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The Religious Affiliation of
great American actor
Sidney Poitier and his family regularly attended Anglican services while he was growing up on Cat Island, and then they attended the local Catholic church while they lived in Nassau. The rituals and practices of vodoun (voodoo) and traditional island Afro-Carribean culture were also a major part of his life.
From: Sidney Poitier, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY (2000), pages 262-260:
Every Sunday on Cat Island we would walk to the little church in Arthur's Town to attend mass. The service was Anglican Catholic, the Church of England. Then we would walk home, all the kids with our shoes slung over our shoulders by their laces--shoes not to be worn again for another week.
Poitier was born prematurely and was such a small and weak infant that his father prepared a miniature shoe box to be used as a casket. From: Sydney Poitier, This Life, Alfred A. Knopf: New York (1980), pages 4-6:
When we moved to Nassau we attended the Catholic Church, but that was more a matter of convenience than theology. The fact is the real religion in our lives was grounded in the old culture, a belief that there were always unseen forces at play in our lives, unexplainable mysteries that determined our fate.
All through my childhood, from my first understnding of words, I heard adults speaking of those unseen forces. I think my entire life has been in large part an effort to understand these "mysteries."... The migration from culture to culture and through varying levels of technical sophistication doesn't matter. The mysteries shift their shapes, but the mysteries remain. God is the ultimat mystery, and fear of his wrath the ultimate driving force that governs how we behave.
When I was a kid in the Caribbean, there was a church on the next street from us. It was what was called a "Jumper church." Now, a Jumper church was the kind of church where, at every session, the minister would whip the congregation into a kind of psychological frenzy, which included jumping up from their seats to prance about in a trance while speaking in tongues. [It was a Pentecostal church.]
Okay. I was witness to evenings like these. But being too young to really get a grasp on where these worshipers were coming from, I never understood the whole concept very well. But I felt that the worshipers were genuine. This "foreign tongue" I heard--which would be the equivalent of gibberish, I suppose--sounded genuine to me. It was like a long stutter. And never a word that sounded English.
These folks were on their feet, jumping around in peculiar movements and rambling on ecstatically, in this unknown tongue. Many of them would become so overwhelmed by the possession of themselves that they'd slip into a kind of jerking, epileptic-like fit. Once in that state, they would be cared for and nurtured back to normal by other members of the congregation (some who themselves had just passed successfully through the same ritual moments before, and others who in due time would likewise be drawn into the trance). By the end of the evening everybody would be sitting prim and proper in their chairs again.
At the end of the service people collected their fans--there was no air-conditioning in the church--and emptied out into the evening darkness, headed home. I remember observing their faces carefully as they were leaving, just as I had observed their behavior in their trance. Most of them I had known around the neighborhood, but I felt I didn't know them here.
Okay, now DISSOLVE. I'm a grown person now. Occasionally I travel back in my mind to such times. And still, to this day, I ask myself . . . unknown tongues? Were they, in fact, unknown tongues? If a recording were made at a service like that and the words spoken were stacked utterance for utterance against all the known languages of the world, what kind of similarities might appear? Or would the words turn out to be in a totally unknown tongue? Might the gibberish be found to be unqiue? And if it did turn out to be a totally unknown tongue, would it be a tongue unknown only to those of us who hear it? Could it be clear-as-a-bell communication in a place where it's understood? Could it be understood by God? Could there be a God? Can you be objective enough to perceive of there being a God who hears and understands every word?
"His eye is on the sparrow."
My mother's concern grew far more intense than it might have if she hadn't continued to stand along in her prayers and her actions, and eventually carrying so many unexpressed feelings inside became too much for her... For the only time in her entire life she paid a visit to a reader of palms and tea leaves--the local soothsayer. Sitting there in her quiet frenzy, Evelyn Poitier looked intot he eyes of the neighborhood clairoyant, pleading for a sign, a word, a glimpse into things as yet unseen, an arrangement of soggy tea leaves at the bottom of a cup to indicate if there was life ahead for her baby. The steady, intense eyes of the clairvoyant seemed to be looking beyond the subject of her gaze. She silently took Evelyn's hand, closed her eyes, and sat quietly. Although Evelyn grew uncomfortable in the long silence, she continued to stare intently at the face of the reader. She didn't intend to miss anything --not a moment, not a sound, not a sigh. Suddenly there was activity in the clairvoyant's face. Eyes were darting about under closed lids, cheek muscles twitched, nostrils began to flare rhythmically. There was a burst of deep breathing, and a few unintelligible, throaty sounds gurgled up. As the reader tightened her grip on Evelyn's hand, Evelyn was transformed by the violent turmoil reflected on the reader's face: some inner turbulence was loose in this woman, and she was striggling to harness those forces--bring them to order--regain control.
