Actors, poets and graphic/visual artists are engaged in a continual quest to touch the hearts, minds and souls of their audiences. It’s a daunting challenge and, if successful, leads to respect, admiration and adoration.
I can’t imagine that when writing the poem “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes could recognize the lasting impact it would have on our society. Many in the civil rights community say that “A Dream Deferred” was the inspiration for what’s considered one of the greatest speeches in the history of the nation, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Nor can I imagine that when writing the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry knew that the line she took from Hughes’ poem could so powerfully communicate the emotions of a people.
When I played Ruth Younger in a Grambling University production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” I never imagined meeting Ruby Dee, the actress who played that same role in the initial production. She congratulated me for participation in the play and remarked that, based upon the person I had been described to her, she would want to play me in a production about my life! We both agreed that “A Raisin in the Sun” was a timeless expression of the challenges — then and now — of many Black families.
All of the actors performed excellently, but central to the story was the character Walter Lee Younger and central to the expression of his character was the powerful portrayal by Sidney Poitier. Over 60 years later, viewing his portrayal of Walter Lee still evokes a torrent of emotions from the bonds of experience and an understanding of traditional challenges. In his characterization of Walter Lee and a myriad of others in his long career, Sidney Poitier escorted the Black community to a wide variety of places and experiences and, as the “only” Black male lead in Hollywood, afforded white America the privilege of understanding the Black community with more than the typically held monolithic viewpoint.
One would be mistaken if he/she were naïve enough to think of Mr. Poitier as just an actor. While he was an actor par excellence, he was much more than that. He is known as a principled gentleman who, in selecting roles, only chose those roles that served to elevate the image of the Black male. His Academy Award-winning role as Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field” is just one of numerous roles that rejected and reversed the Hollywood standard of portraying Black men as shuffling, stumbling and bumbling buffoons. Admittedly, although I’ve not seen all of his films, bu I can attest to the fact that I’ve never seen him perform in a film for which he had reason to be ashamed or that caused me to leave a theater with a sense of embarrassment or regret.
In a time when “successful Negroes” were reluctant to upset the status quo, Sidney Poitier was front and center in support of and participation in protesting racial discrimination. He not only loaned his professional reputation to the struggle, he gave financial support. Undoubtedly, he understood that Black people and those of color were bound in circumstance and that even their greatest achievements were diminished by the imposition of contrived limitations.
He has undoubtedly earned the disdain of many who recognize his contributions to the “leveling of the playing field” and who, because of his efforts, are less secure in their whiteness. Paraphrasing the words of his “In the Heat of the Night” character Virgil Tibbs, with respect and honor, we call him Mr. Poitier!
Williams is national president of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc.