Poetry Of The Black Man

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As the world continues to mourn the loss of Sidney Poitier it seems fitting to shine a light on one of his most overlooked projects, the album Sidney Poitier Reads Poetry Of The Black Man (originally released as Poetry Of The Negro in 1956). This album, first pressed by the Glory label, was reissued in 1969 by United Artists Records, coinciding with one of the most violently tumultuous years with regards to race in the United States. It’s a fitting album for 1956, 1969 and even today as Black voices continue to be marginalized by mainstream culture.

Sidney Poitier possessed one of the greatest voices. Even in moments when Poitier employed his voice to exert power he still retained a tenderness. As Poitier reads the poems of Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen and a host of others this duality to his tone and manner becomes highly affecting. Moments of rage take on a hue of sorrow just as a moment of sublime happiness becomes tainted with a note of despair. Poitier’s performance on Poetry Of The Black Man is as worthy of acclaim as any of the actor’s on-screen performances.

Sidney Poitier doesn’t perform these poems in a sonic void. The actor is aided by jazz musician “Specs” Powell which adds a quasi-beatnik feel to the recordings. These tracks have a casual intimacy as if one just wondered into a coffee house in time to catch an impromptu recital. On the other end of the spectrum the tracks that feature the Brooks Male Chorus take on a gravitas fitting for the emotionally charged pieces about the antebellum south. The album balances these tones and the content they accompany so that the proceedings never become too much of one or the other but rather a series of emotional climaxes that work to punctuate one another.

It’s been over sixty years since Sidney Poitier went into the recording studio armed with a dozen poems by Black writers and yet it still feels somewhat precious. The relevancy of these works and of Poitier’s performance remains potent. Poitier was a great artist and an invaluable activist and we owe it to him to seek out his entire body of work.