The first time I met Sidney, I walked up to him at an airport. He didn’t know me, but I admired him very much, and I told him so. I’ve never done that with anyone, before or since, and Sidney looked at me as though he thought I was crazy, but he was very nice about it. Some years later, I really met him. We were both in Philadelphia. He was doing A Raisin in the Sun, and I was working with Kazan in Sweet Bird of Youth, and we hit it off.1
Then, of course, years passed. Things happened to Sidney; things happened to me. All artists who are friends have a strange relationship to each other; each knows what the other is going through, even though you may see each other only briefly, at functions, at benefits, at airports; and this is especially true, I think, for black artists in this country, and especially over the last several years. It’s ironical indeed, but it’s only the black artists in this country—and it’s only beginning to change now—who have been called upon to fulfill their responsibilities as artists and, at the same time, insist on their responsibilities as citizens. As Ruby Dee once said to me, when we were working on the Christmas boycott campaign following the murder of the four little girls in Birmingham, “Soon, there won’t be enough colored people to go around.” She wasn’t joking—I might add that that statement has, today, a rather sinister ring.
As the years passed, and given the system in which all American artists, and especially all American actors, work, I began to tremble for Sidney. I must state candidly that I think most Hollywood movies are a thunderous waste of time, talent and money, and I rarely see them. For example, I didn’t think Blackboard Jungle was much of a movie—I know much more than that about the public-school system of New York—but 1 thought that Sidney was beautiful, vivid and truthful in it. He somehow escaped the film’s framework, so much so that until today, his is the only performance I remember. Nor was I overwhelmed by Cry, the Beloved Country?2 but Sidney’s portrait, brief as it was, of the young priest, was a moving miracle of indignation. That was the young Sidney, and I sensed that I was going to miss him, in exactly the same way I will always miss the young Marlon of Truckline Cafe and Streetcar Named Desire. But then, I miss the young Jimmy Baldwin too.
All careers, if they are real careers—and there are not as many of these occurring as one might like to think—are stormy and dangerous, with turning points as swift and dizzying as hair-breadth curves on mountain roads. And I think that America may be the most dangerous country in the world for artists—whatever creative form they may choose. That would be all right if it were also exhilarating, but most of the time, it isn’t. It’s mostly sweat and terror. This is because the nature of the society isolates its artists so severely for their vision; penalizes them so mercilessly for their vision and endeavor; and the American form of recognition, fame and money, can be the most devastating penalty of all. This is not the artist’s fault, though I think that the artist will have to take the lead in changing this state of affairs.
The isolation that menaces all American artists is multiplied a thousand times, and becomes absolutely crucial and dangerous for all black artists. “Know whence you came,” Sidney once said to me, and Sidney, his detractors to the contrary, does know whence he came. But it can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.
Let me put it another way: I wish that both Marlon and Sidney would return to the stage, but I can certainly see why they don’t. Broadway is almost as expensive as Hollywood, is even more hazardous, is at least as incompetent, and the scripts, God knows, aren’t any better. Yet I can’t but feel that this is a great loss, both for the actor and the audience.
I will always remember seeing Sidney in A Raisin in the Sun. It says a great deal about Sidney, and it also says, negatively, a great deal about the regime under which American artists work, that that play would almost certainly never have been done if Sidney had not agreed to appear in it. Sidney has a fantastic presence on the stage, a dangerous electricity that is rare indeed and lights up everything for miles around. It was a tremendous thing to watch and to be made a part of. And one of the things that made it so tremendous was the audience. Not since I was a kid in Harlem, in the days of the Lafayette Theatre, had I seen so many black people in the theater. And they were there because the life on that stage said something to them concerning their own lives. The communion between the actors and the audience was a real thing; they nourished and recreated each other. This hardly ever happens in the American theater. And this is a much more sinister fact than we would like to think. For one thing, the reaction of that audience to Sidney and to that play says a great deal about the continuing and accumulating despair of the black people in this country, who find nowhere any faint reflection of the lives they actually lead. And it is for this reason that every Negro celebrity is regarded with some distrust by black people, who have every reason in the world to feel themselves abandoned.
