, his struggles as well as his successes. He writes in his Introduction: "Many years ago I wrote a book about my life, which was, necessarily, in large part a book about my life in Hollywood. More recently I decided that I wanted to write a book about life. Just life itself. What I've learned by living more than seventy years of it." By the end of the book, how do you feel about the man Sidney Poitier? How has your impression of him changed? How has reading his life story touched your life?