Poitier, This Life, pages 13-14:
The reader's grip on Evelyn's hand began to loosen. When her eyes flew open, they seemed glazed and unfocused. As Evelyn continued to stare at that face, her fascination turned to embarrassment at being a close witness to such a private, unvarnished ritual. It put her in mind of the fits and trances of the Holy Rollers [Pentecostals] back in the Bahamas (many of whom she thought were fakes, taking advantage of an opportunity to let of emotional steam), but she shut that thought off quickly. Her need was too great to entertian the suggestion that what she was watching might be just a performance. She concentrated on the woman sitting across from her...
Evelyn allowed herself to speculate on how someone arrives at such a calling. Opportunists aside, the real ones must be "chosen." They must be. Because gifts are involved that just cannot be acquired; they must come directly from God, she thought. Suddenly without warning, the soothsayer spoke: "Don't worry about your son [infant Sidney Poitier], he will survive and he will not be a sickly child. He will grow up to be"--and she paused for a moment, then shifted gears--"he will travel to most of the corners of the earth. He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all over the world. You must not worry about that child."
My mother was transfixed. Finally, at last, she had found support. Only later, after the euphoria, doubt was to creep around her consciousness for a short ride. She was to wonder whether the clairvoyant was indeed chosen by God or was she in fact just another Holy Roller type of opportunist, making a fast fifty cents off her troubles, selling her a cheap fifty cents' worth of feeling good about a premature child who probably had no chance at all of overcoming the odds. But that thought--that doubt--was also snuffed out quickly and thoroughly. She chose instead to believe, if only because it made her feel better; it was surcease from pain. Yet, somewhere deep down inside, Evelyn Poitier knew that she couldn't totally obliterate the idea that she was backing a long shot. After all, premature arrivals of this kind, among the women on Cat Island, were a fact of life, and there was no disputing the dismal survival percentages... after paying the soothsayer, she hurried back to the house and demanded that my father remove the shoe box of a casket from the premises--there would be no need for it.
And so it was that Evelyn Poitier took her stand. And so it followed, for reasons that Evelyn and I believed were better left unquestioned, that I pulled thorugh. When I was three months old and clearly on the way to surviving, Evelyn and Reginald Poitier took me back to Cat Island in the Bahamas, where we joined the other members of our family.
Having heard that the girls were more likely to show their little "thingies" to a boy they loved, we [9-year-old Sidney and his friend Fritz Campbell] set out to explore a list of ways to make them all fall in love with us forever and ever. Naturally, on the top of that list were the voodoo rituals--magical recipes and potions, rumored to be the best way to cast spells on the little ladies. First we would capture two frogs, kill them, put their bodies in two matchboxes, and put the matchboxes in an ant's nest. We would go back a week later and find only the bones of the frogs--and if among the bones of the frogs we found a couple of bones looking like the letter V, each of us would take one such bone and write the name of the intended girl and our own name on a piece of paper, then obtain a strand of hair from the head of that girl... [The voodoo/Vodoun ritual is described in much more detail.]
In This Life (pages 14-27) Poitier describes his earlier years, with some focus on his early sexual experiences. At the age of 9 Poitier wanted to lose his virginity. He first tried to do so with his cousin, and then with a chicken. But he was unable to cause anything to happen because he had not yet reached puberty and could not achieve sufficient turgidity. Poitier lost his virginity at the age of 13 with a prostitute about fifteen years his senior. The encounter gave him "the biggest dose of clap I have ever seen... gonorrhea."
...It never worked for me--it just caused the death of a lot of frogs. We also recited magical incantations and various other utterances that were supposed to make the girls just go crazy for us, but--nothing happened. Fritz may have gotten a peek or two, but for me? Blank.
Then when I was nine and a half, I got lucky and struck gold. Or one could say that it took six months for the magic and voodoo to really do their stuff for me.
