The Measure of a Man

Reading Sidney Poitier’s memoir, The Measure of a Man, I had a very similar experience to when I read Christopher Plummer’s memoir. Which is to say, the mystery of a man I hold in extremely high regard was sort of uncovered, and it wasn’t necessarily completely flattering. Though Poitier doesn’t ramble nearly as much — thinking back to the physical weight of Plummer’s book, I’d venture to say Poitier rambles about half as much — he still rambles, because he’s an old guy, and he’s an actor. A + B = C.

I think this book was largely targeted towards young black men, with the not-so-subtle intention of showing them what it means to be a real man. But, as with any memoir, there’s a lot to be learned from here. It’s just buried in a lot of philosophical tangents that can be very hard to follow, which I think Poitier was perfectly aware of but chose to push through anyway, since his writing is often punctuated with the actual phrases, “You know?” and “You follow?”

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book was his recounting of his life in Harlem, which is pretty near where I live now. I tried to picture how thriving and incredible it must have been then, when he was living there, trying to make it as a theater actor and supporting his wife and child by working in BBQ joint. He speaks of it so fondly, despite the hardships, and for that depiction I’m truly grateful. The more I read about this specific place, the more excited I am to be in it, even if it lacks that heartbeat that it once had.

Poitier does a lot of recounting of anecdotes, but he does even more waxing poetic. Some of it is beautiful. For example, he talks about his childhood in the Bahamas, about the drastic differences between remote island life and hurried city life; in returning to his birthplace, he says, “But today the laughter of birds and the chatter of monkeys remind me that the source experiences that trigger delight in each of us are different” (p. 34). What a harmonious thought.

Some of it, however, isn’t so much beautiful as it is bitter or forceful. As he was coming up through the acting ranks, he experienced a lot of prejudice and hardship, something to which I cannot speak but for which I have a lot of sympathy and respect. And so, reading the life lessons he gleaned from those experiences is just… very difficult. He seems simultaneously at peace with his life and not over the struggles that he had to overcome. Without the context of race, his bits of advice appear generically useful. With it, there’s this brutal tone of sadness over them, desperation, anger. It’s an eloquent but very real reminder of how things were not too long ago. Here are a few passages:

p. 43, on creating opportunities for success // “My motto was Never leave home without a fixed commitment.”

p. 60, on keeping a level head // “I wasn’t yet ready to accept that environment compromises values far more than values do their number on environment.”

p. 91, on what young black men like him were dealing with // “Conflicts that had little or nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the cultural forces rooted inside him and the multitude of daily surrenders demanded of him by their social surroundings.”

p. 124, on channeling rage // “I have great respect for the kinds of people who are able to recycle their anger and put it to different uses.”

And then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, he enters into the real Preachy Old Man Zone. He abandons the anecdotes altogether and practically sits you on his knee. For statements like this, I wish I had opted for the audiobook version, as I think it would have been more impactful. I found myself in agreement with him a lot, but got lost in his hypothetical. He’s clearly a very deep, profound, methodical thinker, and hearing his voice reflects that more than seeing his words on a page.

p. 188 // “You don’t have to become something you’re not to be better than you were.”

p. 196 // “I simply believe that there’s a very organic, immeasurable grand consciousness of which we’re a part.”

p. 211 // “It appears that we are all killers of one kind or another and that life beings in the darkness of a total ignorance that is peeled away slowly, little by little.” (Wait, what?!)

p. 224 // “Collision is essential, that opposites create an energy, and that maybe nature has no preference for either of the opposites.

I don’t think it’s talking out of turn to say that he’s an intense guy. Hardworking, honest, artistic, yes, but also intense. He’s seen a lot, and he’s cultivated wisdom. But he’s not the perfect, stoic figure that I always imagined. Which is fine. He never claimed to be; this was just the conclusion I came to myself, based on seeing his movies and painting a certain picture of him in my head. It’s hard for actors to live up to the personality we project onto them; even though, as he said on p. 147, “Acting isn’t a game of ‘pretend.’ It’s an exercise in being real,” there’s still a layer of fake in there. That’s the point. It’s the way the two combine that forms the best product. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing, in any case. He’s still way up there with Plummer and Paul Newman on my list, too, and he knows that guys like him are few and far between. Here’s hoping that a few younger ones did what he wanted, read his book, and are destined for greatness with his advice in their back pockets.