Sidney Poitier, of A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love fame, is unique on the American stage of life. He ushered authentic spiritual formation on and off the silver screen. As a young white Canadian girl, I watched these movies. His performances within them touched me to the bone and reached into my pores. It is hardly any wonder that he received the Screen Actor Guild’s Life Achievement Award.
Poitier’s book, THE MEASURE OF A MAN, a spiritual autobiography (2000, 2007 by HarperOne), is iconoclastic in its documentation of his personal growth with the pressure off, and shares with us where and how his wisdom notes came to fruition. Within these pages are the keys of spiritual formation, of integrity, commitment, faith and forgiveness, the virtues of simplicity, meaningful pleasures and joy. In short, it contains the messages he wishes to share with you and me. Sydney Poitier’s self-offering enables us to step out of our contemporary mindset and understand anew what our conditioned minds miss.
To begin with, spirituality does not come from spouting a different set of dogmas dictated from religious authorities, nor does it include treating others as opponents, or worse, the enemy. Instead, your spiritual state is shaped by how you have conditioned your brain, the emotional affect you present, the purity of your thoughts, a calm mind, and follow-through. Reflect on your daily walk, see how you can make adjustments for the next day, thereupon change your behaviour to grow into a better person. Grow into wiser action plans and wiser intent. Specifically, spiritual formation is a process, not a goal.
Spirituality is genuine communication which, in turn, helps the community to thrive, even if it is merely a community of two. With interactions, each person’s internal ramblings become clearer. In turn, fairly deal with others. Lend a helping hand with a helping heart to create and grow the loving community. To be clear, spiritual formation is not about what to do to get credit points, or brownie points. Spiritual formation opens up the mind, brain and body to yourself, with others, and with your environment.
Spiritual Formation in the Formative Years
Sidney Poitier’s formative years were pre-industrial, commonly termed as “Third World.” As a consequence, Sidney’s early life experiences declutter our more urban minds, the first start to spiritual formation. He lived on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Calm, quiet, reassuring stability in his daily life, with a loving, comforting family, were constants that grounded and anchored his sense of belonging, the touchstones of his life. Nature, and its bounty, provided for their needs. He heard accounts of the wonders of indoor running water with pipes that came into the house, and of machines that moved automobiles. He believed these things were merely fanciful and inconceivable notions. In summary, is it any wonder that Poitier exudes an ocean full of calm on the screen?
The Poitier family lived in communal villages using improvised kerosene lamps. It was a culture of trade with little currency. His father, Reggie, farmed tomatoes in the lush soil. Other than reflections in the water, metal objects, and the glass reflections from the store’s alcohol bottles, there was no looking-glass, no mirror, thus no skin self-consciousness. The variation from life in North America extended even further: the upper class people on Cat Island were black skinned. The better-heeled class had adopted the rigid class structure from the collectively bleaker past. There was absolutely nothing in Sidney’s young life to infer any diminishment as a person due to attributes of his skin. His spiritual formation developed without this oppressive diatribe in his head. It did not impact his sense of being, nor in his sense of belonging wherever he placed his head.
Sidney learned risk taking. There was no paranoid over-coddling as he fished and explored over the coral waters on his own.
By the age of ten, the Poitier family had moved to Nassau, with its urban challenges and loss of childhood camaraderie. Poitier observes that we each make do with what we receive. Different things delight different people, so each person has a different focal point on what gives them joy. In short, our differences are a part of our unique spiritual formation. At 11, Sidney befriended a white skinned boy. Over time, the topic of race arose. The boy told him that Sidney would not have the same opportunities as white people. Understandably, this was a ludicrous concept to Sidney. He had neither seen nor heard of such a thing before. Consequently, it did not shape his sense of self.
His mother Evelyn gave him wise advice for difficult people, “Charm them, son, into neutral,” a strong indicator of the strength of self the parents intentionally reinforced, a foundational spiritual formation. There is no doubt, how Sidney Poitier’s parents dealt with each other and with others steadied him throughout his trials and tribulations.
Spiritual Formation in Teen Years
By the age of 15, he left Nassau to live with his brother in Miami. With his values and self-esteem firmly in place, Miami’s 1940s Jim Crow style did not suit his intact reasoning powers. Again, he decided move on and put his back to the KKK and set course for the heady waters of Harlem in New York, once more on his own. As a consequence, young Mr. Poitier had already carved a particular identity of his choosing.
Yet, Sidney had to learn fast as New York proved an adventurous challenge riding subways, sleeping on rooftops, gorging on hot-dogs, and malted milkshakes. He played dead when shot in the leg during a race riot. By intuition or by a miracle, Poitier pushed forward in his young life.
The New York winters were killing him with his rooftop life. For this reason, he entered the army for a little shelter, hiding his age of 17. As with his impatience for the Jim Crow life in the South, he would not roll over for the strictly disciplined military. In a calculated maneuver, he crashed a chair through a window near a police officer for discharge. Consequently, the head of psychiatry cleared him of mental illness and helped Poitier to see that there is more than what meets the eye, likely referring to why military discipline is necessary. Only later did he realize the escape hatch manoeuvre lacked character. In this case, the head psychologist was Sidney’s spiritual formation guide.
Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood
By the time he was delivered out of the army, Sidney Poitier was 18 years old. Having been a dishwasher, a porter, and a janitor, he tried his hand at acting. For the American Negro Theatre, an auditioner shocked him into reality after his first audition, “You just get out of here and stop wasting people’s time. Go get a job you can handle. Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something.” Stunned, Poitier refused to coast through life only worthy of being a dishwasher. For the time being, learning became his mantra. Sometimes our spiritual formation helpers need to shake us out of our complacency.
Above all, his diction, lack of schooling, inability to read, were blocking his passage to success. He worked the night shift and, on his breaks, read newspapers out loud with a helpful man guiding him. Poitier succeeded at the next audition. His short foray into acting dried up for a time. Then, a prominent agent called him for a part. Poitier turned it down, yet couldn’t explain why he was turning down such a well paying job. It had no overt racial undertones, except for passive fatality of the character he was to play.
Thus, he realized that he was averse to the role because the scripted character failed to stand up and fight for what mattered to him most. As a result, Poitier identified this feature as not behaving with dignity. All in all, he learned dignity in adversity from his parents. Consequently, every action they took was honourable, no matter how difficult the circumstances. As a result, dignity exuded from Poitier in his roles. There is no doubt, it grips you and holds your attention.
To sum up, I highly recommend Sidney Poitier’s films and this book. They contain the dignity we have lost, if we ever had it at all.