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If you like Sidney Poitier's story, you might also like:
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Sidney Poitier
 
Sidney Poitier
Profile of Sidney Poitier Biography of Sidney Poitier Interview with Sidney Poitier Sidney Poitier Photo Gallery

Sidney Poitier Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

You didn't like Miami much. Could you tell us about being a delivery boy in Miami and the experience you had there?

Sidney Poitier: I was a delivery boy. I worked for a place called Burdine's department store. My brother worked there and I got the job through him. Yes, I hated Florida. At least I hated Miami, I didn't know Florida. I suspect that I would have hated Florida if I had traveled about in Florida, because Miami was no different from the rest of Florida, but I did hate it. I hated it because it was an unfair place. For instance...


I was told to deliver a package to Miami Beach, this is from Miami itself. You go across the causeway, or you just walk across, or you take the bicycle -- they had a bicycle for the delivery boys. They gave me the address and they explained to me how to get there and I went and I found it. And I went to the place, I saw the address, and I matched it with the thing they had written for me, and I went up to the door and I either knocked or pushed a button. A lady came to the door, a white lady. And she said, "Yes?" And I said, "Ma'am this is your package. I come from Burdine's department store." She looked at me in the most amazing way and she said, "Get around to the back." And I didn't understand, I really didn't understand it, because she's standing right there. She obviously is the mistress of the house, and I'm standing within three feet of her, and this is a big house. And I said to myself, "Why do I have to take it around the back? It's a small package." Were it something that's too weighty for her, certainly I'll carry it a mile if that's the case. But I wasn't aware of the depth of racism. I had been experiencing it every day there, but the impact of it in such a coarse way! She slammed the door in my face. And I took the package and I set it right down on the step in front of the house and I left.


I go back to Burdine's Department Store and I did whatever my duties were. When the day was done, I went to Liberty City, which is where I lived. My brother lived there, I was living with him. I had a few pennies, and I decided to go to a movie, and at the end of the movie...


Now, I'm going home to my brother's house. And I approached the house and there are no lights on. Well, I jiggled the lock -- I mean the doorknob -- it's nothing. And then the door suddenly opens and it's my sister-in-law -- my brother's wife -- and she grabs me and pulls me into the house, slams the door, and on the floor she's lying with her children. And she pulls me down and she said, "What did you do today?" I said, "What did I do? What do you mean?" She explained to me that the Klan had come to the house looking for me, because I had misbehaved I guess.


Weren't you frightened?

Sidney Poitier: I was not frightened. I wasn't as frightened as one might assume. If I knew that the Klan would be there, I would have been -- if not frightened -- I would have been at least on my guard. Now mind you, I am 15 going on 16 now. I've been in Miami just a few months. I went to Miami from Nassau and I went to Nassau from Cat Island and between Cat Island and Nassau, my perception of myself had already taken hold.


I didn't spend the first 15 years of my life cringing in the presence of white people. The overwhelming -- and we'll get to this as well -- the overwhelming majority of people in the Bahamas were black people. So I grew up those 15 years -- with the exception of the three months when I was a baby in Florida -- I spent them in Cat Island and Nassau. And spending them on Cat Island and Nassau, I was within the circumference of the black community constantly. So that I saw people, how they behaved with each other. I saw respect for each other, I saw laughter, I saw an embrace, I saw it was an environment that nurtured me in ways that I wasn't even aware of, so that I got to 15 not afraid of white people.


You already had a strong sense of your own worth.

Sidney Poitier: But that strong sense of self-worth came from the Bahamas itself, out of my family, out of the families I knew. Out of the society, such as it was. But they treated each other respectfully, they raised their children to be respectful of elders. If my mother was unable to work in the fields, her friends would come by and bring food. It was a wonderful community. When we got to Nassau, it was somewhat different, but still...


