Dennis Walcott

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- Dennis Walcott, former New York City Department of Education Chancellor and former President and CEO of the New York Urban League

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To Sidney Poitier, with Love!

I was at home that Friday morning when I heard the news that Sidney Poitier had passed away Thursday, Jan. 6, in his home in the Bahamas. He was 94 years old. The Bahamian American actor was the youngest of seven children for Evelyn Poitier and Reginald James Poitier, tomato farmers on Cat Island. The sadness I felt was deep! This was a man whose work I had seen all my life and whose work I had loved and admired. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched, “Lilies of the Field,” the film that earned him his first Academy Award in 1964, making him the first Black man to receive the Best Actor honor. I also loved him in “In The Heat of the Night,” “A Raisin In The Sun,” “To Sir With Love,” “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” “The Defiant Ones,” and
“A Patch of Blue.” Poitier made 56 films in this lifetime. He said in a past interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” shown on Sunday, “My work has been representative of me as a man. And the values are what I carry over from my parents.” He was an actor who made us all proud and opened doors for so many people. He was also someone who chose his roles carefully, always making sure not to take on demeaning roles.

Poitier was a writer, having created the books “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” and “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to my Great Granddaughter.” These two books also won him Grammy Awards for Spoken Word Albums. He won three Golden Globe Awards, one for “Lilies of the Field.” He received the Screen Actor Guild Life Achievement Award; President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom; and Sir Sidney Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1974. Poitier was a man of many talents: in addition to being a brilliant actor and writer, he was also a director and civil rights activist. Poitier participated in the March on Washington and spoke out for civil rights.

I fondly recall going to the opening night of “Motown: The Musical” on Broadway in 2013 and looking up while in the lobby and seeing the dashing 6 ft. 2 in. Poitier standing before me. I was overjoyed and quickly but respectfully approached him, introduced myself and asked if I could interview him about the musical for the Amsterdam News. He told me he needed a minute, but to wait there and that he would be right back. I waited a few moments and he returned, and in a very soft voice shared his appreciation for the musical and what it meant to have this musical about the Black artists from Motown and to hear the music on Broadway. When I requested a photo with him he smiled and agreed. That is one of my prized possessions, and hangs proudly on my living room wall!

Poitier’s roots were in theater: he got his start with the American Negro Theater as a teenager, struggling to make a career in New York City. Prior to finding out about an audition at the American Negro Theater (through the pages of the New York Amsterdam News, I might add), Poitier lied about his age in 1943 and enlisted in the Army. He served as an orderly with the 1267th Medical Detachment at a veteran’s hospital on Long Island. Realizing this wasn’t what he wanted, he faked a mental disorder and received a discharge in 1945. Once discharged he returned to New York City. It is interesting to note that Sidney Poitier was led to his first theater experience at the American Negro Theater by reading the Amsterdam News, where he saw an ad that the
American Negro Theater was looking for actors. It truly is a small world.

What is always beautiful about our treasured icons like Sidney Poitier, is that when they are honored by others, they tend to not only be humble, but they sing the praises of those honoring them. This is what Poitier did in 2011 at the 40th anniversary of the New Federal Theatre as Woodie King Jr. honored him. He appeared in a video message to King and shared these words: “Woodie, you are destined to go down in history as to your creative contribution to the enhancement of the creative arts…The world has seen who you are and how you continue to enrich the world of the creative arts. Congratulations.” His daughter, Pamela Poitier, was there to accept the award for her father, which was presented by Glynn Turman.

Woodie King Jr., describing what Sidney Poitier meant to him said, “He meant that I could work and integrate into this place called the American theater. I started off in theater in Detroit, went to drama school, got a grant to the American Place Theatre in New York where I got to work with Sidney Poitier’s director for ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ Lloyd Richards. From there I got a job in the Poverty program. I was with Mobilization for Youth on the East Side, training young people in acting and how to be noted and respected. Sidney Poitier’s influence was a part of that program from day one, that’s what he meant to me. Everything that I did in that program was emulating Sidney Poitier. I had been exposed to his work and read about how he started,” King shared.
Poitier’s passing causes one to reflect on the impact he had on their lives. One such person who reached out to me immediately was legendary actor Count Stovall. He sent this tribute: “To Sir Sidney Poitier with love: Yesterday I had a unique experience. I watched two wonderful Sidney Poitier films that I had never seen before—‘Brother John’ (1971) and ‘The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn’ (1999). I enjoyed them immensely. Firstly, it’s been years since I was able to watch what was for me a new Sidney Poitier film; lastly, I had never seen two more beautifully performed films by Sir Sidney Poitier. And today I topped off this great experience by seeing the CBS Sunday Morning’s story about the great man. It brought me to tears. The man gave me a sense of personal power. It took me over 50 years to completely appreciate this giant of a man. His artistry so enabled me to see myself as a strong, capable man. Oh yes, we raced to the cinema to see the latest Sidney Poitier film. But I never knew that I was—for the duration of my life until reaching my 70s and after having read two autobiographies by this man—able to fully digest his impact on me as an artist, a man and a human being and yes, Mr. Poitier explained my life’s potential as a man of color. He was right. He demonstrated a code of conduct to me both as an artist, and as a man living in the duplicitous world of America. His example has given me tremendously rewarding insights. Sir Sidney Poitier lived an amazingly effective life of service. He embodied eloquence and versatility as a performer, a director and a writer. All I can say is thank you. I had the great good fortune to meet him on several occasions and to be friends and a colleague of his beautiful talented daughter Pamela Poitier.”
Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon said of Poitier, “He opened the door and set the table for all of us…The father of American storytelling whom all artists owe a great deal of gratitude. He will forever inspire.”

Playwright and screenwriter Richard Wesley, who wrote the comedy classic “Uptown Saturday Night,” which Poitier starred in with Bill Cosby, along with “Let’s Do It Again,” “Fast Forward” and “Mandela and DeKlerk,” said, “He not only gave me my big break, but he also was free with advice about how to navigate show business and life itself. We held a conversation with each other at least once a year every year from 1973 until 2020, when illness began to overtake him, but even then I could get a message or two to him, letting him know he was not far from my thoughts. More than a ‘mentor,’ Sidney was a friend. His friendship is remembered more by me than our working relationship.”

Movie, film and stage legend Ben Vereen shared with me that he felt devastated by the passing of his friend of several decades. He directed me to his Facebook page on which he shared his heart: “In the beginning there was Sidney Poitier. In the beginning of style, grace, elegance and dignity there was Sidney Poitier for the African American community and for the world. I will miss you my king brother, thank you for opening doors and showing us the way to elegance to all the accolades I used before. We pray for your family will miss you Sidney. This wasn’t supposed to happen but life has an expiration date for all of us. We just wish yours was a little longer. You taught us so much and your style and elegance—I grew up watching ‘Blackboard Jungle’ and even there you were elegantly beautiful with such poise. Well, rest well my brother and thank you for everything you’ve done for us, not just the African American community, but for the world. Well all I can say to God is ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’”

Sir Poitier will be missed, but is someone whom we will always feel blessed and proud to have had in our midst.