Sidney Poitier's sister Teddy left home for a time to live with her boyfriend, a man named "Blood." One night Blood beat her severely with a weapon, and she returned to her family. Some time after that she became very ill. Poitier, This Life, page 37:
One day she took sick and she fell away to nothing. The doctors couldn't figure out what it was. Finally they put her in the hospital and when she was down to 100 pounds, they [the doctors at the hospital] discovered that there was some failure of a vital organ. They tried to work on her, but there wasn't much they could do. My father and mother went to the hospital every day and were finally told there was nothing that could be done for her; the deterioration of the vital organ was such that it was just not possible for her to survive it.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 4-5:
My father, who was always a believer in bush medicine with a dash of voodoo, made inquiry as to the whereabouts of a certain bush medicine man. They told him that this medicine man lived on another island, and my father decided to send for him. The man came to Nassau, was met at the boat, and brought to our house.
[On pages 37-38 Poitier describes in some detail what the medicine man does that brought his sister back to full health.]
Cat Island is forty-six miles long and three miles wide, and even as a small child I was free to roam anywhere... I would get attacked by wasps, and I would go home with both eyes closed from having been stung on the face over and over. I would be crying and hollering an screaming and petrified, and my mom would take me and treat me with bush medicine from the old culture that you wouldn't believe, and then I would venture back out and go down to the water and fish alone.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, page 266:
...I could rattle the top branches of the tree and ripe fruit would come loose... and fall to the ground. And then I could come down and pick it up and eat and get my stomach full. I would eat until I got a bellyache, and then I would get more of my mother's bush medicine--god-awful-tasting grass weeds or bitter roots of plants whose names I've never known or chunks of aloe vera I would have to force myself to swallow. And then I was off again...
Throughout my first ten years, my days were filled with the uneventful but traditional boychild develomental rituals of a semi-primitive society. Outside our island township the world at large didn't exist, except in snippets infrequently picked up from adult conversations.
From: David L. Chappell. "Sidney Goes Spiritual", a review of Poitier's book The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, published in 2000 by Harper San Francisco (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/24/story_2452_1.html):
Unlike the first [Poitier's 1980 autobiography This Life], "The Measure of Man" is billed as a "spiritual" autobiography. Has Poitier seen God? Or has he, a la Shirley MacLaine, communed with spiritual beings more therapeutic and fashionably dressed than God?
At the age of seventy-seven, Sidney Poitier's father dictated his will and stopped eating. His arthritis and old age made life painful; he was wheelchair-bound and wanted to die. Poitier, This Life, pages 246-247:
No: The "spiritual" tag on the cover refers to such platitudes as: "I have a kind of respect--a worshipful attitude, even--for nature and the natural order and the cosmos and the seasons." "I simply believe that there's a very organic, immeasurable consciousness of which we're a part." "I'll say that I believe in God, if you press me to the wall, but then I'm going to come right back at you and give you the above definition of God. You follow?" "What is physics but a repository of mysteries? And astronomy? My God! You talk about mysteries!"
Such revelations are mostly confined to a single chapter, "Stargazing," which has the hasty, ill-fitting look of something the marketing department foisted onto the original package to justify an advertising formula.
What might have made Poitier's story seem marketable as a "spiritual" product is that he is a quiet, ploddingly successful man, who refused to be discouraged by poverty and repeated failures: He is the kind of black man that parents and preachers hope their churches will produce...
Poitier suggests that the community of the rural past provided him with the psychological strength to succeed in a heartless, competitive world... He upholds discipline, responsibility, material deprivation... These are the kind of "traditional values" that the marketing people apparently associate with religious life...
Beyond testifying to the publishing industry's cynicism about the short memory of readers, booksellers, and critics, this product's strong odor of niche marketing deserves comment. The three categories that define the book add up to a promising commercial formula: successful black male + celebrity + "spiritual." They go together like three cherries on a slot machine.
On the morning of the funeral, after respects had been paid by the hundreds of people who filed by the open casket, the sons of Reginald Poitier cleared the room of all but the immediate family, setting the stage for Evelyn to say her last goodbys [sic] to him surrounded only by the children they had brought into the world. My brother Cyril said, "Mama, it's time for us to walk him to the church." Evelyn Poitier rose from her chair, stepped over to the coffin, and gazed down at the face of her husband. After a long silent look, she said to him, "Oh, Reggie, don't worry about me. It won't be long now. It won't be long now."
