By Tamika Lamison
Today I had a date with Mr. Sidney Poitier. I was granted the opportunity to guide Mr. Poitier on a private tour through the America I Am Exhibit-an exhibit that covers over 500 years of African-American/American history.
A walk through history, with Mr. Poitier. Words that immediately come to mind to describe the Man himself: Classy. Graceful. Intelligent. Worldly. Gracious. Engaging. Funny. Open. Warm. Charismatic. Giving. Humble. Brilliant. Beautiful. He is a total Gem and frankly, a poster boy for the phrase, “Black don’t crack!” In his 80’s now, he was virile, vibrant, full of contained energy. Intensely interested and intensely interesting. Mr. Poitier gave the feeling that we were family hanging out and sharing stories. That we’d known each other forever. He created an environment of comfort. He is Graciousness walking. And I am grateful that I had a chance to meet and get a glimpse inside the spirit of The Man himself, after being so moved by his work all of these years.
As I guided Mr. Poitier through the “America I Am Exhibit,” I couldn’t help but think that Mr. Poitier is a piece of living history walking through history. Mr. Poitier created and lived through so much of the history that we spoke about as we moved from Gallery to Gallery, taking it all in, taking him in.
As we moved down the Hall of Faces he would stop and point at people that he had personal knowledge or friendships with: Diahann Carroll, Muhammad Ali, Paul Robeson. He pointed to Maya Angelou mentioning knowing her when she was an Actress and seeing her in The Blacks so long ago. I said, yes, I remembered the famous cover of the playbook. It had many well known actors, including Maya, with white masks. He nodded, confirming my memory of the cover. Mr. Poitier would look at the photos in the hallway in honor, respect and sometimes just pure delight.
At the end of the Gallery of Faces hallway is a gigantic Mirror in the shape of the US. I told Mr. Poitier that when we give tours we generally invite people to look into the mirror and think of the ways that they themselves have contributed to America and to the World. I then said, “Mr. Poitier, this should be interesting for you. If you do this we would certainly be here all night!” He laughed and said, “You’re making me blush.” And I think he actually might have been blushing as he took a moment to reflect before we moved on into the Africa Gallery.
When we arrived in front of the case that held items like the European Long gun, Spanish Bracelets and cowry shells, all things that were used to trade for human beings who would then become slaves…we got into a discussion about the European Slave traders and the Africans who also participated in the slave trade in its fledgling stage. I mentioned an article that I had seen by Henry Louis Gates in the New York Times that morning where Mr. Gates spoke about Africa’s culpability in the Slave trade. Mr. Poitier said he had read that article as well. We both thought it was a very controversial article and wondered what the response and fall out would be, particularly from the Black community.
There were many places where we stopped and paused so that Mr. Poitier could take it all in. He would look, listen, take in the items around him, take in the space, take in my words and descriptions and commentary. He would then pause, take a deliberate breath and seemingly mark things as though he was very much in the moment and yet, intent on remembering. Some places where I noticed Mr. Poitier physically absorb impact were: The Doors of No return-where I reminded him that “if he were to touch the doors he would literally be touching the souls and the spirits of hundreds of thousands of Africans who also touched the doors before they were put on the slave ship to take that middle passage journey and be sold into slavery.” He asked, “So these are those actual doors?” I said yes. He said, “So, can I touch them?” I laughed and said, “Well…I don’t think you’re supposed to but it’s pretty dark in here and I’m not looking because I’m really interested in what’s around this corner.” He laughed as I turned away. So I can’t say for absolute sure if he actually touched the doors or not but I suspect…being a bit of a rebel…he might have. (smile)
When I pointed out the ankle shackles I had Mr. Poitier stand shoulder to shoulder with our other guest as I explained that one set of ankle shackles would have been used for two people-shackled together, so it would be much more difficult to escape. Next to that item was the branding iron. This item always strikes people as particularly cruel and Mr. Poitier commented about man’s inhumanity to man. He said it was simply hard to comprehend that people could actually do this, treat other people so viciously. He wondered aloud how we allow these things to happen.
He also spoke about using the term “They” when we speak about the Slave Traders. He thought it was important not to disconnect people emotionally by saying ‘They’ and to give name to the people who were involved. We agreed that Slave Traders would work for the moment.
