A Praise Song for Sidney Poitier

Image: United Artists/Getty Images.

A poetic tribute to Sidney Poitier.

what kind of man

was he

money-poor Bahamas boy 

airlifted from the womb

a few months too soon

during Evelyn’s and Reginald’s

mad dash to Miami

to hustle tomatoes

to survive

hardly weighed any pounds

teeny enough

to rest inside 

the mud-soiled

palm of Reginald the father

what kind of man

was he

likely to be dead 

in two or three days so his father

readied a shoe box

for the infant funeral

but the ears of

Evelyn the mother

clanged 

of colonizers and overseers

in break-dance battles with

Maroons and Lucayan people 

and her ears clanged too of a runaway ghost 

slouching towards Bethlehem 

while sheltering in Griffin Bat Cave

on Cat Island

The same Cat Island

her child will smell and

eat with his Caribbean eyes

the first ten years of his life

if she can resurrect him like Jesus

what kind of man

was he

Mother Evelyn’s miracle

born yet again as she laid hands 

on the congested pathways of Miami

her own private ghetto

knocking over the bowls

of Negro folks until a sister prophetess

struck a match with her mouth and foretold

the boy will live

and he will walk with kings

and it does not matter

that the boy’s hair

is wooly like a seaman’s cap

that the boy’s feet

are bronze like tobacco-bleached grass

that the boy’s face

is pitch-dark like a West Indian nightfall 

that the boy’s lips

are full like the stomach of a pirate’s ship

that the boy’s spoken-word poetry

unloads with thick African-English creole 

because the boy

Sidney

is beautiful

like Black is beautiful

like the world before Columbus

and the trans-Atlantic slave trade 

and its toxic residue

might have been 

beautiful

because the boy

Sidney

was begat from coin-less dirt farmers 

on an island with one thousand Black souls

and two White souls

and race was not yet a savage 

interruption of his imagination

thus he registered all souls as all souls

he was merely 

Sidney with flour sacks as clothing

who barely ever saw

reflections of himself

because the Poitier family of two parents

and seven children

had no mirror

had no nothing

what kind of man

was he

the first movies he witnessed

were wavy and jagged renderings

of himself in a pond

the first movies he witnessed

were wavy and jagged renderings

of himself in the shattered glass of a rum bottle

the first movies he witnessed

were wavy and jagged renderings

of Bahamian insects and birds and fish

breathing in the earth with their heartbeats

what kind of man

was he

The first sound that squared his 

shoulders and yanked his head to attention

was the booming noise of nature’s silence

The first sound that squared

his shoulders and yanked his head to attention

was the distressed plea

from his father

that 15-year-old Sidney go back to Miami

so that he the rebellious youngest child

would not dagger himself on that island

take care of yourself son

his father said to him

as Sidney was put on a boat

with three dollars and two years of formal schooling

the measure of a man

dripping with tears in the 

mangled good-bye wave

of a parent who had done

what they could to prepare

a child for yesterday

what kind of man

was he

a teenage boy

with elastic troubles

in an outer space called Overtown

Miami’s version of the barbed wire of racism

coloreds-only signs

as poisonous nooses hung tightly around the possibilities

of a people

they did not know you were

an under-educated man-child 

who had never been told

what was impossible

they did not know you were

an under-educated man-child 

unwilling to gash and stab

your own flesh with that barbed wire

that is why you fled Miami

for Harlem New York City

the land of Southern 

and West Indian fugitives

the land of Marcus Garvey

and I-too-sing-America 

blues and bebop revolutions

what kind of man

was he

if there was any life for you

your hands would have to make

that life happen

hands that washed dishes

became the hands banging 

on the door of The American
Negro Theatre

became the trembling hands wrestling

with the words of a script 

be an actor or be a dishwasher

a newspaper ad had

dry-cemented a seed that became

the rose that busted through concrete

those hands washed more dishes

but those hands were also held by an aging Jewish

co-worker who decided to help

you conquer reading

night after night after work

those hands touched and grabbed

syllables

those hands funneled and fed

sentences

those hands retrieved and embraced

new meanings

those hands raised the banner on a life-long

unity with Harry Belafonte

and those hands spun the knob

of a radio so that you could

learn how to speak

as a Shakespearean actor might speak

as Paul Robeson or Spencer Tracy might speak

as kings and presidents might speak

as Frederick Douglass might speak

after learning how to read as a slave

your freedom was in reading 

your freedom was in speaking

your freedom was in acting

the urgency like sticks of lit dynamite

inside your membrane

I have to learn to read

to articulate me as a human being

what kind of man

was he

transporter of a nation

of millions on his watch

no eyes bugging out like a broken-back minstrel

no lips quivering like a terrified sambo 

he the defiant one

with a patch of blue to garbage can his rage

the martin luther king, jr. of American movies

Who I am is my father’s son

I will scrub my knees with Porgy’s shame

I will be a purple lily in the field of daisies

but I will also be a raisin

in the sun trolling like an endless road

I will sledgehammer my Paris blues

I will shape-shift my skin like sand

and slap a White man back

with such force it will echo through galaxies

from Chicago to Nigeria

to Brixton

a slap so dope and layered by trauma ropes

that when I die

they will say

this is evidence of things not seen

that I was not your Negro

nor your Uncle Tom

they call me Mister Tibbs

I Sir Sidney Poitier

what kind of man

was he

I am the me

I choose to be

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

By subscribing, you agree to share your email address with EBONY to receive our weekly emails, events, and other updates. Please see our privacy policy for more information.

By subscribing, you agree to share your email address with EBONY to receive our weekly emails, events, and other updates. Please see our privacy policy for more information.

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

When you sign up for the EBONY newsletter, you’ll be the first to know about all the latest news and updates that are important to you. Gain access to exclusive interviews, videos, special events, and product giveaways delivered right to your inbox!

By subscribing, you agree to share your email address with EBONY to receive our weekly emails, events, and other updates. Please see our privacy policy for more information.