Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scholar Aram Goudsouzian on Sidney Poitier

Professor Aram Goudsouzian teaches in the department of history at the University of Memphis, and he wrote a comprehensive book, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), which manages to be both inspiring and sad at the same time. He was recently kind enough, earlier today, to answer a question about Sidney Poitier and the actor's relationship to his own scholarship.

Daniel: What led you to write about Sidney Poitier and how do the issues raised by his life and work relate to yours?

Aram Goudsouzian: I am interested in how popular culture shapes our attitudes about race, and in how race shapes our perceptions of popular culture. African Americans have historically found voices in entertainment and sports that were suppressed in more formal political arenas, and Hollywood has such profound, if often unacknowledged, effects upon the broader culture. The arc of Sidney Poitier’s saga particularly appealed to me because it carries through this entire period of racial upheaval. His persona transcended black stereotypes as comic buffoons or faithful sidekicks, and his dignity resonated with an emerging generation of African Americans and liberal whites who challenged racial convention in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, he seemed to embody the principle of racial equality, winning worldwide fame while lending Hollywood its sole black icon. Yet Poitier’s onscreen characters had to be ultra-virtuous heroes who exhibited unique restraints, fettering suggestions of black anger or sexuality. So by the late 1960s, one decade after getting considered a cutting-edge progressive figure, Black Power radicals and college students had tabbed him an “Uncle Tom.” I think his life and work still shape our popular understanding of black public figures today, none more so than President Obama. He seems to fulfill the same white liberal fantasies as Poitier, only on the most visible stage in the world.