Poitier, This Life, pages 66-67:
...One of my brothers went to the door and called the undertaker into the room to close the coffin. With his wife directly behind the coffin, Reginald Poitier's body was "walked" to the neighborhood Catholic church by his pallbearer sons, Cyril, Redia, Carl, Reginald, Cedric, and Sidney.
Two weeks later, my brother Cedric would die, and my family was to walk him up along that same route, to that same church, for a final service before laying him to rest next to Papa.
Evelyn Poitier lost two of her men within two weeks, one to the attrition of old age and the farmer's puritanical abhorrence of behing useless, the other to accidental asphyxiation by carbon monoxide on an evening when alcohol had dulled his senses. But, "Oh, Reggie, dont't worry about me. It won't be long now. It won't be long now." In fact, it will be barely two years before she joins him.
I got the address of a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn. I don't know if I just tumbled onto it in my wanderings, or if I was directed to it, but I went out to that orphanage, walked in, and told a nun that I had no room and had just been arrested for vagrancy and needed a place to spend a few days while I got myself together. Her sympathetic eyes studied me briefly before she went off to consult with the Lady Superior of the orphanage. Soon she returned smiling and said, "Yes, you can stay here." They put me in a dormatory with other kids--mostly white--they gave me a bed, food, and a toothbrush. I stayed out there and went back to work as a dishwasher. But I still found it very hard to deal with that f---ing winter...
Poitier, This Life, page 159:
Well, one day while at this orphanage I decided the best thing to do was really go into the Army, because that would get me off the streets, get me three squares a day, and get me some warm clothes... [He went to a recruitment office, and said he was eighteen-years-old, although he was really only sixteen.] Before leaving the orphange, I went in to say goodby [sic] to the nuns and thank them for their generous hospitality. I offered them my little battered suitcase and its contents as partial payment for their many kindnesses, and because they accepted it as if it were a very important gift, from someone they cared about, I was moved. Taking particular notice of the nun with the sympathetic eyes who first received me, I think I witnessed a tear falling, but then again I wasn't sure. She did, however, definitely smile and wave her farewell as I walked away from the orphanage on my way to the Army.
...we [Juanita Mary Hardy and Sidney Poitier] got married. Evelyn and Reginald Poitier [Sidney's parents], with finances being what they were at both ends, couldn't afford to come to New York for the ceremony, which took place in a Catholic church in Harlem.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 232-233:
As I've mentioned, a large part of my father's legacy is the lesson he taught his sons. He brought us together and said, "The measure of a man is how well he provides for his children."
From Sidney Poitier biography written by Bob Thomas, Associated Press (http://www.africanamericans.com/SidneyPoitier.htm):
That teaching weighted heavily on me when my first wife and I separated. That breakup was a long, painful, scarring period for all concerned. Juanita, my wife, had no interest in dismantling the family. She knew that there was great dissatisfaction on my part, but she was a good Catholic girl, and with that background you stay the course, you take the good with the bad. You accept inconvenience and painful readjustments, and sometimes you just absorb the painful elements in the marriage that can't be excised.
Of course, too, I was in love with another woman, and the guilt of that was something that eleven years of psychotherapy couldn't "cure."
...It was all a pretty miserable situation... I had to tell [my kids] that it wasn't their mother's fault, it wasn't the "other woman's" fault, it was my fault.
The young man slept in various flophouses until his money ran out and he tried a bench in Pennsylvania Station. A cop booked him for vagrancy. Sidney figured another pinch would land him in jail, so he persuaded a nun to give him a bed at a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn.
Poitier, This Life, page 162:
My wife's delight at the prospect of [my finally being cast in another play] filled our little attic apartment... For her it wasn't necessary to wait for verification from my agent. She was a believer, in touch with another source. She knew in her heart that the Maker, in His mercy, arranes for the coming of good things to the deserving. I could noly hope that there was no quarrel between them as to my qualifications as "deserving."
Poitier, This Life, page 235:
The next morning the offer was indeed confirmed as genuine. The details were simply--two weeks of rehearsal at $75 per week, and one week of performances for $150. Juanita beamed a smile at me that unmistakably mocked my lack of faith in her heavenly connections. "I told you so--ye of little faith," was written all over her face. (Could it be--did she really have the ear of a friendly Force?)
