Left: Actor Sidney Poitier poses with his Oscar, April 13, 1964 / Right: Lani Guinier speaks at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 13, 1994.
( L: Anonymous/ R: Charles Tasnadi
Sidney Poitier: Time's going to come, Joe. The time's going to come, but if you want it to be right here right now, that's okay with me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Elegant, dignified, unforgettable, singular. These are just some of the words used to remember the groundbreaking actor, Sidney Poitier, who made his final transition late Thursday night at 94-years-old. Just two days later, the world lost another giant when professor Lani Guinier passed away at the age of 71. Brilliant, prescient, formidable, strategic. This is just part of how Guinier's colleagues and students have remembered her. Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award. Guinier, the first Black woman awarded tenure at Harvard Law school, but to describe either primarily as the first in their respective fields is so stunningly reductionist as to do violence to the legacy of each. Here is Poitier during a press conference in 1968.
Sidney Poitier: You ask me questions that fall continually within the Negroness of my life. You ask me questions that pertain to the narrow scope of the summer riots. I am artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due and not simply ask me about those things.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Comments like these earned him harsh rebuke in the late 1960s, but a young activist whose movement for Black power centered racial pride in its organizing for cultural and political advancement. Some read, ''Poitier's insistence on being understood as fully human as a cowardly de-racialization.'' Scholar and voting rights advocate Lani Guinier also endured moments of painful critique and rejection, most publicly in 1993, when President Bill Clinton withdrew her nomination to serve as Assistant Attorney General after she was unfairly villainized as a so-called quota queen.
Now, it's common in our current political moment to remember the early '90s as more civil and less divided, but racist caricatures and uninformed attacks against Guinier are a reminder that far too often consensus really meant tacit agreement among elites to silence those who challenge the inequities of power. A common thread stitches together these two giants. Representation matters. From Poitier, we experienced a symbolic representation of self-possessed Black manhood. His career is emblematic of why the characters, images, and stories we witness on screen contribute to our sense of self and our place in the nation. In his life and in his craft, Poitier resisted the infantilization and ignorance of white supremacy.
Sidney Poitier: They call me Mister Tibbs.
Melissa-Harris Perry: With Guinier, representation is a matter of politics rather than popular culture. Her work is an unflinching of our failure to adequately represent the diverse interest and identities in our country. She questioned the biases embedded in our political rules and unmasked the insidious ways racism warps democracy.
Lani Guinier: We can employ race as a lens to see things that are otherwise invisible. Race both masks and sustains deeply problematic, in my view, hierarchies of power and privilege.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Guinier did more than diagnose problems. She offered creative, practical, democratic solutions like cumulative voting, ranked-choice voting, and multi-member congressional districts. To live in a democracy is to have the right to govern, not simply to be governed, to speak, not simply to be spoken for, and to lose without fearing that winners take all. Representation matters and here ends their great lesson. Sidney Portier, Lani Guinier, yet more losses in this still young year.
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