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Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy, 1968
Sidney Poitier (Unknown Photographer)

When talking about excellence, the black actor Sidney Poitier, who died on Thursday January 20th 2022 at the age of 94, has his place, all generations and all disciplines combined, in the select gallery that includes Muhammad Ali, Joséphine Baker, Arthur Ashe, Miriam Makeba, Edson Arantes do Nascimiento (Pelé), Joséphine Prémice, Guy Durosier, Martha Jean-Claude, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, Bob Marley, Naomi Osaka, just to name a few. The news of Sidney Poitier’s death really shocked me. I was shaken because Poitier was without question one of the champions of the black cause and one of the most talented artists that mankind has ever produced. The American boxer Muhammad Ali, the Brazilian soccer player Pelé and the Haitian soccer player Guy Saint Vil were the first idols of my life. I only knew them by name, as Ali was in the United States, Pelé in Brazil, and I was still a young boy when Guy Saint Vil was playing in Racing Club Haitien. Saint Vil later left the country in 1967 to play in the Baltimore Bays. At that time television was not yet widespread in our country, thus, I was content and filled with joy when listening, on the radio, the performance of my two demigods. After Ali, Pelé and Saint Vil, my next idol was none other than Sidney Poitier. I was 9 or 10 years of age when I first heard of his name. It was at the end of the 1960s. I remember attending the school, Saint Jean L'Évangéliste. It was customary to attend Sunday mass in the chapel of Saint Louis Roi de France, Turgeau, Port-au-Prince. Once or twice per semester, after mass the Catholic brothers of the school used to take us to the Auditorium Cultural Center at Impasse Lavaud for cinema screenings. Never can I forget that Sunday when the musical group, Les Gitans, played after the screaming of "Lilies of the Field" in which Poitier was the main character. That was when I first learned of this giant personality in the history of cinematography. Since then, without being even sure that I understood the film correctly, Poitier had become the object of my admiration and that of most Haitian schoolchildren. Days after the screening of the film my former classmates and I, instead of playing tethered ball during recess, we spent our time talking about the legendary Sidney Poitier. Carl-Henri Méhu, one of the most turbulent of my classmates, convincingly told us that the black actor was Haitian. He went as far as to say that Poitier was born in Carrefour like his father. Having no way to verify his statement, we believed him. My disappointment couldn’t have been greater when, around 1972 or 1973, in a documentary broadcast on Télé Haiti, the only television channel at the time, I learned that Sidney Poitier was born in Florida to Bahamian parents and not in Carrefour, Haïti. Incredulous, I referred to Carlo Désinor, then a student at the Faculty of Medicine and young editor of the newspaper Le Nouvelliste, to verify the information. I was heartbroken when Carlo, my then "Google,” told me that our actor was more of an American (by the jus soli rule) of Bahamian descent.

Actor Sidney Poitier receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on August 12, 2009.
Sidney Poitier (Public Domain)

My discontent had by no means dulled my feelings about this talented man. Having completed my High School, I was seeking and learning about exceptional people who have positively marked the history of my race. Some of those incredible figures include Anténor Firmin, Benito Sylvain, Louis Joseph Janvier, Hannibal Price, etc. Thanks to the magazine, Jeune Afrique, older friends such as Joseph Camy Dépas, my cousin Anthony Virginie Saint Pierre, and especially to Dr. René Piquion, I have discovered the work of other great congeners. Such marvelous discoveries strengthen my love for my race and humanity in general. I have discovered legends such as: Léopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, Bernard Dadié, Bachir Touré, and other champions of Negro’s values.

Later on, around 1973, Manu Dibango increased my passion for my race with his "Soul Makossa" and his other musical hits, some more wonderful than the others. It was around this time that, at the suggestion of Dr. Piquion, I have read the book on political sociology, Problèmes des classes à travers l’histoire d’Haiti—(The Problem of Classism Throughout Haiti’s History) by Dr. François Duvalier and Lorimer Denis and Les danses folfloriques haitiennes (The Haitian Folkloric Dances) by Lamartinière Honorat.

Like Langston Hughes, Sidney Poitier was aware of the social inequalities his Black brothers and sisters suffered. He knew that he should not remain silent in the face of his people’s calamities, as recommended by Jacques Roumain and Nicolas Guillen.

In fact, he understood that the musician, artist, or athlete should not be a mere entertainer. He or she must demonstrate a certain social conscientiousness and a level of socio-political conviction. He or she must prove that without ambiguity, veiled speeches, or compliance to protect his/her old and new masters. Moreover, the true artist should only have his/her arts as masters.

In a society where injustice and impunity reign and "the reason of the strongest is always the best," the artist, regardless of his/her discipline, must be a guide or a shepherd. To do so, the artist must use his/her national and international prestige to lend his/her voice to the voiceless and steer the lost ones to the right path.

Sidney Poitier at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston  - U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. (ca. 1953 - ca. 1978)
Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston (Photograph by Rawland Scherman)

In “Cahier d'un retour au pays natal,” Aimé Césaire wrote: "My mouth will be the mouth of misfortunes who have no mouth, my voice, the freedom of those who sink into the dungeon of despair." Several years later, the South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu had told us bluntly: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the oppressor's camp ..." Here again, Sidney Poitier has distinguished himself by courageously choosing the side of the oppressed.