By the end of the run in Chicago, management's position was: All Poitier is thinking of is that he's the star of the play and Claudia McNeil is getting all the audience's response. But how could that have been? Wasn't I more secure than that? Didn't I receive marvelous reviews everywhere we went? Didn't I get terrific responses from the audiences too? Indeed I did! Then their stinging accusations were obviously not true--unless, God forbid, I was miles and miles off base, completely out of touch with my ego and therefore blinded to the merit of their argument. Heavenly Father! Could I be that far out of touch?
Sidney Poitier's mother died a few weeks before he received the Academy Award. Poitier, This Life, page 255:
Evelyn Poitier's life had come to an end some weeks short of that April evening. She died January 18, 1964, at the age of sixty-eight... our mother had slipped quietly away to join her Reggie. A swift and dignified departure was granted her by a merciful heaven.
Sidney Poitier recalled a time when his first wife Juanita arranged for a group of older women to meet his mother, Evelyn. Poitier, This Life, page 257:
From the outset, after the introductions and the first cup of tea, Evelyn found herself on the hot spot with a stream of questions coming her way about her children, her grandchildren, recipes for West Indian dishes, religion, and her husband.
Poitier, This Life, pages 259-260:
That trip back to Belgrade on an Air France jet was when I stopped praying on airplanes. For years it had been my habit, after strapping myself into my seat, to say a little prayer just before the plane began taxiing down the runway. I would say, "Dear Lord, please ride with us to our destination and help us return safely to the ground." The plane would take off, fly to wherever it was going, come in for a smooth, safe landing and at the moment of contact with the ground I would say, "Thank You, Lord, for riding with us safely." I did it every time I got on a plane, but I always felt guilty because I never seemed to call on the Lord except when I was in a potentially dangerous situation. And as that guilt intensified through the years, I started thinking of myself as dishonest and hypocritical. I mean, where was my awareness of God when I was having a good time? I could imagine Him saying, "Oh, for heaven's sake, here he comes--he needs a favor again." So, finally I said to myself: That is a hypocritical relationship to have with God or Jesus, that is unhealthy--calling on Him only at those times makes me an opportunist in the relationship. A user. So I said: I have to stop doing it, because I'm only doing it out of fear. And if I can relate to God only when I'm afriad, then we must be in a relationship unworthy of us both. I'm gonna quit praying on airplanes.
Poitier, This Life, pages 250-253:
I get on that Paris-to-Belgrade plane, strap myself in, and consciously prepare myself to fight the urge. Needless to say, the neurotic energy feeding the urge is the idea that this particular plane is going to crash as soon as it gets up high enough to. The plane lurches forward for its takeoff run and I try desperately to steel myself against my fears. By way of consolation I tell myself: Sidney P., in every life there comes a now-or-never moment, and you will be a better man once this plane has touched downn. It doesn't help. The more the plane picks up speed rushing down the runway, the more I'm tempted. I think: Well, I'll say one more little old prayer just to get me over this. I think: Well, I'll say one more little old prayer just to get me over this trip, a last one--I'll start being brave on my next trip. But I fight it. Finally the plane lifts off and climbs up into the clouds, and I tell you I sit there motionless in the grip of a paralyzing fear that is systematically squeezing beads of cold sweat from every pore in my body.
Our first stop is Munich. From Paris to MunichI'm expecting the plane to fall out of the sky at any moment. It doesn't. Arriving at Munich, we touch down without incident, ending the first phase of my cold-turkey cure. After a half-hour layover, we take off for Zagreb in Yugoslavia. On the flight to Zagreb I don't pray going up and I don't pray coming down. By the time I get to Belgrade, I'm cured of my opportunist habit. And I say to myself: If I'm going to develop a healthy relationship with Him, I must from this very moment be cognizant of God at good times as well as bad--during the calm and during the storm. As a result, I still pray; but I don't pray only in adversity.
Years ago I had the privilege of getting to know Carl Sagan... Despite his background as a serious scientist, despite all the physics and math he knew, Sagan still had the great capacity to wonder... He maintained that sense of wonder throughout his life... he became ill... He went on Nightline, I remember, and he talked about his work... a question came up about illness and hope. It was phrased as delicately as possible, but the gist of it was, "What are the thoughts of a dying man, and what exactly comes to mind in terms of religion and the afterlife?"
