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Opinion | Sidney Poitier and the Black Voice


Then we return to Poitiers. He has been celebrated as a pioneer, and rightly so, as the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor and one of the first black men to pioneer in mainstream Hollywood films, including “No Way Out,” “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Lilies of the Field” (for which he won an Academy Award) and In the Heat of the Night.

But in my rough youth, I must admit that I never saw him as a major the way I was supposed to. The reason: I loved what he did, but felt like a Caribbean man.

Poitier was Bahamian (he was born in Miami but spent his early years in the Bahamas) and always had the talk of it, especially in the most excited moments. In fact, in the 1967 movie To Sir, With Love, he played a Guyanese teacher who works at a multi-ethnic working-class London school. As a kid, it never occurred to me that I would take on his roles as someone who grew up, say, on Chicago’s South Side. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I saw him, well, a young Caribbean man coming to dinner.

And while the characters of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in that movie wouldn’t have been at all thrilled about Gent Caribe’s marriage to their daughter, it seemed to me that they would have been less excited if the suitor had been a black man from somewhere like South Side in Chicago – a point that was It can be emphasized if the role was played by a different black actor in that period, such as the lacrosse and soccer great Jim Brown, who appeared in dozens of films after his NFL career, or Billy Dee Williams, from “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Empire Strikes Back” (although both were a few years younger than Poitiers). Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Williams, no matter how nimble he played the lead role, almost certainly wouldn’t have been made in 1967.

Poitier was certainly a pioneer – but in the sense that he was in transition. In mid-20th century America that feared and scorned blackness and especially black masculinity that came with a hint of sexuality, the first true black idol was almost inevitably going to be someone who didn’t speak (or move) in situations more typically associated with black American men. A more local and less global black voice would have made (or supposedly made) white audiences at the time too uncomfortable for a major studio to cast the light of classic Poitiers films. He was, quietly but decisively, Different. It was from somewhere else, even if you only think about it subconsciously – as we do pretty much about language in all its aspects.

But it was a bridge. He was black, and his Caribbean rhythms certainly didn’t have a white voice. It helped pave the way not only for other black actors, but also for the acceptance of a more diverse black discourse. In the 1960s, the Black Power movement and the Black Is Beautiful movement – proud displays of blackness in aesthetic media including clothing and hairstyles – became part of the black mainstream and increasingly (if not widely) accepted by the wider community. Language standards have changed in tandem, and since then, Black American English is more acceptable in the public domain than ever before.

Black English appeared in the so-called Blaxploitation genre in the 1970s as well as on network television shows with black actors such as “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son” starring Foxx. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was an explosion in Black as Black English were woven throughout dialogue, from Spike Lee’s early works to John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood.” Rap has begun its gradual penetration into mainstream American music so that there are now any number of hip-hop tracks that DJs are almost certain to play at all-white weddings.