Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Sidney Poitier's Time in Miami

Readers of this blog know that I often cite the Wikipedia in ways that would get me a failing grade from teachers and professors these days. I realize that it's not to be used in serious work, and particularly shouldn't be trusted on topics that are controversial. It also has structural biases about who and what it includes and at what depth, particularly against anyone who isn't a white man. But it's just so darned easy.

The other day after Sidney Poitier's death, I was wondering about some of the basics of his life and read through his page. I learned that he was born in Miami while his Bahamian parents were picking tomatoes, then grew up in the Bahamas until he was a young teenager. He was sent back to Miami to live with an older brother, but left after a year or so for New York City because he found Miami too racist.

The amount of detail given about that is this: "he found it impossible to adjust to the racism in Jim Crow era Florida." It's footnoted to an NPR article by Frank James from May 20, 2009 called Sidney Poitier's Reflections of Dignity.

According to this Twitter thread by Nadege Green, writer and researcher of Miami's Black community, there's more detail known about that experience. Green does not provide a citation, but here's a recent newspaper article that gives some of the same information. An interview with Teri Gross on "Fresh Air" in 2000 covered the same territory. Poitier also wrote an autobiography, and it's hard to believe it doesn't discuss this part of his life.

The basic outline is that Poitier, 15, was working as a delivery boy for a downtown department store. He brought a package to the front door of a house in all-white Miami Beach, and when told to bring it to servant entrance in back, asked why. The woman of the house slammed the door and he left he package on the steps. KKK members soon came to his brother's home, looking for Poitier.

Poitier moved to an uncle's house in a different part of town, and prepared to move North. Before he could, he had a "run-in" with five white cops as he was hitchhiking to his uncle's house. "One of the officers asked Poitier to lean into the [cop] car and placed a gun to his forehead, taunting, 'We should shoot him.'" They then followed him all the way home.

Does this amount of information, or even a more condensed version of it beyond "racism in Jim Crow era Florida," seem important enough to include in the Wikipedia page of a famous actor who was known for his civil rights work? I think it is.

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