By Sidney Poitier
"So what am I doing with my time?" So begins Sidney Poitier's 2001 autobiography, The Measure Of A Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.
Reading his account we discover the answer to his question. Poitier, ninty-two years of age, but seventy-two when he wrote the book ran from poverty in the Bahamas only to hit a brick wall of racism and discrimination in the Jim Crow era of Miami in the early 1940s. He fled for New York and the promise of better days, but there his color and lack of education made him fit for dish washing and little more. On a whim, after a stint in the Army, Poitier responded to an ad that read "ACTORS WANTED."
"What the hell," I thought. "I've tried dishwashers wanted, porters wanted, janitors wanted--why not try actors wanted?" I figured that I could do the work. Acting didn't sound any more difficult than washing dishes or parking cars."
But it was more difficult. He bombed! Poitier was rebuffed and marched out of the office with the cutting words,
"Stop wasting people's time. Get yourself a job you can handle. Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something" ringing in his ears.
That was a defining moment! Poitier refused to quit, an action born more of character than the desire to be an actor. Now, more than half-century removed from that moment, the man who became the first African American to win an Oscar (for Lilies of the Field) shares his journey -- a journey that chronicles his highs and lows, his present and his past, his delights and his regrets.
For me, The Measure Of A Man was more than Poitier's personal history, it was his philosophy of life, his insights into success, failure, and forgiveness. It was a perspective on what poverty looked like, what being black in the Jim Crow south looked like, and what perseverance and persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odd looked like -- in his day, but for that matter, in any day. His chronicle is not about civil rights; but it is an education on civil rights. It is not about a history of the film industry or even his films; but it is an education on both. It is not about his parents, but it is clear reading his work that the measure of who he is rooted in who they were.
As his story unfolds so does the true measure of Sidney Poitier. We find him as he describes us all, trying to face our end with character:
That's what we're seeking. That's what it's all about, you know? We're all of us a little greedy. (Some of us are plentygreedy.) We're all somewhat courageous, and we're all considerable cowardly. We're all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.
Sidney Poitier's "Spiritual" side is syncretic, a blend of Bahamian spirituality, dualism, Christianity, and "you are what you make yourself to be." That aside, it is an honest work by a wise if not wizened man. Read the book, but also listen to the book. Poitier won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Spoken Word. His voice, inflection, diction, timing are as delightful as his writing.