The Tibbs Threshold
Poitier and black dignity.
I’m a writer and a namer. I bang thoughts and concepts and ideas off the walls of the interwebz and I’m very conscientious and scrupulous about keeping copies. In my very first protoblog I wrote about what I called, in lowercase as was all my experimental stuff in 2002, the Tibbs Threshold.
few people talk about sidney poitier any longer, which i think is a shame. what was great about sidney, despite the fact that he had to pick his wardrobe strictly from the overachiever side, was that he established a very subtle kind of bogard. i call it the 'tibbs threshold'. in his time, the homeboy suit wasn't an option, and yet folks didn't even call him 'sir'. they had no idea that they were disrespecting him, that they were crossing the tibbs threshold. they couldn't conceive of his championship. he corrected them like a gentleman. admirable man that poitier.
The strange thing about my generation, which I think apes the prior generation, is that there are a broad set of civilized conventions that we believe are so fixed and permanent that we feel no danger in abusing them. Those who were older than us were so confident that the Establishment was a fixture of American social power felt perfectly justified in dropping out of society and becoming free loving hippies, longhairs and villainous rebels. By the time Sidney Poitier had won the Oscar and blown the mind of the world in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, kids my age found dignity almost boring. So we didn’t mind indulging in the Wild Style. By the time Yo MTV Raps was mainstream, the ascendancy of the kind of intelligent reserve expected we unintelligently dismissed. Surely some attention was paid to the grand dames and dukes. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were the standby standard bearers. They came to my church, and Rita Moreno came to the church up the street. For all they did to resist and turn around being addressed casually, we took on monikers like LL Cool J and Flava Flav because We Real Cool. Now we’ve hit the floor trying to pretend as if we have the special privilege of calling each other niggers and bitches but others cannot. I use ‘we’ gratuitously. The Element is ever present, lowering our standards for the sake of racial unity, but there are those among us with no patience for that.
It hasn’t taken me long to notice that the Sidney Poitier film festival has not yet materialized on Amazon, Apple or Netflix. It’s not like he’s as powerful a symbol of black lives that matter as that other crew. But the catalog is out there and I’m going to make my way through it. In the Heat of the Night was the film I was thinking about in 2002 when I wrote lowercase. I was particularly taken with a kind of attitude that presumed and often exploited the dissonance between my New World Afrikan worldview and the American mainstream. It was a kind Punk mind-fuck of the sort black intellectuals occasionally perpetrate when we simultaneously provoke disrespectfully and demand respect. We claim that we are insulted in being addressed by our first names, yet wear jeans with holes in the leg, as if it is too much of a burden to be both a gentleman and a scholar. We play games around the Tibbs Threshold, in one way not caring for shit what ‘Rethuglicans’ might think about our provocative blackity-blackness and then ranting against them for being antagonistic. Fundamentally distrusting everything liberal ‘wypipo’ do and say, but exploiting every ounce of guilt they might possess over race. Funny, this brings to mind a controversy over Sean Bell, a homicide victim in NYC who was shot to death by cops at a strip club at 4 in the morning. Was that a reasonable place to be? Was there a reasonable use of force? Do we hold different standards of reasonable comportment for black folks? Should we? Poitier has always been a reasonable man on both sides of the camera. I don’t think he stood out among his contemporaries, he was remarkable because the American mainstream got to see him. One always presumes that Poitier was never far from a gentleman and a scholar, but he didn’t always play such roles. Even in his role as an escaped convict, you could ascertain his reasonableness. Now is the time to check them out.
As I think of other icons of black actors of a particularly dignified stripe, Roscoe Lee Browne was a favorite of mine. I never quite understood Ben Vereen except as Chicken George. I very much admired Sammy Davis Jr, and often believed that Robert Guillaume’s character of Benson was inspired genius. They’re all gone from the public eye, but I expect we will hear from Denzel to remind us, since Cosby occupies that same zone of Cancelville as LouisCK. In a way we are fortunate to have the unhinged behavior of sick bros to remind us how essential are the aspects of humanity born by those of reason and dignity.
That still leaves us with the difficulty of having our own Tibbs Threshold crossed. Just this week some Twit considered me a poser for responding sans cheveux en flammes, in a short video de-ranting a video rant by Glenn Loury. They are not only white Americans who are targeted by the Mau Mau, but all are sometimes likely to be clowned and slapped when it comes to the realm of the suffering of black Americans. Have we clowns been disrespectful, or have the slappers gone too far? In the world of moral posturing we may have to concede the whole thing is a circus. The universe does not care about motive.
We have the legacy of a fine actor and an outstanding man who bore up under the extraordinary pressure of being a symbol and therefore the focus of Americans’ hungry attention during tumultuous times. I expect this time next month I will be further edified by knowing more of what he did. So should we all.