The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography

Reviewed by Ann Carlin

by Sidney Poitier

 In this remarkable book, Sidney Poitier chronicles the main events of his life in a reflective, even fatherly, fashion. It is as though reader and book were suspended and one was sitting by his side, hearing the words from his mouth, receiving the teaching of a very wise soul.

Yet this book is no simple narrative of the events of a person in his seventies looking back on his life. It is Mr. Poitier’s mission to write about certain values, such as integrity, commitment, faith, and forgiveness for the reader’s edification. He does so with grace and flair.

He takes us back to a distant time and place: Cat Island in the Bahamas in the 1920s. It was the place of his early boyhood, the time of his formation, where he lived a simple rural life. He was the son of a tomato farmer, dirt-poor, yet rich in love. The tiny island gave him a universe to explore, of beaches and trees, paths and rocks, and seemingly endless days of sun and grace. His imagination was as fertile as the soil. It was a time of deep fulfillment, nurturance, and well-being.

Mr. Poitier writes of the special relationship he had with both his mother and father, and their profound values which permeated his life. He believes that in the core of his being lies the continuance of his mother’s soul, spirit, and gift.

Yet by the time he was ten, Mr. Poitier had left the idyllic Cat Island, bound for neighboring Nassau. The US State Department had banned the importation of tomatoes grown in the Bahamas, thus cutting off the livelihood of Sidney Poitier’s father. Surely life in Nassau would be better. Yet, life in Nassau proved to be anything but better. It was urban, there were gangs, there was racism; young Sidney was soon getting into trouble. Mr. Poitier writes of the impact the move to Nassau had on him in poignant terms, “And that transition from childhood idyll to urban launched me straight into manhood. At fourteen, I was no longer a child.”

His parents decided, when Sidney was 15, to send him to Miami to live with his older brother. Yet, Miami too proved inhospitable to the aspiring Poitier. Thus it was that at the tender age of 16, Sidney Poitier landed in Harlem, alone, poor, yet determined.

He didn’t set out to become an actor. Poverty threw him into it. Out of a job as a dishwasher, he was reading the local help wanted ads, and discovered that The American Negro Theater was in need of actors for its next production.

At his first audition, he was not only turned down, but also thrown out of the theater. His Bahamian accent was unintelligible and he was barely literate, only having attended school for about a year and a half.

His future acting career did not look hopeful. Yet he persevered, working hard to improve his skills. And, just when he was most in need of help, Mr. Poitier encountered a guardian angel in the restaurant where he was once again working as a dishwasher. A Jewish waiter painstakingly worked with him every night to help him read and pronounce better.

The big break came as an embarrassment. Mr. Poitier was hired as Harry Belafonte’s understudy in a Broadway production of “Lysistrata.” As the story goes, Mr. Poitier filled in for Harry Belafonte on opening night and on the three subsequent nights of the play’s run. He describes himself as awful, forgetting lines, misinterpreting cues, and miserable with stage fright. Yet, in one of life’s ironies, he received good reviews.

In 1950, Mr. Poitier appeared in “Cry the Beloved Country,” a film set in South Africa. Its theme of racial conflict was about to assume major relevance on the world’s stage.

In 1954, prior to filming “The Blackboard Jungle,” Mr. Poitier was asked to sign a loyalty oath and denounce a good friend, Paul Robeson. He refused to do it, knowing that to do so would be to sell his soul. He stood his ground; the director supported him; and the film was made, without the so-called loyalty oath being signed.

In 1955, while leaving Atlanta where he was publicizing “The Blackboard Jungle,” Mr. Poitier stepped into an airport restaurant, where all the waiters including the maître d’ were black. When he asked for a table, he was told that, by law, a screen would have to be put around him. Saying “No, thank you,” Mr. Poitier left the restaurant, “feeling for the man. Not feeling for myself, because I was getting out of there.” Somewhat impervious, he nonetheless still felt outrage, yet took it in his stride “because this moment of absurdity was, in fact, so totally unremarkable. To African-Americans in 1955, this kind of insult was old hat.” So Mr. Poitier left to fight other battles.

In 1963, he made a film in Arizona in 13 days. That film. “Lilies of the Field,” would earn him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

As the years progressed, Mr. Poitier’s career skyrocketed. In 1968,a year of “profound satisfaction,” the number one, two, and three films were: “To Sir with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”—all films in which he played starring roles. Yet, Mr. Poitier’s brilliance only appears brighter when he plays homage to all the black actors and actresses whose efforts in the past made his success possible.

While his film career soared, Mr. Poitier’s marriage failed. He was determined, however, to be a father to his daughters, to stay in their lives as their father, present, available, and loving. For, as his own father always told him, “The measure of a man is to be found in how well he provided for his children.”

Sidney Poitier’s book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, takes the reader not only through the years but also through the mind and heart of an extraordinary man whose films have had a profound influence on American culture. They’ve served as instruments of peace and progress. Sidney Poitier has done well. It is his own words which bear the proof: “It’s up to me to take my own measure, to claim what’s real, to answer for myself.”