Synchronicity at work. I just happened to come across the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of AARP magazine featuring – guess who? – Sidney Poitier.
The artcile’s author, Marilyn Milloy, opens with a perfect portrait of Fire Rabbit and Water Tiger: “At 81, Poitier carries his tall frame as straight as a lamppost. His eyes search in that familiar level gaze, at once inviting and forbidding. And while he oozes grace and humility – long the stuff of his manner – he walks with the knowing caution of a man who’s nobody’s fool.” “Despite (his) acclaim, Poitier remains a modest and persistently private man, a self-described outsider who’d much rather hold forth with a book” than be the subject of Hollywood’s celebrity-mill.
The Water Tiger says, “I’m a loner, and that is it. I’m just simply that way.” The Fire Pig says, “My shyness is an integral part of myself. There is nothing I can or wish to do about it.”
The Water Tiger says, “I didn’t run into racism until we moved to Nassau when I was ten and a half, but it was vastly different from the kind of horrendous oppression that black people in Miami were under when I moved there at 15. I found Florida an antihuman place.” The Fire Rabbit says, “But by the time I got there, I already had a sense of myself – I knew who I was. And I was of value. So when Florida said to me, ‘You are not who you think you are,’ I said, Oh, yes, I am. I am who I think I am. I am not who you think I am.’”
Poitier goes on to talk about how he wanted to make films that would reflect well (accurately) on his father, Reginald Poitier, a tomato farmer, and how that often meant he had to say ‘no’ to roles – or amend roles, as he did when he insisted that his character, Det. Virgil Tibbs, return Rod Steiger’s character’s slap in “In The Heat of the Night” in 1967. (By the way, I remember we were electrified by that slap! We thought, “Wow, this is great, things are changing! There is going to be greater equality at last!” My grandfather was considered to be 'colored' back in his day, so I guess that's why we cared about that so much.)
I loved this: the interviewer asked him if he felt he had gotten the last laugh, when it came to his former critics, and he answered, “Last laugh? I don’t go there.”
I also must say I appreciate the courage in this statement: “I have (no regrets). I have behaved in despicable ways, and I recall them. I don’t regret them. That came out of an understanding that I arrived at much, much later in my life – that there is not one choice I made, not one, that I would change. Because then my life would have led to somewhere else.”
Speaking about his books and memoirs, this was also something I related to, coming as I do from two sides of a family for whom literacy was not really a central fact of life – with the exception of one of my American great-grandparents and possibly also for the landowning great-grandparent on my Danish side, who was not a nice person, by the way: “Unfortunately, I came from a culture in which nothing was written down, and I had to depend on whatever the oral history was. A comment here, a comment there. I don’t think we tell our stories enough, and I think that it is absolutely essential that we do. When we die, we are going to be taking with us to the grave an enormous amount of information, experience, points of view, positions, attitudes. We should leave some of those parts of ourselves behind.”
Ultimately, they discussed the future of the planet, and Sidney said, “So what we do about all this depends on how we manage as a family – and I mean the 6.7 billion of us on this planet.”
Thank you, Sidney, I love you too, and feel that we are kinfolks too.