In an earlier piece I wrote about celluloid heroes, men and women who enthralled and excited my youthful imaginations.
One of my heroes was Sidney Poitier, a black man born in Miami, USA, and raised in poverty on Cat Island in the Bahamas.
Therefore, it was with profound sadness that I learnt of the news of the recent passing of this sentinel of hope and inspiration at the age of 94.
In his autobiographical work, The Measure of a Man, Poitier wrote with honesty and reverence of his early life on Cat Island, learning life lessons at the feet of his mother and father and the siblings who he shared the early stages of his youthful development with.
His father was a tomato farmer who raised his family in a house fashioned out of whatever materials that the island offered up.
Poitier’s father sold most of the tomatoes he grew to vendors in Florida, but in 1936 the state of Florida placed an embargo on tomatoes grown in the Bahamas, forcing the Poitiers to relocate to Nassau in search of a new life.
At the age of 14, Poitier made his way from Nassau to Florida setting in train a journey that would take him to fame and fortune around the globe.
He was the first black man to win the coveted Academy Award for best male actor for his role in Lillies of the Field (1963).
Poitier never made a movie that I didn’t enjoy, and I number among my favourites, To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, A Patch of Blue, In the Heat of the Night and the telemovie Separate but Equal.
Poitier never forgot his beginnings and dedicated his life to the civil rights movement and often used his own funds to support the movement including Freedom Summer, the 1964 black voting rights campaign.
The movie Mississippi Burning is loosely based on Freedom Summer, especially the murder investigation of three students, James Chaney, a black American from Mississippi, and two Jewish students from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
The murders were a part of the litany of violence waged against black Americans by white supremacists in the deep south of America since the introduction of slavery.
Poitier also joined fellow black celebrities, Harry Belafonte, and Jackie Robinson, to support the African Airlift Program, a college education program dedicated to raising funds to help support hundreds of Kenyan students attend college in the US.
Barack Obama Sr was one of the students to benefit from the program and studied economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where he met and married fellow student Stanley Ann Dunham. In August, 1961, the couple gave birth to son Barack Obama II and the rest is history!
By one of those serendipitous quirks of fate, I got the opportunity to meet Sidney Poitier in 1987.
After attending a conference in Vancouver, Canada. After the conference, a friend and colleague decided to visit the famous ski resort of Whistler, just a short scenic two hour drive east of Vancouver.
As we drove into the village of Whistler, I noticed the local golf course and being an avid golfer, I decided to visit the pro shop to purchase a souvenir, a shirt. As we left the pro shop, I caught a glimpse of someone who looked like Poitier as he was finishing up on the 18th green.
I was beyond excited and after confirming that it was indeed Poitier, I patiently waited until he and his group walked off the green before introducing myself and my colleague, who stood in muted adoring silence and sheer affection, for this wonderful man who former US President Barack Obama described as ‘a singular talent who epitomised dignity and grace’.
I told him that I was a big fan, and admired his civil rights work and he graciously took the time to chat before he was whisked away by his minders.
Poitier came from poverty, but his presence so enriched the world.
He was a destroyer of barriers and fought tirelessly alongside his soul brother Harry Belafonte to make the world a better place.
Denzel Washington, who won the 2002 Academy Award for Training Day on the same night that Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Oscar for his body of work, reflected on the role that Poitier played in breaking down barriers in the entertainment world for Black Americans and other peoples of colour.
He said, ‘I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir; God bless you’.
‘And, when I die, I will not be afraid of having lived’ – Sidney Poitier
Professor Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett western NSW. He is a highly respected and acknowledged Aboriginal educator/researcher