A Biography of Sidney Poitier

In 1967, a press conference with Sidney Poitier, at that time one of the most successful and popular American actors and certainly the most famous African-American actor, turned from his many roles on screen and stage and became something else entirely.

Due to a rash of racial riots across the nation at that time, Poitier was asked pointed questions concerning whether or not he was in favor of the racial riots, his theories on segregation, and other racially oriented topics (Goudsouzian).

It was at that point that something happened which changed the course of Poitier’s life as well as the role of African-Americans everywhere- rather than avoid the question, turn the focus back to his fame or storm off in a rage, Poitier came to the realization that it was impossible for him to separate his status as an entertainment icon from his obligation to use his fame to advance the cause of minority rights in America.  Since then, Poitier has done just that.

This research will discuss Aram Goudsouzian’s pivotal 2004 biography of Sidney Poitier, not only as a review of this book, but also in an effort to try to better understand how and why Poitier has become one of the most influential African Americans since the end of Civil War.

Author’s Purpose

When gaining a better understanding of why Goudsouzian chose Poitier as the subject of his book, one not only gains an understanding of the author’s purpose in writing the book, but also a grasp of the major social and historical issues that are tackled through a book which is biographical at its core, but becomes much more expansive as it unfolds.

First, one must realize that Goudsouzian is not a biographer by nature, but in fact is a history writer, which is why Poitier was chosen as the subject of the book.

By choosing a pivotal historic African-American who bridges the gap between the façade of Hollywood and the real world of the urban streets of the nation, Goudsouzian has been able to tell not only the story of the struggles of an ambitious African-American man coming of age in the racially charged 1950s and 1960s, but also of a man who parlayed his fame not into a mere vehicle for his own enrichment, but to try to aid and support his entire race.

Goudsouzian’s Central Theme

Earlier, the point was made that Goudsouzian’s book is much more than biography or history, but is rather a powerful combination of the two.  Looking beyond this assertion, it is also interesting to explore the central theme of the book, which can fairly be identified in one word-perseverance.

For Poitier, perseverance has meant the constant jumping of hurdles, placed in front of him by a society which still wrestles with the issue of equality for African-Americans, even decades after the strife which advanced African-Americans significantly, and almost a century and a half after a bloody Civil War which settled the issue of African-American freedom once and for all.  For African-Americans in general, it would seem that Goudsouzian paints perseverance as a struggle to gain equal footing with the mainstream of America.

This being said, however, a fair critique of Goudsouzian’s approach is in order.  It would seem that the author is too quick to always portray Poitier, and African-Americans as perpetual underdogs who never gain any significant ground.

However, in truth, much progress has been made in cause of racial equality, while keeping in mind of course that there is much progress yet to come.  Goudsouzian could have presented a bit more of a balance in his contrast.

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