The Measure of a Man – a spiritual autobiography by Sidney Poitier

Following on the goal of reading more autobiographies this year, I just finished this one.

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I found it at a used book store in Big Bear and was drawn to it for several reasons. I’ll be completely honest. Here’s the list:

I loved the movie “The man who came to dinner”

I find Sidney Poitier’s eyes beautiful on the cover.

It says “spiritual”. What does he mean by that?

It’s an autobiography.

He’s black, another theme I seem to be following this year. Does that make me racist?

So there you have it, my deep thinking list of reasons! I wasn’t expecting much because he’s an actor and I have very little respect for the profession and it has a sticker on it “Oprah’s Book Club”. But I bought it anyway for the above listed reasons and it was a dollar. And I was floored! I couldn’t put it down and not because I agreed with everything in it. I loved the description of his childhood, his respect and admiration for his parents, his different take on racism in the United States, and his style. I just liked the way he spoke. The book made me add several new books to my reading list and several new movies to my Netflix cue.

Here are some of the quotes that got me early in the book.

“…our minds are actually constructed by these thousands of tiny interactions during the first few years of life. We aren’t just what’s directed by our genes, and we certainly aren’t just what we are taught. It’s what we experience during those early years – a smile here, a jarring sound here – that creates the pathways and connections of the brain.”

“That’s what you’re dealing with when you’re too young to really be counted into anything, when you’re just listening, when you’re watching the behavior of your siblings and of your mom and dad, noting how they behave and how they attend to your feelings and how they care for you when you have a pain or when the wasp stings you around your eye. What occurs when something goes wrong is that someone reaches out, someone soothes, someone protects.”

This, right here, is what I believe is a huge problem in our society right now. Young children are not having positive experiences with their parents. They spend their lives institutionalized instead, with both parents working, and everyone under a lot of stress.

And this,

“When childhood is aborted, it’s like aborted grief. In both cases, if you don’t go through all the stages, giving each its due, the job never gets completed.”

And here’s a line about race that really called out to me.

“Young blacks coming up in America were frequently subjected to parental lectures, almost all of which carried the same message: ‘Face this reality. You’re gonna have to be twice as good as the white folks in order to get half as much.’ That was drilled into them. Bahamian lectures had another ring. ‘Get that education. Get out there and work. Get out there and hustle. Take whatever opportunities there are, and use them as stepping-stones.”

That’s a fundamental difference and I’m sure why he ended up doing so well coming from so little, even in a society very tense about race.

“But when I got to New York, and when I got to Hollywood, for whatever reason or by whatever stroke of luck, I was given the tremendous opportunity of doing work that could reflect who I was. And who I was had everything to do with Reggie and Evelyn (his parents) and each cigar sold and each rock broken. That’s how I’ve always looked at it: that my work is who I am. I decided way back at the beginning, back when I was still washing dishes in a barbecue joint in Harlem, that the work I did would never bring dishonor to my father’s name.”

And that wasn’t because his parents were rich, put him in the right schools, or taught him anything. It was because they were good people and loved him and his siblings. They were there.

A woman he met in an acting class said,

“How we see ourselves, how we see each other should be determined by us and not by people who generally don’t like us; people who pass laws certifying us as less than human. Too many of us see each other as ‘they’ see us. Time for that shit to stop. We’re going to have to decide for ourselves what we are and what we’re not. Create our own image of ourselves. And nurture it and feed it till it can stand on its own.”

I think that is exactly what he did and most people today do not, across all races and creeds right now.

His career path was fascinating. He wasn’t going after being famous or rich. I think he honestly wanted to portray a real black man on film and wasn’t going to let people show him or what who he believed he was in a poor light. He seems honorable.

His family was very important to him. His divorce hit him hard and he felt responsible for what happened. He continued to care for his ex-wife and children even after he remarried.

Politically, I don’t agree with his ideas but that’s typical. I’m still confused as to how anyone can see communism and its precursor, socialism, as a positive thing. But I got some interesting insight into that as well. I’ve added a few autobiographies to the list from this book, people he followed or found to great leaders, a few I’d never heard of.

The whole book was beautiful. He seems like an amazing man, a little self-righteous but then again he’s an actor! I’d like to hear about him from others though. I’m very happy I found this book!

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