The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidney Poitier acted his way out of a brutal introduction to America

Sidney Poitier, star of “To Sir With Love,” places his hands in wet cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967. Poitier was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance. (AP)

Sidney Poitier was known for his dignified and powerful roles. The actor, who died Friday at age 94, played a medical doctor more than once, a homicide detective, a reverend, a Marine sergeant, a future Supreme Court justice, a retired spy and even the director of the FBI. In “Lilies of the Field,” for which he became the first Black man to be awarded the Best Actor Oscar, he depicted a jack-of-all-trades who carefully builds a chapel for a group of nuns.

Sidney Poitier, first Black man to win Oscar for best actor, dies at 94

His goal was to portray Black men of “refinement, education and accomplishment,” he later said.

But his early years in the United States, where he moved as a teenager, were anything but refined. Poitier lived on the streets and in an orphanage, was brutalized by racist police and arrested more than once. He committed several acts of violence during a brief, demoralizing stint in the U.S. Army — all before he turned 18 years old.

Remembering these tumultuous years in his 1980 memoir “This Life,” Poitier pondered, “Who is to say that I wasn’t, in fact, living through some temporary insanity through the whole period of my early exposure to America?”

In January 1943, Poitier, then 15, was sent from his home in the Bahamas to live with family in Miami. He soon chafed at the racism there, something he wasn’t accustomed to in the Black-majority Bahamas. Even though his family back home was desperately poor, it had owned land and had little experience with White racial terrorism or Jim Crow laws. On the day he decided to run away to the North, before he could even leave town, he was detained by five White cops who held a gun to his head and joked about shooting him.

Sidney Poitier changed the Oscars in 1964. The academy is still grappling with the promise of that moment.

Soon he made it to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and slept in pay toilets and on the roofs of buildings. At one point, he accidentally wandered into a riot and was shot in the leg, which he treated with Vaseline.

Then winter came, something Poitier had no experience with. It hit him, he wrote, “with such a fierce impact that by the end of November I was fractured, disoriented, almost immobilized. My feeble defense was to wear all my clothes at once — but they were summer clothes.”

Before finding temporary shelter at an orphanage, he was arrested for vagrancy and lied to the police that he was about to join the Army. Soon his lie seemed like a good idea; he would get warmer clothes and room and board, and he might even be sent somewhere warm! Still only 16, he lied about his age, passed a physical and enlisted.

The Army did not send him somewhere warm. In fact, it sent him to one of the few places that might have been more depressing than the mean streets of New York City: a hospital on Long Island for “shellshocked” veterans. There, he and 150 Black Army recruits assisted the White medical staff to “tend wards [and] administer cold packs, shock treatments and other supposedly rehabilitative therapies.”

“We would in time become no more than jailers,” he wrote. “The army was not heavily into the mental health business.”

During his little time away from the hospital, he found the North still had its share of racists. The proprietors of a nearby roadhouse dismissed him and his fellow soldiers, dressed in their military uniforms, with “We don’t serve n-----s here.” Dozens of the young soldiers returned to the roadhouse later and “destroyed the place,” he wrote. They weren’t allowed to leave their base for three months, but when they came back to the roadhouse, a new staff cheerfully served them.

After 10 months in the Army, Poitier couldn’t take witnessing the abuse of the veterans anymore. “They did awful things to the patients,” he wrote, “certainly not all of them, but enough so that it hurt just the same.”

He could have just told the truth — that he was too young to be in the military — but his adolescent sense of masculinity wouldn’t let him. “I’d rather do it the manly way,” he wrote, “but obviously the manly way was full of [expletive], too.”

The “manly way,” which he had heard about through the grapevine, was to pretend to become violently insane to get a medical discharge. It was a tricky gambit. If you didn’t go far enough, you might just end up in a military jail. If you went too far, you might be found out, court-martialed and sent to military prison.

In other words, Poitier had to be a very good actor.

First, he asked for a meeting with the head of the hospital. As soon as he walked in, he picked up a chair and threw it through a window near the man’s head. He then sat down calmly and refused to say why he had done it. Next, he tipped over a dinner cart “like a big automobile” — which had the desired effect. He was sent to the violently insane ward of a military hospital and ended up in a White psychiatrist’s office.

There, Poitier told the man the truth about his gambit to leave the military. Amazingly, the doctor seemed taken, impressed even, with his honesty. They began to meet every day, and Poitier told him everything — about the abuse he had seen in the hospital, the abuses he had experienced at the hands of police, his childhood in the Bahamas, his need to appear macho and impervious.

“He led me inside myself, where I discovered that my psychological guard was constantly up, sometimes unnecessarily,” he wrote.

After five weeks of these daily meetings, the doctor told him they were done, and Poitier was mustered out of the Army for being “mentally unfit.” He was 17.

Later, after he got stable work, started acting, and, in his thirties, made it big and became famous, he pondered his early years in America.

“Now, with it all decades behind me, and sober, quiet moments permitting me to reflect, a large and puzzling question arises,” he wrote. “Why?”

Perhaps, he ventured, though he thought he was only pretending to be insane, his early years alone in a new and unsympathetic country really had driven him to a kind of temporary insanity. “From the moment I got off that [expletive] boat, I began to experience this new, different, strange, complex, crazy society,” he wrote. “And once I became attuned to the strangeness of the racial situation in Miami, that did weird things to my head.”

Later, he said, it would manifest as an “enormous effort at being likable and friendly and fair and honest and dependable,” but “the real importance of those questions would not be fully understood for years to come.”