I ought to add, for this also affects any estimate of any black star, that the popular culture certainly does not reflect the truth concerning the lives led by white people either; but white Americans appear to be under the compulsion to dream, whereas black Americans are under the compulsion to awaken. And this fact is also sinister.
I am not a television fan either, and I very much doubt that future generations will be vastly edified by what goes on on the American television screen. TV commercials drive me up the wall. And yet, as long as there is that screen and there are those commercials, it is important to hip the American people to the fact that black people also brush their teeth and shave and drink beer and smoke cigarettes—though it may take a little more time for the American people to recognize that we also shampoo our hair. It is of the utmost importance that a black child see on that screen someone who looks like him. Our children have been suffering from the lack of identifiable images for as long as our children have been born.
Yet, there’s a difficulty, there’s a rub, and it’s precisely the nature of this difficulty that has brought Sidney under attack. The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life. It considers that its job is to entertain the American people. Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics, and to watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. And the black face, truthfully refleeted, is not only no part of this dream, it is antithetical to it. And this puts the black performer in a rather grim bind. He knows, on the one hand, that if the reality of a black man’s life were on that screen, it would destroy the fantasy totally. And on the other hand, he really has no right not to appear, not only because he must work, but also for all those people who need to see him. By the use of his own person, he must smuggle in a reality that he knows is not in the script. A celebrated black TV actor once told me that he did an entire show for the sake of one line. He felt that he could convey something very im֊ portant with that one line. Actors don’t write their scripts, and they don’t direct them. Black people have no power in this industry at all. Furthermore, the actor may be offered dozens of scripts before anything even remotely viable comes along.
Sidney is now a superstar. This must baffle a great many people, as, indeed, it must baffle Sidney. He is an extraordinary actor, as even his detractors must admit, but he’s been that for a long time, and that doesn’t really explain his eminence. He’s also extraordinarily attractive and winning and virile, but that could just as easily have worked against him. It’s something of a puzzle. Speaking now of the image and not of the man, it has to do with a quality of pain and darger and some funda־ mental impulse to decency that both titillates and reassures the white audience. For example, I’m glad I didn’t write The Defiant Ones,3 but I liked Sidney in it very much. And I suppose that his performance has something to do with what I mean by smuggling in reality. I remember one short scene, in close-up, when he’s talking about his wife, who wants him to “be nice.” Sidney’s face, when he says, “She say, ‘Be nice. Be nice,’” conveys a sorrow and humiliation rarely to be seen on our screen. But white people took that film far more seriously than black people did. When Sidney jumps off the train at the end because he doesn’t want to leave his buddy, the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful. But when black peopie saw him jump off the train, they yelled, “Get back on the train, you fool!” That didn’t mean that they hated Sidney: They just weren’t going for the okey-doke. And if I point out that they were right, it doesn’t mean that Sidney was wrong. That film was made to say something to white people. There was really nothing it could say to black people—except for the authority of Sidney’s performance.
