To Sir, With Love: In Memoriam

Production still from the film “To Sir, With Love” (1967)

Watching “To Sir, With Love” didn’t inspire me to teach but it did remind me of what I love about teaching… especially with challenging students. I have always been able to reach or work with students who are labeled “at risk” or “troublemakers.” Actor Sidney Poitier, as Mr. Thackeray, aptly embodied the role of a reluctant engineer who sees a teaching position as a pit stop on the way to something else. And, on the way, he discovers his ability to teach.

DVD cover image

The fact that Thackeray was a black teacher among an entire school of white teachers and mostly white students was also important for me to see, as well. Race was always there, including in how he was sometimes treated but he didn’t allow racism to deter him from what he came to do. Thackeray/Poitier was also an immigrant, adding another layer to the situation. You got the feeling that he could relate to the students. He did not approve when they misbehaved but he understood. So do I.

Production still from “Lillies of the Field” (1963)
Production still from “A Patch of Blue” (1965)

My sister loved “Lillies of the Field” and I recall growing weary of her singing “Amen” on repeat, after the film was done playing. I remember “A Patch of Blue,” a film about a black office worker who begins a romance with a blind white girl (but of course she had to be blind to love him). All throughout the 1960s Poitier played this types of roles. It was a reflection of the times (i.e., Civil Rights) and let’s not forget that slap:

Production still from “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)

Then, the 1970s came and I was born. I grew up watching a different Poitier from the 60s: as an actor in comedies and action films with all-black casts. “Let’s Do It Again” was a family favorite and “Buck and the Preacher” was a personal one. In the latter, Poitier, as Buck, is a cowboy. With Harry Belafonte as Preacher, Buck helps save freed slaves from a gang of bounty hunters.

Production still from “Let’s Do It Again” (1975)
Production still from “Buck and the Preacher” (1972)

I’ve seen “To Sir, With Love” and “Buck and the Preacher” more times than I can count. Of course, news of his death saddened me but Poitier left us with so much. He, no matter what role he played, as a proud black man. He demanded respect. He wore suits in nearly ever role and he did not internalize racism. Sir Sidney Poitier was a man of his times. Inspired by his legacy, I created this portrait:

From the “Gilded” series (2022)

I will now add Sir Sidney Poitier to my series of portraits that memorialize people who have entertained, inspired, or touched my heart in some way. The “gilded” theme references the ways in which wealth or power was displayed in portraiture from the past. The image styles I use include embroidered fabrics, golden textures and objects, as well as vector illustrations. Poitier exuded empowerment, so it seemed fitting to use these styles.

Note the flowers in the DVD cover and the flowers in my portrait.

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Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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