Chapter Excerpt

Measure of a Man, The

Chapter One

The Idyll

It's late at night as I lie in bed in the blue glow of the television set. I have the clicker in my hand, the remote control, and I go from 1 to 97, scrolling through the channels. I find nothing that warrants my attention, nothing that amuses me, so I scroll up again, channel by channel, from bottom to top. But already I've given it the honor of going from 1 to 97, and already I've found nothing. This vast, sophisticated technology and . . . nothing. It's given me not one smidgen of pleasure. It's informed me of nothing beyond my own ignorance and my own frailties.

But then I have the audacity to go up again! And what do I find? Nothing, of course. So at last, filled with loathing and self-disgust, I punch the damn TV off and throw the clicker across the room, muttering to myself, "What am I doing with my time?"

It's not as if I'm without other resources or material comforts, you follow? I've been very fortunate in life, and as I lie in my bed, I'm surrounded by beautiful things. Treasured books and art objects, photographs and mementos, lovely gardens on the balcony. After many years in this particular business in this particular town, I have a rich network of friends, some only a few steps away, dozens of others whom I could reach on the phone within seconds.

So what am I doing with my time?

Steeped in this foul, self-critical mood I lie back and close my eyes, trying to empty my head of all thought. It's late, time to sleep, so I determine to focus on that empty space in my consciousness and try to drift off. But images begin to come to me, infiltrating that darkness. Soft, sensuous images of a time very early in my life when things were so much simpler, when my options for entertainment couldn't be counted on a scale from 1 to 97.

I'm on the porch of our little house on Cat Island in the Bahamas. It's the end of the day and evening is coming on, turning the sky and the sea to the west of us a bright burnt orange, and the sky and the sea to the east of us a cool blue that deepens to purple and then to black. In the gathering darkness, in the coolness of our porch, my mother and father sit and fan the smoke from green palm leaves they're burning to shoo away the mosquitoes and the sand flies. And as she did so often when I was small, my sister Teddy takes me in her arms to rock me to sleep. While she's rocking me in her arms, she too is fanning the smoke that comes from the big pot of green leaves being burned, and she fans the smoke around me as I try to go to sleep in her arms.

That's the way the evenings always were on Cat Island. In the simplicity of that setting I always knew how I was going to get through the day and how Mom and Dad were going to get through the day and how, at the end of it, we were all going to sit on this porch, fanning the smoke of the burning green leaves.

On that tiny spit of land they call Cat Island, life was indeed very simple, and decidedly preindustrial. Our cultural "authenticity" extended to having neither plumbing nor electricity, and we didn't have much in the way of schooling or jobs, either. In a word, we were poor, but poverty there was very different from poverty in a modern place characterized by concrete. It's not romanticizing the past to state that poverty on Cat Island didn't preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, cocoa plum trees and sea grapes and cassavas growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild.Cat Island is forty-six miles long and three miles wide, and even as a small child I was free to roam anywhere. I climbed trees by myself at four and five years old and six and seven years old. I would get attacked by wasps, and I would go home with both eyes closed from having been stung on the face over and over. I would be crying and hollering and screaming and petrified, and my mom would take me and treat me with bush medicines from the old culture that you wouldn't believe, and then I would venture back out and go down to the water and fish alone.

I would even go in sometimes and swim by myself. I had the confidence, because when I was very small my mother threw me in the ocean and watched without moving as I struggled to survive. She watched as I screamed, yelled, gulped, and flailed in a panic-stricken effort to stay afloat. She watched as I clawed desperately at the water, unable to manage more than a few seconds before starting to sink beneath the surface. She watched as the ocean swallowed me, second by second. Then, mercifully, my father's hands reached under, fished me out, and handed me back up to my mother . . . who threw me back in again, and again and again, until she was convinced that I knew how to swim.

There were snakes on the island, but none poisonous. There were black widow spiders that were poisonous, but I doubt that my parents were fearful I would get killed by any of them. I mean, there were risks and there were hazards, but I could go anywhere, and I had myself as company.I knew from observation that the sapodilla tree produced fruit, plump, grayish brown, soft, juicy, and delectable, at least twice a year, and that's where the wasps' nests were that got me unexpectedly and repeatedly. I learned early that if I got up high in a sapodilla tree, rather than crawling out on limbs to see if the fruit was ripe enough to eat, I could rattle the top branches of the tree and ripe fruit would come loose from the weakened stems and fall to the ground. And then I could come down and pick it up and eat and get my stomach full. I would eat until I got a bellyache, and then I would get more of my mother's bush medicine-god-awful-tasting grass weeds or bitter roots of plants whose names I've never known or chunks of aloe vera I would have to force myself to swallow. And then I was off again looking for cocoa plums. Or standing on the rocks by the sea and fishing with a piece of thread and a straight pin that I'd bent into a hook. I did all those things, and it was fun, because on such an island poverty wasn't the depressing, soul-destroying force that it can be under other conditions.

Measure of a Man, The. Copyright © by Sidney Poitier. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier
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