Black people have been robbed of everything in this country, and they don’t want to be robbed of their artists. Black people particularly disliked Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,4 which I made a point of seeing, because they felt that Sidney was, in effect, being used against them. I’m now on very delicate ground, and I know it, but I can’t really duck this issue—because it’s been raised so often. I can’t pretend that the movie meant anything to me. It seemed a glib, good-natured comedy in which a lot of able people were being wasted. But, I told myself, this movie wasn’t made for you. And I really don’t know the people for whom it was made. I moved out of their world, insofar as this is ever possible, a long time ago. I remember the cheerful English lady in a wineshop in London who had seen this movie and adored it and adored the star. She was a nice lady, and certainly not a racist, and it would simply have been an unjust waste of time to get angry with her for knowing so little about black people. The hard fact is that most people, of whatever color, don’t know much about each other because they don’t care much about each other. Would the image projected by Sidney cause that English lady to be friendly to the next West Indian who walked into her shop? Would it cause her to think, in any real way, of the reality, the presence, the simple human fact of black people? Or was Sidney’s black face simply, now, a part of a fantasy—the fantasy of her life, precisely—which she would never understand? This is a question posed by the communications media of the 20th century, and it is not a question anyone can answer with authority. One is gambling on the human potential of an inarticulate and unknown consciousness—that of the people. This consciousness has never been of such crucial importance in the world before. But one knows that the work of the world gets itself done in very strange ways, by means of very strange instruments, and takes a very long time. And I also thought that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may prove, in some bizarre way, to be a milestone, because it is really quite impossible to go any further in that particular direction. The next time, the kissing will have to start.
I thought of something else, something very difficult to convey. I remember a night in London, when Diana Sands was starring in The Owl and the Pussycat. There were about four or five of us, walking to some discotheque, and with us was a very angry, young, black cat. Across the street from us was Sidney’s name in lights in some movie I’ve not seen. Now, I understand the angry, young, black cat, and he was right to be angry. He was not angry at Sidney, but at the world. But I knew there was no point in saying that at the time I was born, the success of a Sidney Poitier or a Diana Sands was not to be imagined. I don’t mean to congratulate the American people on what they like to call progress, because it certainly isn’t. The careers of all black artists in this country prove that. Time passes and phenomena occur in time. The presence of Sidney, the precedent set, is of tremendous importance for people coming afterward. And perhaps that’s what it’s really all about—just that.
Sidney, as a black artist, and a man, is also up against the infantile, furtive sexuality of this country. Both he and Harry Belafonte, for example, are sex symbols, though no one dares admit that, still less to use them as any of the Hollywood he־ men are used. In spite of the fabulous myths proliferating in this country concerning the sexuality of black people, black men are still used, in the popular culture, as though they had no sexual equipment at all. This is what black men, and black women, too, deeply resent.
I think it’s important to remember, in spite of the fact we’ve been around so long, that Sidney is younger than I, and I’m not an old man yet. It takes a long time in this business, if you survive in it at all, to reach the eminence that will give you the power to change things. Sidney has that power now, to the limited extent that anyone in this business has. It will be very interesting to see what he does with it. In my mind, there’s no limit to what he might become.
But Sidney, like all of us, is caught in a storm. Let me tell you one thing about him, which has to do with how black artists particularly need each other. Sidney had read Another Country before it came out. He liked it, and he knew how frightened I was about the book’s reception. I’d been in Europe, and I came back for the publication because I didn’t want anyone to think I was afraid to be here. My publisher gave a party at Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise in Harlem. Sidney came very early. I was ready to meet the mob, but I was scared to death, and Sidney knew it, and he walked me around the block and talked to me and helped me get myself together. And then he walked me back, and the party was starting. And when he realized that I was all right, he split. And I realized for the first time that he had only come for that. He hadn’t come for the party at all.
And the following may also make a small, malicious point. There’s speculation that the central figure of my new novel, who is a black actor, is based on Sidney. Nothing could be further from the truth, but people naturally think that, because when they look around them, Sidney’s the only black actor they see. Well, that fact says a great deal more about this country than it says about black actors, or Sidney, or me.
From Look magazine, July 23, 1968. Reprinted by permission of Lantz-Donadio Literary Agency. Copyright © 1968/ by James Baldwin.
1.A Raisin in the Sun: the play by Lorraine Hansberry. Sweet Bird of Youth: the play by Tennessee Williams.
2.Blackboard Jungle (1955), directed by Richard Brooks. Cry, the Bdoved Country (1951), directed by Zoltan Korda.
3.The Defiant Ones (1958) directed by Stanley Kramer; Sidney Poitier co-starred with Tony Curtis.
4.Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) directed by Stanley Kramer.