Next we stopped at the image of The Slave Ship. This too was an area that seemed to move him. I spoke about 4-6 Million Africans, an entire country of Africans that died during the ‘Middle Passage Holocaust’. How the bodies of those Africans were thrown over board and fed to the sharks. I spoke about the horrific conditions. Naked. Chained. No Bathrooms. The Heat. The Disease. And I spoke about finding inspiration in the knowledge that someone of almost superhuman strength of mind, body, spirit and soul had to survive in order for me to be standing here today. That I knew that kind of strength was coursing through my blood. That that was true for all African-Americans. He agreed that it did take an incredible amount of strength and intestinal fortitude for these people to survive such a journey and we should be grateful for their strength and sacrifice.
As I pointed at the slave badges, Mr. Poitier was shocked to realize that slaves were rented out from plantation to plantation.
The juxtaposition of the Bill of sale for woman and child from 1776 and the Copy of the Declaration of Independence, also written in 1776, was not lost on Mr. Poitier. He spoke of the hypocrisy of the men at the time and he took the time to read a portion of the Declaration of Independence out loud. I added that the document itself was righteous and true. That the men who wrote it and at the same time owned slaves, our forefathers, didn’t even realize that their true spirit was talking through the document, they just needed to live up to this brilliantly authentic document which is basically the Birth Certificate of our Nation.
At one point Mr. Poitier paused and said, “ We still don’t get it. We-the people. There are those who would erase history. Erase all this.” We spoke about the importance of maintaining the history and how wonderful it was to have an exhibit like this, which is so educational and moving.
Part of what was remarkable and beautiful is that we actually had a chance to share many stories. When we got to the section with the cotton gin and the cotton, I held some cotton out for him to feel and to note the seeds inside of it. Then of course I pointed to the Cotton Gin and Mr. Poitier added that this was the machine that would strip the seeds from the cotton. I told him about my Mom’s experience picking cotton. “Mr. Poitier, my family is from North Carolina and Virginia and my relatives picked cotton. I was told not to tell this story but I’m going to tell it anyway. And I’m going to say that I specifically told this story to the incomparable Mr. Sidney Poitier. (He laughed.) I was told that at that time, in order to get paid at the end of the day when you picked cotton you would have to pick a certain amount. So Slaves and others would ‘pee’ in the cotton to make the bag heavier.” Mr. Poitier laughed heartily. I then said, “My family told me that the moisture would make the cotton expand and give it more weight. Some people would save their water until the end of the day and pour that in the bag as well.” Mr. Poitier commented that it was a smart thing for people to do so they could get paid and he jokingly said he hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for telling my people’s business to him. I giggled at this.
We were about halfway through the exhibit and sat on a bench in the Gallery dealing with Reconstruction. We rested a bit and talked about the possibilities of the different stories inspired from all of the faces and objects contained within the exhibit. We looked at a mural of two groups of African-American Union Soldiers. Some were in the band; some were regular soldiers with rifles. As we looked at the faces, Mr. Poitier mentioned that there are so many stories that we will never know. But it was inspiring to think about. These men. Where they came from. What their lives were like. How their lives ended. I mentioned that living with this exhibit for over 7 months has ignited my writing flame to tell many stories of the historical figures and events from inside this exhibit. Mr. Poitier said he was inspired as well.
As we moved on through Reconstruction, I spoke about the fact that The Emancipation Proclamation was not the document that actually ended slavery; it was the 13th Amendment, also signed by Lincoln, which actually ended Slavery. It was mentioned that we should have a national holiday honoring our people, the ones who died, the one’s who survived, etc. much like the Jewish people do. And I shared that I recently started a campaign to do exactly that called, “Make Freedom Day” a National Holiday. Freedom Day being Dec. 6th, the day the 13th Amendment was ratified which ended slavery for all people in America, not just black people. It’s a day that could celebrate Freedom as well as those who were enslaved, died and fought for Freedom.
One of the most memorable things about this walk through history with living History- was of course, Mr. Poitier himself and his stories. He had so many stories. Stories about the people he’d met and had the opportunity to experience and get to know on a personal level.
