In the 10 days since we learned of Sidney Poitier’s death there have been hundreds of tributes to Poitier—an undeniable icon. Most of these tributes have focused on Poitier’s brilliant acting, for which he received innumerable awards, as well as his advocacy for Civil Rights. As CNN notes, for example, in 1963 Poitier joined Harry Belafonte on a dangerous mission to fund Civil Rights work in Mississippi.
Many tributes also acknowledge Poitier’s humble beginnings. The youngest of seven, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, without electricity and running water. His parents were tomato farmers who traveled to Miami by boat in order to sell their produce. On one of those trips, Poitier’s mother was pregnant with him and gave birth while on the job in Miami, making him a US citizen.
In 1937, when Poitier was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the United States to live (and work) with extended family. While in Florida, Poitier was nearly killed by racists more than once. He tried living in New York City, but he hated the cold so much that he lied about his age to join the army. But then he was so miserable in the army that he faked a mental disorder to get out—perhaps his first acting job? Returning to New York, Poitier worked as a dishwasher, a butcher’s assistant, a drugstore clerk, a construction worker, a porter, and a longshoreman.
In the tributes following his death, Poitier’s story has been continually recounted as a rags-to-riches tale. He is imagined as leaping from Cat Island, in the Bahamas, to the height of Hollywood fame in the 1960s. And indeed, some of his most memorable roles featured Poitier as a smooth talking professional in a tailored suit. Think of the charismatic, confrontational teacher in To Sir With Love (1967), or the almost too-perfect doctor in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), or the brilliant, smoldering, big-city homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs, who helps a Southern sheriff solve a murder case, in The Heat of the Night (1967). This version of Poitier’s on-screen persona was enormously appealing to white, middle class audiences, and the box office boffo of these three films made him the highest grossing film star of any race in 1968.
But Poitier also played a number of working-class characters throughout his career, roles in which he was more likely to wear a simple white t-shirt or a short-sleeved dress shirt. A quick look at some of these “white t-shirt” roles will reveal, that, while it is undeniable that Poitier was a race man, he was also proud of his working-class and immigrant roots. He also told his own story in a way that emphasized his working-class values.
Poitier decided to become an actor in 1945 when he noticed that an ad on the theatrical page in the newspaper said “Actors Wanted,” the same phrasing that appeared on the opposite page: “Dishwashers Wanted” and “Elevator Operators Wanted.” Poitier thought, “Well I’ve been trying this dishwashing thing, I might as well see what this other thing is about.” He answered an ad placed by the American Negro Theater (ANT) company—a progressive effort started in 1940. There he auditioned for Frederick O’Neal, a legend within the black theater community. But Poitier bungled his audition—he couldn’t read very well, and he had a strong Bahamian accent. O’Neal threw Poitier out and told him to get a job as a dishwasher. Poitier’s resolved hardened; he decided to become an actor to show O’Neal “that he was wrong about me.”
Poitier improved his reading with the help of an older Jewish waiter at the restaurant where he worked, and he practiced locution by mimicking the television and the radio. He auditioned again at ANT, and was rejected again. Finally, he asked the receptionist at ANT if he could work as a janitor. She agreed, and, at long last, Poitier was on his way to becoming an actor. How ironic that Poitier, whom white audiences later found to be so polished and cultured, began his career in the theater as a backstage janitor.
Within a decade, Poitier had starred in several ANT stage productions and two feature films. In Blackboard Jungle (1955), Poitier had his first white t-shirt role as a juvenile delinquent who listens to rock-and-roll and smokes cigarettes. Television writer Robert Alan Aurthur was so impressed by Poitier in Blackboard Jungle that he pitched a drama starring Poitier for NBC’s Philco Television Playhouse.
The result—the last teleplay ever made by Playhouse—was A Man is Ten Feel Tall (1955), in which Poitier played a cheerful dock loading supervisor, Tommy Tyler, who befriends (and, ultimately, sacrifices himself for), a shy and somewhat pathetic white army drop out, Alex Nordman. In 1957, it was made into a feature film, The Edge of the City. Poitier’s dock-loading Tommy was ridiculously upbeat, but he was no “Uncle Tom.” He stood up to his boss, Charlie. In the television version, Tommy tells his mentee, Alex, that he and his boss openly disagreed: “[W]e hold different opinions on a lot of things, old Charlie and I do. You know, like unions.”
In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor, for Lilies of the Field. Poitier played Homer Smith, a good-natured handyman cruising around Arizona who stumbles on a colony of East German nuns when his car breaks down. The film is mostly a comedy, as Homer and the nuns overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to build a chapel in the desert. Still, Homer stands up for himself, telling Sister Maria, “I’m nobody you can boss around.”
Last weekend, as the Poitier tributes flowed out, Sherrilyn Ifill, head the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, wondered why so few mentioned Poitier’s transformative role as Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur with ambition, in Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliant play/screenplay, Raisin in the Sun(1961). Ifill linked her Tweet to the speech that Walter gives at the end of the film. In this scene, Walter has decided to accept a large cash offer from a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Mr. Lindner. Lindner is trying to keep his neighborhood “whites only.” But as Walter begins to speak, he realizes that his family has a right to move into their new house, and that it would be wrong to accept Lindner’s money.
This scene is such a powerful statement about what the Youngers deserve—as African Americans, but, also, as working-class Americans. Walter Lee Younger references the fact that he is a chauffeur, and that his wife and his mother work as domestics in other people’s kitchens. Poitier’s voice starts to crack as he says, “my father was a laborer aaaaalllll of his life,” and it is easy to imagine that Poitier was conjuring a vision his own father, the tomato farmer.
Poitier stood for the dignity of race, but also for the dignity of labor. He was proud of his working-class upbringing and he saw acting as a job. He wrote about his early life and his working-class entry into the world of acting with considerable pride and specificity. In addition, Poitier’s working-class characters demanded respect from their employers, and, in turn from their audiences. In more ways than one, Poitier taught us that he was nobody to be bossed around.
Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University