Poitier, This Life, pages 258-260:
Carl was a scientist to the end (not that there aren't scientists who believe in God). He let it be known that his faith was firmly in science and that he believed science would eventually explain much, much more than we know now, and that those forthcoming technical details would be the only answers we're ever going to have. In other words, he wasn't looking for a hedge in his time of need. He wasn't covering his bets.
Well, I'm no scientist, and certainly I don't have Carl Sagan's technical understanding of the universe and our position within it. I simply believe that there's a very organic, immeasurable consciousness of which we're a part. I believe that this consciousness is a force so powerful that I'm incapable of comprehending its power thorugh the puny instrument of my human mind. And yet I believe that this consciousness is so unimaginably calibrated in its sensitivity that not one leaf falls in the deepest of forests on the darkest of nights unnoticed.
Now, given the immensity of this immeasurable power that I'm talking about, and given its pervasiveness through the universe (extending fom distant galaxies to the tip of my nose), I choose not to give it a name, and by naming it, suggesting that I in any way understand it, though I'm enriched by the language and imagery of both traditional Christianity and old island culture. Many of my fellow human beings do give it a name, and do purport to understand it in a more precise way than I would ever attempt. I just give it respect, and I think of it as living in me as well as everyone else.
The grand consciousness I perceive allows me great breadth and scope of choices, nonoe of which are correct or incorrect except on the basis of my own perception. This means that the responsibility for me rests with me.
I have obligations to be in service to this me, to shape it, to encourage its growth, to nurture it toward becoming a better and better me day by day, to be conversant with all its good qualities, such as they are, and to be aware of all its bad qualities, such as they are. When the living space between the two sets of qualities becomes so uncomfortable that choices have to be made, I try to come down on the side of what I feel is right.
I'll say that I believe in God, if you press me to the wall, but then I'm going to come right back at you and give you the above definition of God. You follow? And that's the only definition of God that I'll defend, because I don't think it's possible for me to embrace any other.
I have a kind of respect--a worshipful attitude, even--for nature and the natural order and the cosmos and the seasons. I know it's no accident that ancient people celebrated the solstice and the equinox. There's something very poweful that happens, especially in the colder climates of the north, when instead of being a minute shorter every day, daylight lasts a minute longer. You feel it in your bones. You know it as you might know the presence of God. We're halfway there! We may survive this winter after all!
I don't believe in a Moses laying down the law; I simply believe that there are natural harmonies, and that some things work better than others--and it so happens that most of those things that work better than others align pretty well with the Judeo-Christian ethics that most people in this country define as morality. They work better, within the system of life on ths planet. They don't violate the natural order.
Which is another way of saying, "You are a child of the universe; you have a right to be here." Carl Sagan's first wife, Lynn Margulis, found another way to express the same idea through the concept of Gaia--the scientific view that our entire planet and all the ecosystems therein make up one organic whole, one living being that must be examined as such if we are to learn the way things truly are. "Mother Earth" is yet another, much older, and considerably less scientific way people have expressed the same thought...
Poitier, This Life, pages 275-276:
My fear is this: I fear that as we cover more of our planet with concrete and steel, as we wire our homes with more and more fiber-optic cables that take the place of more intimate interactions, as we give our children more and more stuff and less and less time, as we simply go further and further away from the kind of simplicity I knew as a child on Cat Island, our Earth--Gaia or not--will become for us the Wire Mother, and our souls will wither and die as a result.
Meanwhile I went off to Kanab, Utah, to begin filming Duel at Diablo with James Garner and Bibi Andersson. Midway through that film Diahann flew in to spend a few days with me. It wasn't a good visit. There was something on her mind. Our togetherness was at a distance; we were not quite in step. When irritation flared and things got worse during my attempt so probe for the source of the trouble, I backed off and gave her time, thinking that if I was patient she would share it when she was ready.
Poitier, This Life, pages 233-235:
She returned to New York, and on a day I shall never foget, she telephoned to tell me the deal was off. [More about this phone conversation, during which his second wife Diahann began to break up with him.]
...As our long-distance fight bristled between Utah and New York, we said things we didn't mean--and things we meant, we didn't say...