One stark moment was when we entered Jim Crow and Mr. Poitier simply stared at the KKK gown and hood. He pointed and said, “I know that. I know that well. I could tell you stories. Stories about that.” He shook his head slowly, and calmly looked around the red gallery. He was clearly awash with memories and pains from the past, but not wanting to delve too deeply into those particular wounds. Before we left this gallery he pointed to the face of Ida B. Wells that was on the red backdrop and said, “That woman was quite something. Brilliant anti-lynching activist.”
I actually saw Mr. Poitier go all groupie when he spoke about Mandela. His eyes lit up and the excitement in his voice was palpable as he described Mr. Mandela. He said Mandela was one of the most remarkable and brilliant men he’d ever met, and he got a chance to play him in a film. He said apartheid was still in effect and it was a horrible time. Then he told us about some of his favorite words spoken on film. Because they were the actual words that were spoken by Mandela. He said when de Klerk told Mandela he would be released in a week or so, Mandela said to de Klerk- “Ill tell you when you will release me. You’ll release me when I say. Not when you say.” Mr. Poitier was very intense as he described the story behind those words. He said that Mandela told de Klerk that it would be chaos if he released Mandela on the day he intended and Mandela would let him know when the time was right. Amazing story. I was honored that Mr. Poitier shared it with us.
As we came upon Thurgood Marshall’s suit, Mr. Poitier exclaimed, “I played him in a movie as well! I got an opportunity to meet him. He was such a courageous man. There were times where the only way he could leave town was in a hearse otherwise he would have been attacked and killed because he would go down south to some of the worst places to fight for civil rights.”
When we walked into the Sports and Entertainment Gallery, Mr. Poitier smiled and said, “I know you must have some Michael Jackson in here.” I laughed and pointed to the whistle that Michael Jackson would bring on stage with him when he was a child. And I pointed at the outfit that was specifically designed for Michael Jackson’s, “This is It Tour” but which he unfortunately did not get a chance to inhabit. Although he did wear the snow white T-shirt beneath the Jacket.
We casually moved Mr. Poitier towards a case that held a surprise for him which stopped him short. He was quite tickled and humbled when he saw a PLAYBILL From “A Raisin in the Sun” with a photo of him which had to be 60 years ago if not more. He was totally stunned. He stopped in his tracks and said with slight chagrin, “Who is that?” And then he let out a long… “Daaaammn.” The look on his face=priceless. We all laughed and got a kick out of that moment.
As we left the last Gallery and walked into the final film, we entered as if ON CUE at the point in the film when they showed a clip of Mr. Poitier receiving his Oscar and then in the very next moment a clip of Denzel Washington holding up his Best Actor Oscar to Sidney while saying, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sir. And there is nothing that I would rather do.” Mr. Poitier seemed incredibly moved. He sat and watched the film from beginning to end all over again. When President Barack Obama’s image preceded Ossie Davis as the film came to a close, we all applauded.
Mr. Poitier mused about how wonderful it was to experience the exhibit. He said he definitely wanted to have his daughters come. He told me he had 6 daughters and he wanted them all to see it. I spoke briefly about the time I met the daughter who is his namesake-Sydney and he smiled as he shared warm thoughts about her. He said he was so thrilled to have the opportunity to see the exhibit and thanked me for the incredible guided tour.
Finally, Mr. Poitier wrote a Thank You note to Tavis Smiley in the book that is available outside for comments. I told him I would make sure Tavis received it.
As we walked to the elevator, Mr. Poitier gave me a litany of wonderful compliments. Yes, it was indeed my turn to blush. He said, “Thank you for a lovely evening, for taking care of me. For the knowledge, the guidance, the wonderful company. The history. I learned so much. I realized how much I knew and experienced. It was wonderful. I’m so truly grateful—“ but before he could continue I interrupted indignantly, “Sidney! —I can’t believe you. You stole my speech!” He laughed heartily at this, as did everyone else. But as we stepped into the elevator, I was compelled to give him my authentic gratitude. I looked him in the eyes and said. “Mr. Poitier- Sidney. No. Seriously. You really did steal my speech. That is exactly what I would have said to you.” He smiled and with the grace and charm that is part of what has made him the National Treasure that he is, he took in my gratitude with an equally warm and real, “Thank You.”
The final gift was a photo with him. I told him if I didn’t have a photo to prove it my family would never believe that I had told their ‘pee’ story to none other than Mr. Sidney Poitier himself.