When I first consider my father, I don’t consider an actor or a cultural determine. I consider this playful, goofy man who would sing me and my sister To Mattress, To Mattress, To Mattress, stated Sleepyhead, a bedtime tune he discovered within the Bahamas. Then there was this aeroplane recreation, the place he’d decide us up separately, fly us round the home, and on the finish, faux to dunk our heads in the bathroom. We’d snort and scream and he’d hug us tight. That was the center of who my dad was.
Solely in my teenagers did I begin to soak up the magnitude of who he was and what he did; as a child, when he was on display screen, I simply thought it was humorous. As I acquired older, I began to get a really deep appreciation for the profession decisions that he made, resembling being in a scene the place he’s kissing a white girl behind a cab in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That movie resonated with me significantly as a result of my mother [Canadian actor Joanna Shimkus] is white, and her title can also be Joanna [like Poitier’s girlfriend, played by Katharine Houghton]. As a baby, it felt like watching my mother and father’ love story, however as I matured I realised how courageous it was to inform that story within the mid-Sixties when interracial marriage was nonetheless unlawful in lots of states.
My dad by no means talked very brazenly about how difficult it was to be the one black man to have gained an Academy Award throughout such a tumultuous time for civil rights, however there undoubtedly was a way of him carrying a really heavy duty. He took his function inside the civil rights motion very significantly: he understood that lots of white Individuals have been shaping their concepts of who black folks have been from movie and TV as a result of they weren’t uncovered to black folks of their day-to-day life on any deep or vital stage. He understood the ability of that medium in cultivating folks’s perceptions, and he realised that the burden fell upon him o assist domesticate a extra trustworthy and nuanced understanding of black tradition.
He didn’t speak a lot about performing at residence, however I’ll say one factor I discovered from him about performing is the way in which that you must conduct your self on set – present up on time, work exhausting, and worth the crew that you just’re working with, as a result of they’re working twice as exhausting as you’re for twice as lengthy. Give your all as a result of it’s not nearly you, you’re a part of a household when you’re on set. His work ethic and his equanimity are traits he discovered rising up on Cat Island [in the Bahamas]. I additionally consider it was his upbringing there that allowed him to hold the burden of his fame, as a result of he grew up on a tiny island surrounded by individuals who actually valued him for who he was. It gave him a way of self-worth that he wouldn’t have had if he’d grown up underneath the racist oppression of the US. So when he got here to this nation at 13, and was requested to go to the again door as an alternative of the entrance, he stated no, I don’t suppose so. It made no logical sense to him as a result of he hadn’t been raised underneath the burden of that system.
His refusal to bend to that’s answerable for a lot of what he contributed to society. Additionally, his timeless curiosity in regards to the world and humanity, and his want to depart the world a greater place than he discovered it are largely answerable for the presents he gave us. He all the time learn a number of newspapers and books, particularly in regards to the universe and the cosmos — to him, schooling was every part, particularly for youngsters as a result of he recognised the ability in data. Later in life, he’d journey the world talking about his experiences to numerous teams and he cherished doing that. He additionally wrote a number of books. Performing didn’t intrigue him anymore. He had performed all of the components that he wished. Being alone along with his thoughts, his ideas and a pen and paper was his joyful place. He spent lots of time in his workplace or his mattress writing. I feel he secretly wished to be a author relatively than an actor. It was a manner that he may discover the limitless complexities of the human expertise in his personal time and his personal manner.
Even when he misplaced his capacity to jot down, after which finally wasn’t capable of learn [he had Alzheimer’s in later life], his insatiable curiosity remained. You’d go right into a room and he won’t even know who you have been, however he would take a look at you, he’d take you in, learning you, watching your expressions. When my seven-year-old daughter would leap on to the mattress, he would snort and take a look at her, and whereas he couldn’t converse, I do know precisely what he was saying in his thoughts. “Who is that this pleasant creature!?” He would research her with pleasure and fascination. I’m unhappy that she gained’t know him as I did, however I discover nice reduction in the truth that his motion pictures and his books have left behind a treasure map of types for her. A lifetime of knowledge and presents, all there for her to mine, and I sit up for watching her uncover simply how unimaginable her grandfather was.