Psychoanalysis offered several insights, one of which might eventually prove to be accurate: that Diahann and Juanita were, for me, two halves of a perfect whole... [More.]
My good friend Harry Belafonte had gone through the heartache of a divorce a few years ahead of me... He recommended a psychiatrist... I got the same encouragement [that Belafonte gave, about staying close to his children] from my psychoanalysit, with whom I would sit down four or five times a week to face my guilt.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, page xiii-xv:
Many years ago I wrote a book about my life... 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... I felt called to write about certain values, such as integrity and commitment, faith and forgiveness, about the virtues of simplicity, about the difference between "amusing ourselves to death" and finding meaningful pleasures--even joy...
Poitier described, in great detail, an incident that happened when he and his wife went on vacation to Acapulco, Mexico with his agent Marty Baum. Sidney and Marty went swimming in the ocean, when suddenly they were caught in undertows and waves that almost drowned them. Only a few passages from these pages are below. From: Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 211-215:
Writers of a spiritual or metaphysical persuasion often convey thei message through storytellling. They illustrate their points with parables drawn from great teachers of the past, whether it be Jesus of Nazareth, or Buddha, or the latest Arabic sage or Sufi mystic--the more exotic the better. Some take this natural tendency to great lengths, writing whole books devoted to finding the deep wisdom embedded in ancient folk tales, psychologically complex stories drawn from Africa, Scandinavia, East Asia, Latin America, and many other far-flung countries. They do this, it seems, to get as far away as possible from our contemporary mindset so that we can see modern, digitized, postindustrial life as if through new eeys (or, perhaps, thorugh very ancient, very grounded eyes).
For me the task is much easier. First of all, I've spent a very long time working in the dram factory called Hollywood. It's been my privilege--but also my daily business--to participate in constructing and dramatizng what those of us involved always hoped were meaningful stories, and putting them on the screen. Because I've always believed that my work should convey my personal values, as an author I don't have to look ar to find storylines to illustrate points I wish to make...
But perhaps more important, as someone wishing to make a comment or two about contemporary life and values, I don't have to dig through libraries or travel to exotic lands to arrive at a view of our modern situation refracted through the lens of the preindustrial world, or the uncommercialized, unfranchised, perhaps even unsanitized--and therefore supposedly more "authentic"--perspective of the Third World. Very simply, this is because that "other" world, as alien as if separted by centuries of time, is the one from which I came.
The seconds ticked away. We held our breath and prayed that another swell would toss us up again. One more chance, please, God... Then the tide reversed, causing billions of grains of sand to swirl around our legs and erode out from under our feet, loosening our grip on life. With every ounce of strength left in us, we tried to hold our ground, but there was no holding against that tide. It had come to take us down for the last time.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, page 25:
We screamed for our wives... They didn't hear us. And then it came again, the sea, pulling us back into itself, and down we wnet for the third time. And then, amid the violent turning and twisting in that underto, serenity began to enfold me. "O God," I thought, "has my time really come? Is this sense of well-being here to ease me through that final barrier?"
No answer. Just turmoil. "Lord, I ain't ready to die here," I confessed. "I'm simply not ready. I'm certainly not ready to die on the beach in Acapulco." There seemed to be seven or eight seconds between waves. I prayed, "O Lord, don't let the wave be late. If we're forced to breath down here, it will be ll over. Let it come on time; please, Father, don't let it be late. A few seconds off the mark and we'll be done for."
Suddenly the wave arrived, with no time to spare, and it smashed into the wall of sand and jettisoned us up to the surface and onto the beach...
We hadn't been okay twenty minutes before we began laughing and telling jokes about it. But I guarantee you there was no sacrilege in our laughter. Tears we had shed aplenty, and genuine prayers for mercy had filled our hearts while nature held our fragile existence in the balance for an absolutely critical few minutes. A reprieve had ben granted, and we knew it.
Close calls like this--"Nearer, my God, to thee" moments--inevitably make us stop and take stock.
We're connected with everything. We're connected with the primal instincts. And whatever is primal in us goes to the beginning of the species and back even beyond that.
