One of my childhoods was happy. The B&W movies projected on our small TV screen, more often than not, contradicted the drama I was living in my own home movie reels. But there were exceptions. In fact, the images of our television's B&W movies were very real to me. Sidney Poitier was one of those images, and thankfully, he made repeat appearances.
Growing up I had no real role models. When the adults in my world had let me down, why wouldn't I look to the land of make believe for potential candidates? But was it make believe?
Sidney Poiter and Barbra Striesand were the only two role models I discovered while kept captive on my island. (What a coincidence that in the "real" world, the two of them along with Paul Newman formed First Artists Production company in 1969 when I was eight years old!)
With Ms. Striesand, one film, Funny Girl, left its eternal mark. But with Mr. Poitier, it would be four much more important films: The Defiant Ones, In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir With Love.
I saw through Poitier's characters' eyes that just because one is experiencing disrespect, inhumanity, prejudice, it doesn't mean he/she is deserving of it. Why does one person survive against unbeatable odds and another fall by the wayside? Is it inherent belief in oneself? A higher power? Ultimate belief in one's worthiness?
I believe some of the answers can be found in Poitier's films and in his spiritual memoir, The Measure of A Man.
For example, I always knew I was something when to all outward appearances I wasn't. Like Poitier, I stood out. I didn't look or act like anyone else. He, for the colour of his skin when he visited a predominately white neighborhood. Me, for what I call the tri-effect of being sexually abused, gay and a Jehovah's Witness -- not necessarily in that order, mind you!
My father's house on the hill of our island looked like a fortress, as evergreens and maple trees kept everyone "else" off. It was a world unto its own. Much like Sidney Poitier's Cat Island. Leaving our islands, we both had to grow up very quickly, albeit for very different reasons.
On page 29 of The Measure of a Man, Mr. Poitier talks about the time he was asked 60 years after the fact, what did he think of the colour of his skin when he was on Cat's Island. His answer, "I didn't." I know what he means. The Donald that I was in my life with father is alien to me and alive only in my flashbacks. I never thought of myself as a victim of sexual abuse. Never once did I think I was gay.
Poitier writes that once off the island, a world was waiting that would focus on his colour. When I made excursions off the island, the world focused on my "differentness."
Poitier continues, "Me? Dog shit? Listen close. Not only am I not dog shit... watch me win this race."
With me, two popular girls at school called me over, "If my dog had a face like yours, I'd shave its ass and make it walk backwards." The outside world judged my external package: bad clothes, unfashionable hair, acne-covered skin, nerdy glasses, and an androgynous face and voice to match. My differences were on display for the world to see.
But I had Poitier's inner resolve. He declared, "I'm not talking about being as good as you. I hearby declare myself better than you," (pg. 42) and that he carried this message with him, "You're going to have to be twice as good as the white folks in order to get half a much." (pg. 43)
Despite my negative experiences, I wrote in my yearbook, "Anything girls can do, I can do better." I too had to work twice as hard, but that inner resolve was rewarded: I won the top award in the school for typing and shorthand, art and math.
It was the images of Sidney Poitier experiencing prejudice on film that had made an impact on me when I was a child. It encouraged my inner resolve not to give up. Poitier's choices in the roles he played taught me my conduct and actions are as important on my journey as the destination itself!
For example, The Deviant Ones taught me freedom was possible but not worth it if I had to sacrifice a friend. No wonder I refused to abandon my mother and siblings when I finally experienced freedom. It was all of us or none of us, and so we escaped our island together when I was 15 in '76! But what is freedom? I discovered my answer in a rhetorical question. Is it possible to really leave an abuser behind? If he doesn't haunt your days, he'll haunt your dreams. In my case, he did both.
And in To Sir With Love, Poitier's character, Mark Thackeray -- his dream was to become an engineer but when his dream was within reach -- he chose not to turn his back on his students. I've spent more than a quarter century teaching others about the effects of sexual abuse -- speaking with more than 1,000 victims. It's not a subject I want to talk about anymore, but I must. I guess that's why I'm a writer. My message and energy will reach more people through the printed word.