The performer must shine both on and off the stage, both on and off the field or the court. By this I mean he/she must first excel in his field and then serve as a role model and an inspiration to all mankind. The performer must defend his/her country, race, and culture when these sacred entities are threatened or attacked by both inside and outside enemies. In time and out of time, he/she must also remember the weak, the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, in short all "The wretched of the earth." If the performer doesn't do that, even if he/she is at the top of his/her game, he/she is of no value. In this sense, the life of Sidney Poitier is a masterpiece.

Mstislav Rostropovich was blessed with extraordinary talent. However, the improvised concert he offered in 1989 in front of the newly collapsed Berlin Wall was enough, in my sense, to render him immortal. In addition, the brilliant cellist had defended tooth and nail the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and had always been a staunch opponent of the regime of Leonid Brezhnev. And, to prove his political conviction, he had preferred to lose his Soviet nationality.

Charles Aznavour was short in stature but very tall in spirit. His unparallel greatness had increased because of his commitment to Armenia. Sure, he had been born in France, but he never forgot that he was the son of two Armenian refugees. Aznavour has spent his life worthily representing the Armenia he loved like the apple of his eye. “After the horror, after the fear, God will heal your bruised soil. For you Armenia,” he sang. It is not without reason that Aznavour remains the most famous Armenian in the world.

Sidney Poitier was not a simple entertainer either. As Aimé Césaire stated, the poet, the novelist, the artist, the athlete, "must be constantly listening to his people.” Poitier had listened attentively to his fellows. In this sense, he and Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Emma Amos, Katherine Dunham, Harry Belafonte (still alive) are immortal. Their immortality is evident by their level of consciousness to the pain and suffering of their fellow human beings throughout their career.

In his memoir "My Song: A Memoir of Arts, Race and Defiance," Harry Belafonte movingly described how, in 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan nearly got his skin and that of Sidney Poitier in Greenwood, Mississippi. The two artists had come to bring their moral and financial support to Freedom Summer. This is the meaning of the word “Man.”—A man of conviction, a true artist who volunteers expose his life for a cause in which he believes.

To that extent, most jazz musicians, and singers of the 1950s and 1960s also deserve to be immortalized. Like Poitier, they had given unwavering support to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his fight for racial equality and civil rights in the United States. My admiration also goes to Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, and so on.

By defying the reactionaries of the time, Nina Simone had armed herself with courage by offering "Mississippi Goddam" to the victims of the bombing of the Birmingham church in September 1963. At the same time, John Coltrane, the American Webert Sicot, had shown himself to be a real man playing "Alabama." They were not only artists, but also “fundamental negroes” like W.E.B. Du Bois, Cheikh Anta Diop, Benito Sylvain, Jean Price Mars, Léopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, Paulette Nardal, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Jacques Roumain, René Depestre, Carl Brouard, etc.

On December 6, 1897, following the Luders Affair, the Germans have shamed and vilified our nation, Haiti. To express his anger and that of the Haitian people, Occide Jeanty, a fierce nationalist, composed Les vautours du 6 décembre(The Vultures of December 6). In addition, our illustrious composer had never agreed to behave as a valet of the American invaders. Instead of betraying his convictions, he had preferred to hand over his baton as conductor of “La Musique du Palais,” despite the honors and certain small material advantages that this position might had given him.

I believe that thirty-two years later I heard, in 1929, the breath of Jean Brierre in Le drame de Marchaterre (The Drama of Marchaterre).

« Devant l’envahisseur qu’ils haïssent d’instinct, Ils oublient tout à coup leur fatigue et leur faim Et leurs fils sans travail et leurs femmes sans robes Ils ne demanderont rien, rien à ces négrophobes. » "In front of the invader, whom they instinctively hate, They suddenly forget their fatigue and their hunger And their sons without work and their wives without dresses They won't ask anything, nothing from these negrophobes."

Unmistakably Poitier was the one who opened the door for Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Will Smith and almost every other great African American actor of the past three, if not four, decades. I think it's best to let Denzel speak for himself. Alluding to other black actors of his generation, he thus paid tribute to the brilliant deceased: " […] He has opened the doors for all of us that had been closed for years…" Furthermore, Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton said: “He was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to baseball … He broke the color barrier at the top level. This world and certainly the world of cinema could never repay the debt that is owned to Sidney Poitier.”

Sidney Poitier’s departure is a huge loss for our race and for humanity. Even Dr. Martin Luther King had praised the actor: "He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.” “And as the wonderful actress Whoopi Goldberg put it so well: " If you wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high. With Love Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars…" Moreover, to quote The Singing nun, "between the stars, the Lord wrote the name of Sidney Poitier."

Poitier has his place—a proud place in heaven. He is also in the hearts of those who sincerely believe that "Black is beautiful" and who piously pray: "I thank you God for making me black ..."

Thank you, God, for creating Sidney Poitier.

Louis Carl Saint Jean

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