Sidney Poitier: The Man On His Generation, Wealth, and Poverty

May 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

Sidney Poitier is one of the most respected actors ever to emerge from Hollywood. As the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in Lilies Of The Field in 1963, he defined his career and life by taking on roles that reflected his beliefs and outlook on humans and society.

I’ve only watched one of Sidney Poitier’s films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968). Thanks to professor Selina Lim’s highly informative World Civilizations lectures back in college, I was armed with a foundational understanding of racial tension in the U.S. and the African American experience throughout the 50’s and 60’s.

Sidney was never a perfect man, but he doesn’t claim to be one. What makes him a worthy icon is his courage and determination in the face of oppression, judgment, and his own sins.

Some term the men and women of his generation as “The Greatest Generation“. As a man who’s experienced the many facets of life,  here’s what he has to say about materialism, poverty, and pleasure seeking of generations after him:

Excerpt from “The Measure of A Man” by Sidney Poitier:

These postwar parents thought they were in nirvana if they had a color TV and two cars and could buy a Winnebago and a house at the lake. But the children they had raised on that pleasure principle of material goods were by then bored to death. They had overdosed on all that stuff. So that was the generation who decided “Hey, guess where the real action is? Forget the Winnebago. Give me sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Incredible mind-blowing experiences, head-banging, screw-your-brains-out experiences in service to immediate and transitory pleasures.

But the one kind of gratification is simply an outgrowth of the other, a more extreme form of the same hedonism, the same need to indulge and consume. Some of those same sixties kids are now themselves forty-eight. Whatever genuine idealism they carried through those love-in days got swept up in the great yuppie gold rush of the eighties and the stock market nirvana of the nineties- and I’m afraid we are still miles away from the higher ground we seek.

For most of human history, most people were only slightly above the starvation level. (In many countries, most people still are.) Families needed every one of their six or nine kids to toe the line. Otherwise, as everyone knew at every moment, the whole family wouldn’t make it. The new postwar prosperity meant that you could laugh at the old duffers who had grown up in the Great Depression and kept crying caution. The great god Necessity was turned aside by “Well, shit. Who cares? Everyone we know is prosperous, everything’s prosperous, and I’m bored.”

I hope that doesn’t put me in the category of old duffers. I don’t mean to be like some old guy from the olden days who says, “I walked thirty miles to school every morning, so you kids should too.” That’s a statement born of envy and resentment. What I’m saying is something quite different. What I’m saying is that by having very little, I had it good. Children need a sense of pulling their own weight, of contributing to the family in some way, and some sense of the family’s interdependence. They take pride in knowing that they’re contributing. They learn responsibility and discipline through meaningful work. The values developed within a family that operates on those principles then extend to the society at large. By not being quite so indulged and “protected” from reality by overflowing abundance, children see the bonds that connect them to others.

Dirt poor and wearing a gunnysack for pants, I inherited such a legacy, and I pity the kids today who are being raised in such a way that they’ll be hard-pressed to enjoy the simple things, to endure the long commitments, and to find true meaning in their lives.

Poverty didn’t kill my soul. Poverty can destroy a person, yes, but I’ve seen prosperity kill many a soul as well. After so much ease and comfort and mindless consumption of commodities, how do we even know that anything resembling a soul is there anymore? One way is to look to people who are still making enduring commitments. That’s where heroes like Nelson Mandela come in. That man broke rocks for thirteen years! You don’t go to prison for twenty-seven years for your beliefs if what you believe in is unbridled pleasure. To make that kind of sacrifice, you have to believe that there’s something more to it all that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But who among us today is going to take that kind of stand? Who among us believes that strongly in any ideal or ideology?


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