Today is Sidney Poitier’s 93rd birthday. Let us celebrate him as we celebrate Black History Month.
For those of you who have read my memoir Mississippi Sissy you know he becomes a kind of motif in it, his very name the incantation that our family’s maid would say to herself whenever she heard the n-word in her presence, a word she even heard from me the morning after Poitier won the Oscar. He was the first African American to win the award for Best Actor and I asked Matty May, as she was making the my bed the next morning before I went to second grade, if she could “believe a n—-r won Best Actor.” It was a pivotal moment in my life and it is a pivotal scene in the book – as is my seeing Matty May a few years later as we both picked cotton on my uncle’s farm and I overheard her quietly saying his name, “poitierpoitierpoitier” over and over, it having become a kind of mantra to calm herself with each boll that she reached for and belligerently wrenched forth to put into her sack.
Indeed, when Oprah Winfrey called me one Sunday to talk about Mississippi Sissy after having read it she told me that she was seeing Mr. Poitier that coming Thursday and was going to take the book with her and read to him the passages she had marked, especially the post-Oscar and cotton field ones. The thought of Oprah reading to Mr. Poitier my words moved me beyond measure – not just for me, but for sweet dear brave proud Matty May, who changed my life by being a part of it.
I’ve linked to Mr. Poitier’s Oscar win below and recall an earlier Oscar weekend a few years ago when I was out in LA to attend the Vanity Fair Oscar party and a friend’s Friday night star-filled shindig at his home and the Saturday afternoon picnic that two other friends give at their home as well that is the epitome of low-key easy glamour, many stars lolling about on rugs having been strewn about their Beverly Hills lawn and others sitting at picnic tables. I’ve seen Oprah a few times at those parties and at that picnic. When she told me she was going to read to Mr. Poitier from my book I told her about that one picnic afternoon when I spotted him sitting at one of those picnic tables. I gathered up my courage and went and knelt at his side and began to tell him about Matty May and my book and how much he had meant to her. In the middle of my telling him all this Penny Marshall came up to say hello to him and I rose to leave them but he grabbed my hand and asked me to stay. Penny said her helloes and went to sit with some other friends at a neighboring table. I continued to kneel by Mr. Poitier’s side and he continued to hold my hand. “Now finish telling me all about Matty May,” he said softly, her name now coming from him as his had so often come from hers. In that moment I not only felt Matty’s presence in my life once more but I felt God’s. It truly was a moment of grace to have arrived at that moment from that earlier moment back in Mississippi when as a little southern boy I had broken Matty May’s heart with my use of the n-word to describe this dignified man who now held my hand and before whom I was kneeling.
I can still hear her old soft throaty voice now whispering to me even as I type this birthday wish to one of our country’s greatest actors: “…poitierpoitierpoitier …” And I can hear him too whisper her name: ” … Matty May …”