Ninety percent of the people in Nassau were black. The cops were black. All the policemen were black, except possibly the head of the police department and his lieutenants. Mind you, I'm talking about a colonial country, but because it is a colonial country -- and luckily for us, the colonial country being Great Britain -- they could not manage a colonial empire, because they were so few people. The British were very few. Do you know that, literally speaking, a very small number of Britons ruled India? They ruled most of the Caribbean, and they could not -- there was no way for them to cultivate the necessary personnel they would need to administer to their colonial possessions. So what they had to do, they had to educate the local people, so that there were policemen. All of the policemen, with the exception of the few guys who ran the police force, were black. So as a kid I didn't run around being fearful that I was going to be mistreated. Okay, that gives you an idea of what I came out of, and the values I came out of the Bahamas with when I went to Miami.


I walked into the police station to get permission to go across the street, which was a vital statistics department of the government. I was going over there to get a birth certificate, because I had misplaced my birth certificate, which I had gotten from the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas. I walked into the police station, and I said to the gentleman, I said, "Sir..." and I called everybody "sir" because my father taught me that, and my mom. Pow, pow, pow! "You say 'sir' to your elders." Anyway, I was respectful.


I walked into the police station to get permission to go across the street and so and so. And he called me the "n" word, the guy in the thing, and he said, "Take off that hat." I was wearing a cap. I looked at this guy sitting up on a kind of thing at the desk. And I said, "What'd you call me?" And mind you, I'm a kid of 15 years old. I just lost it. I just said, "I am Reggie Poitier's..." that's my father's name, "That's my dad, and his name is Reginald and my mother's name is so and so. And they named me Sidney, that's my name." Well, the cops, there were several in the place, and they looked at me as if I was insane. Oh God! Now, had I been born and raised in Florida, I would have a different approach, exactly. I would have been cultivated to respond in a different way, especially if I had spent those first 15 years of my life in Florida.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier Interview Photo


Not long after that, you went to New York City, on your own, with just a few dollars in your pocket. A very brave adventure. What was that like?

Sidney Poitier: Well, I got to New York by hopping freight trains and all kinds of different, interesting ways. I wound up in Georgia first. I didn't get to New York. I wound up in Georgia in the mountains working as a dishwasher in a summer resort. I accepted the job as a dishwasher in Georgia. I took a bus from Florida, and I went to Atlanta. They transferred me to another bus that went to another place, close to the foot of the mountains, and someone met me there and took me up the mountain. And I spent my time washing dishes there. I saved all of my money. I never took a dime. I spent much of that summer there, all within the same year. And I came down from the mountains, and I went to the bus station, because that's how I got to the mountains. And when I left there, I had $39.

By the time I got to New York, someone had rifled my little bag and taken my money, and I got into New York with very few dollars in my pocket. New York was an experience. It was a staggering experience. It was massive. It was huge. There were incredibly tall buildings. I got there in the afternoon, and the place I wanted to go to was Harlem, to see Harlem. I had heard a great deal about Harlem.


I asked a chap at the doorway of the bus station. I said, "How do I get to Harlem?" I had a very little, small bag with a couple of -- three pairs of pants, some shirts, and that's about the size of it. Maybe one jacket, but not for winter. We'll get to that. So he said, "Well, you go right down those steps, and you just go to 116th Street." And I said, "Okay." So I go down the steps, and I said, "What I do?" when I got down there. And I watched people. They would come and they would put something in the little thing for the turnstile. And the guy upstairs had said to me, "Then you'll take the train." And I said to myself, "Wait a minute. Train? Under the ground? That doesn't make any sense." And it certainly didn't make any sense to me. A train under the ground? But anyway, I went through the ritual and I hear this rumbling, and it scared me. And along comes this train. And I saw people putting a nickel -- and in those days it was a nickel or something -- in and they'd go through the turnstile. Well, I was always courageous in a way, some ways. And I go through the turnstile and I got, as he told me -- 116th Street. So I got on the train. And every time it stopped, I was amazed. How could it be running under the ground? Makes no sense to me. But I'm alert, and I'm sitting there. And I see the station comes up, 116th Street. And I jumped off, and I walked and followed people going up the steps. And I walked out at 116th Street and 8th Avenue, and I was in Harlem.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:20 EDT