Back to Poitier, then. He’s celebrated as a pioneer, and justly so, as the first Black winner of an Oscar for best actor and one of the first Black leading men in mainstream Hollywood films, among them “No Way Out,” “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies of the Field” (for which he won that Oscar) and “In the Heat of the Night.”
But in my callow youth, I must admit I never saw him as a trailblazer in the way that I was supposed to. The reason: I loved what he did, but I sensed him as a Caribbean man.
Poitier was Bahamian (he was born in Miami but spent his early years in the Bahamas) and always sounded it, especially in more passionate moments. Indeed, in 1967’s “To Sir, With Love,” he played a teacher of Guyanese descent working in a struggling multiracial working-class London school. As a kid, it never occurred to me that I was to process him in his roles as someone who had grown up on, say, Chicago’s South Side. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” I saw him as, well, a young Caribbean gentleman coming to dinner.
And while the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy characters in that film wouldn’t have been at all thrilled about a Caribbean gent marrying their daughter, it seemed to me that they would have been even less enthusiastic if the suitor was a Black man from somewhere like Chicago’s South Side — a point that would have been underscored if the part had been played by a different Black actor of the period, such as the lacrosse and football great Jim Brown, who was in dozens of movies after his N.F.L. career, or Billy Dee Williams, of “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Empire Strikes Back” fame (though both were a few years younger than Poitier). A “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Williams, no matter how gracefully he would have played the lead role, almost certainly would never have been made in 1967.
Poitier was certainly a pioneer — but in the sense that he was transitional. In a mid-20th-century America that feared and scorned Blackness and especially Black maleness that came with a hint of sexuality, the first real Black matinee idol was almost inevitably going to be someone who didn’t talk (or move) in modes more typically associated with American Black men. A more local, less global Black voice would have made (or have been assumed to have made) white audiences back then too uncomfortable for a big studio to have greenlighted Poitier’s classic films. He was, quietly but decisively, different. He was from somewhere else, even if you only thought of that subconsciously — as we do to a major degree about language in all of its facets.
But he was a bridge. He was Black, after all, and his Caribbean cadences certainly weren’t white-sounding. He helped pave the way not only for other Black actors, but also for acceptance of more varied Black speech. In the 1960s, the Black Power movement and the Black Is Beautiful movement — proud displays of Blackness in aesthetic mediums including clothing and hairstyles — became part of the Black mainstream and increasingly (if not widely) accepted by the broader society. Language norms transformed alongside, and from then on, American Black English was more acceptable in the public sphere than ever before.
Black English sounded forth in the so-called Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s as well as on network TV shows with Black casts like “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son,” starring Foxx. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an explosion in Black film where Black English was woven throughout the dialogue, from Spike Lee’s early work to John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood.” Rap started its gradual penetration into mainstream American music such that now there are any number of hip-hop tracks almost guaranteed to be played by DJs at even all-white wedding receptions.