In New York City, Sidney Poitier was quickly ejected from the premises the first time he went to an audition for a position in a theater group. From: Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 73-74:
...the man in charge quickly let me know--and in no uncertain terms--that I was misguided in my assumptions. I had no training in acting. I could barely read! And to top it off, I had a thick, singsong Bahamian accent... He was seething. "You just get out of here and stop wasting people's time. Go get yourself a job you can handle," he barked... I knew I had to change... So I set out on a course of self-improvement... An old Jewish waiter, noticing my efforts, took pity and offered to help. He became my tutor, as well as my guardian angel of the moment. Each night we set in the same booth in that quiet area of the restaurant and he helped me learn to read.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, page 92:
The Harlem that I knew for fourteen years was an amazing place--a fabled destination well known in African-American communities throughout the country... all of Harlem's visitors were encouraged to believe that each breath they took would also contain spiritual blessings that came flowing out of the soul of its loving people through the gateways of their hearts.
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 225-231:
Reggie Poitier [Sydney Poitier's father] knew what his legacy would be. He kne and believed in the importance of his role as a father, and he knew that it extended well beyond his capacity as a breadwinner. He believed in the responsibility and the dignity of his task as a bearer of standards, and as an enforcer of standards...
Poitier, The Measure of a Man, pages 272-274:
In my generation we did a lot of pleasure-chasing--we, the generation responsible for today's twenty-year-olds and thirty-year-olds and forty-year-olds... When I got out of the Army in 1944, the guys who were being discharged with me were mostly between the ages of eighteen and thirty. We came home to a country that was in great shape in terms of industrial capacity... The incredible, explosive economic prosperity that resulted just went wild. It was during that period that the pleasure principle started feeding on itself.
One generation later it was the sixties, and those twenty-eight-year-old guys from World War II were forty-eight. They had kids twenty years old, kids who had been so indulged for two decades that it caused a huge, first-time-in-history distortion in the curve of values. And, boy, did that curve bend and bend and bend... The postwar parents... the children they had raised on that pleasure principle of material goods were by then bored to death. They had overdosed on all that stuff. So that was the generation who decided, "Hey, guess where the real action is? Forget the Winnebago. Give me sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Incredible mind-blowing experiences, head-banging, screw-your-brains-out experiences in service to immediate and transitory pleasures.
But the one kind of gratification is simply an outgrowth of the other, a more extreme form of the same hedonism, the same need to indulge and consume. Some of those same sixties kids are now themselves forty-eight. Whatever genuine idealism they caried through those love-in days got swept up in the great yuppie gold rish of the eighties and the stock market nirvana of the nineties--and I'm afraid we are still miles from the higher ground we seek...
[page 230] Poverty didn't kill my soul. Poverty can destroy a person, yes, but I've seen prosperity kill many a soul as well. After so much ease and comfort and mindless consumption of commodities, how do we even know that anything resembling a soul is there anymore?
[page 231] ...We're not nearly as strong as our mothers and father were. I mean, to endure--to just simply stand up under the strain of a lifetime of what someone like my mother had to put up with. But she endured becaus she found comfort in her commitments.
Questions about my father... still haunt me. I've been led to believe, by the accounts of surviving contemporaries, that he was a bit of a rogue in his time... The dictionary's version of rogue misses my father by a mile. His old buddies' version speaks of behavior in a time I never knew. Was he a good man? A loving father? Yes, I think so. But he was other things as well, and now I must try to know him in full for all that he was in the time of his life.
A seriously flawed man and a loving father are often one and the same person. In some cultures, where "faithful husbands" are anything but monogamous, a highly specific definition as to what constitutes fidelity has allowed men to escape condemnation. My father, thanks to that narrowest of definitions, was an escapee in the culture of Cat Island. So was the local priest. Lots of farmers. Loads of fishermen. Schoolteachers, shopkeepers, house-builders, and well-diggers. All declared "faithful husbands" by a definition with roots in ancient cultures whose wives and mothers had no say. Handed down through thousands of years, picking up strength along the way, that definition has left room for mistresses, open affairs on the side, even polygamy. That narrowest definition has declared a faithful husband to be one who can be depended upon to provide for his wife and children. Any man who has met that narrow test has been beyond reproach for any other behavior resulting from uncontrolled drives and passions.
By that one-sided and far too generous definition, my father, along with millions of others since the dawn of time, was granted forgiveness never earned, never deserved.
Webpage created 24 June 2005. Last modified 24 June 2005.
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