Yes, the journey is as important as the destination. Sometimes more so.
I've had people scoff at me over the years -- incredulous that I wouldn't sell out over what they considered the smallest of principles. I'd die for what I believe in. That's why I so related to Poitier's choice to reject a large role in a film offered him early in his career. He recalled, "I rejected the part because, in my view, the character simply didn't measure up. He didn't fight for what mattered to him most. He didn't behave with dignity." (66-67)
On the other hand, Poitier picked his battles, and didn't sweat the minor ones.
When he was doing publicity for Blackboard Jungle, he stopped at an airport to eat. He asked the black maître d' for a table and was told if he ate alone, they'd have to put a screen around him. (pgs 94, 95) Poitier wrote, "The me they saw and wanted to put a screen around didn't exist to me." He walked away instead, digested the experience, and went on with his life to fight battles as he had to.
When I was made fun of on a daily basis, I never acknowledged the insults, nor were there tears. I always behaved with dignity. But when I was attacked outside a gay bar decades ago and then eight years ago, when someone left a message on my answering machine that he was going to "Tag my toe," I didn't hesitate to report these incidents to the police. When I was told it wasn't against the law, I insisted on respect for my rights.
I was always aware of the big picture. As Poitier writes, "I had become conscious of being pigeonholed by others, and I had determined then to always aim myself to a slot of my choosing... I am not that which you would make me." (Pg 41)
But again like Poitier, sometimes our "own kind" can wonder why we are not more "angry and confrontational." With Poitier, it was for his choice in roles that were considered "non-threatening to white audiences." In my case, I was criticized for a time because I refused to politicize my orientation. When our City of London's Christian mayor refused to declare Gay Pride Week, my gay "brothers" took her to court, sued and won . I wrote positively about her; respecting her right to her "beliefs." I say kindness, love and compassion for people who even persecute us is the only way to truly affect their beliefs.
And yes, what about the ultimate test of my spirituality in my journey, my abuser, my father. I've expressed and continue to all the emotions and feelings my experience demands. For as, Mr. Poitier says, "Anguish and pain and resentment are very human forces." (pg 124) But I've taken the negative energy that my father initiated and turned it into positive energy. I can do that because I let go of the past for me, not for my father.
Poitier writes, "In this life of mine I can't recall any situation in which forgiveness hasn't ultimately been the settlement...I live better with the situation even if a relationship is altered irreparably in some ways." (pg 106)
I've had enough therapy to know I did nothing wrong. But I can't make my abuser own up to his responsibility. A trial, conviction, a book couldn't. He's pushing 80 now -- what could?
Education is the answer. Strength in numbers. When legions of us survivors stand up for ourselves and say, we're not going to take it anymore; when we educate our teachers, police, the courts, our families and friends, then we can say as Sidney writes, "Now you will pay attention to us. How much more you gonna do to us? You can kill us. You can ... beat us, but you'll have to drag us away 10 at a time, and there will be hundreds more to take our place." (pg 108).
Coincidentally, I believe the same truth applies to my experience as a gay man. Our persecutors are dwindling as the growing number among them become educated.
As Mr. Poitier says, "The greatest part of that legacy from my father is the knowledge that in discipline and commitment lies hope." (pg 189)
Poitier acknowledges the icons of his generation. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. Men who had "no hatred for [those] who had spent a commensurate part of their lives trying to destroy [them]. [They] resented or disliked or hated what they represented." (pg 125).
I believe Mr. Poitier should be added to that list. I'd give anything to have had a father half the man he is. But life is what it is. A lifelong journey, not a destination.
If the true measure of a man is how he provides for his children, what a legacy Sidney Poitier has left all of us: Self-respect. Thoughtful use of (and the importance of) language. Patience and humility. And dignity and grace above all else.