In Search of Inspiration: Sir Sidney Poitier 

In Search of Inspiration: Sir Sidney Poitier 
Sir Sidney Poitier

By Spence M. Finlayson

NASSAU, Bahamas – What inspires you? We can receive inspiration from a whole lot of things, watching ordinary people accomplish great things, observing people overcome life’s adversities and listen to great motivational and inspirational speakers like Les Brown, Zig Ziglar, Jim Rohn, Tony Robbins, Earl Nightingale and Spence Finlayson.

Oftentimes we get bogged down by life’s curveballs and blind side hits, that we forget how amazing a gift that life really is.

Maintaining a positive mental attitude on life is a crucial part of finding inspiration. Our brains are wired to find things we are looking for.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are always thinking negative and being very cynical and waiting for things to go wrong, then your life will reflect that.

On the other hand, having a positive outlook on life will bring you joy, unspeakable joy and provide you with inspiration when you least expect it.

Try to see the good that hides in every situation, as a pessimist sees obstacles in his opportunities, the optimist sees opportunities in his obstacles.

Mark Twain said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”

You never know where you will find inspiration.  A close friend of mine, Dr. Edrica Richardson, a relationship expert based in Florida, shared a video from the BBC series on Oceans that was just astounding and very inspirational.

The narrator said “The world’s seas and oceans support nearly half of all species on Earth but we aren’t one of them. Few people have a deeper connection with the sea than the Bajau Laut of South-East. They live in the middle of the sea, rarely go on the land, have no nationality, no fixed abode, no money and they go spear fishing without scuba gear, not even oxygen tanks.” Now this is inspirational and motivational.

At this time I focus my attention on a man who has been a huge source of inspiration to me and millions of others. He is Sir Sidney Poitier who is a Bahamian actor, film director, author and diplomat.

As a young boy growing up in the Bahamas in the sixties and seventies, when his movies came to the local theatres in Nassau, I was so inspired by watching a son of the soil star on the big screen.

In 1964, Sir Sidney Poitier became the first Bahamian and first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor for his landmark role in “Lilies of the Field”.

We were so proud as Bahamians and the entire nation celebrated his huge success. The significance of these achievements was bolstered in 1967, when he starred in three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race relations: To Sir With Love, In the Heat of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year.

I can remember very vividly while working on Paradise Island in the Bahamas as a summer student in 1968, I would be thrilled just to catch a glimpse of Sir Sidney Poitier, playing tennis at the One and Only Ocean Club, then driving off in his sharp flashy Oldsmobile.

He stirred something deep inside of me that I could one day be somebody.  I knew his brother Reginald Poitier and his sister Maude Poitier–Hamilton and I went to high school with their children.

In 1999, the prestigious American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of classic Hollywood cinema, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.

His parents were Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on one of the Bahamas Family Island, Cat Island and they regularly travelled to Miami, Florida to sell tomatoes and other produce from their farm.

As a matter a fact, Sir Sidney was born in Miami while his parents were visiting. Today, every Bahamian believes that it is their inalienable right to go to Miami which is just a 40 minute flight from Nassau.

Sir Sidney in his book, “The Measure of a Man” tells the story of his premature birth. His mother went to a soothsayer. She was rightly concerned because I was a very premature baby, born unexpectedly while my parents were traveling to Miami to sell a hundred boxes of tomatoes at the Produce Exchange.

When I arrived weighing in at less than three pounds, the question was, is there enough there to take hold?

My father, who had lost several children already to disease and stillbirth, was somewhat stoical about the situation. He went to a local undertaker in the ‘colored’ section of Miami to prepare for my burial, coming home with a shoebox that could serve as a miniature casket.

My mother, however, felt that I could be saved. One afternoon, she left the house where they were staying to visit the local palm reader and diviner of tea leaves. After some intense gazing back and forth and much silence, the soothsayer closed her eyes and took my mother’s hand. There was more silence, an uncomfortably long silence, and then the soothsayer’s face began to twitch. Her eyes rolled back and forth behind their lids. Strange sounds began to gurgle up from her throat. Then all at once her eyes flew open again and she said “Don’t worry about your son. He will survive and he will not be a sickly child. He will grow up to be …he will travel to most of the corners of the earth. He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all of the world. You must not worry about that child.”

Wow, how is that for inspiration.  Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was 10, when they moved to the capital, Nassau.

At the age of 15, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. A Jewish waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper.

He then decided to join the United States Army after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theatre.

Determine to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success.

On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which he received good reviews.

By the end of 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on the stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out.

His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot played by Richard Widmark was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than most African American actors of the time were offered. His breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle in 1955.

Sir Sidney Poitier was also a great film director. His most successful being the comedy, “Stir Crazy” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, which for years was the highest grossing film directed by a person of African descent.

From 1997 to 2007 he served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.

And so a man born into dire poverty, rose from very humble beginnings in the Bahamas to become a leader and very well respected in his field.

He is without a doubt the most famous Bahamian.

I remember seeing him in a television interview on BET with host Ed Gordon who asked Sir Sidney if he wanted to be the best black actor in Hollywood and he said with his brilliant speaking voice, “I did not want to be the best black actor in Hollywood, I wanted to be the best actor period, better than Paul Neman, better than Marlon Brando, better than George C. Scott. I wanted to be the best!”

Sidney Poitier continues to be an inspiration to me and he raised the ceiling on my possibilities.

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