But I saw it differently, from his perspective. He had learned that sometimes, when people say something can’t happen, they simply haven’t tried hard enough. Sometimes, can’ts are soft.
When Poitier arrived in New York, he did odd jobs until, as he wrote in his memoir, he said, “What the hell,” and tried his hand at acting. That didn’t go well. As Poitier wrote, when he went in for an audition at the American Negro Theater, “the man in charge quickly let me know — and in no uncertain terms — that I was misguided in my assumptions.” He continued: “I had no training in acting. I could barely read! And to top it off, I had a thick singsong Bahamian accent.”
As Poitier recounted, the man was seething: “‘You just get out of here and stop wasting people’s time. Go get a job you can handle,’ he barked. And just as he threw me out, he ended with, ‘Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something.’” Poitier had already worked as a dishwasher.
Undeterred, Poitier would will himself into becoming one of the greatest actors America has ever known. As he put it, “There’s something inside me — pride, ego, sense of self — that hates to fail at anything.”
For people like Poitier, who have lived a life in which, by sheer grit and determination, they turned noes into yeses, noes lack finality.
Toward the end of the evening, Poitier asked me about my family and then told me that he had six daughters and no sons. “I’m going to adopt you,” he belted with a smile. He asked me to send him and his wife a copy of my book and commanded, “Sign it ‘To Mom and Dad,’” which I did.
Maybe to someone else, this would have been just another ordinary dinner. Not me. That night lingers with me. I could see in Poitier what a life well lived looked like on a man, how you could grow old with grace and kindness or grow into them, and how elegance and sophistication are timeless and eternal. He was the epitome of Black dignity, Black beauty, Black pride and Black power.
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