I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

“Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, ‘Was my father handsome?’

She replied, ‘Some might say yes.’

‘Was he smart?’ I asked.

She stared at the television. ‘Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman’s chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?’

I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died.”

I’ve quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book  about a boy who is named “Not Sidney Poitier” although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.

However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Graywolf Press, 234 pages) is a quest story—a search for identity, or one’s true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people’s perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people’s projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:

Upon accepting the award, he explains that he came back here to try to connect to something that he lost—his whole self. He acknowledges that all these people pelting him with adulation seem to know him better than he knows himself. He feels the weight of these projections in the metaphor of the trophy they’ve handed him.

“. . . [A]s I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone [his mother’s unmarked gravestone]. It should be what mine will say: I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

He has discovered what Buddhists call “emptiness.” When you peel away all the layers of what you may think defines you, you will discover that you are none of those things. So what are you left with? Emptiness. Ultimately, this and death are things we will all have to contend with if we want to know ourselves.

I’ve now read sixteen of Everett’s books, and I’m almost jealous of my own first experience reading Not Sidney—my discovery of this funny, wild romp with substance whose roiling humor and spontaneously brilliant life energy make the pain both bearable and entertaining.

Betsy Robinson, author of Girl Stories & Game Plays, 2020

 

One thought on “I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

  1. I just read this sparkling comic novel, and I agree with the reviewer when she speaks of its “roiling humor and spontaneously brilliant life’s energy.” Everette has a gift for comic writing and a genuine writer’s way of viewing things from strange angles and playing with words. Some of my favorite lines: –Being black in Peckerwood Co. must be illegal. –If it ain’t it oughta be. –You’re distressed, deeply distressed; you’re in a deep distression. –Well, it just slipped my mind I guess. –Slippery place, your mind.

    A few things bother me about the book. Number One is the way nothing pertaining to the main character is resolved. We begin with his birth; his mother names him Not Sidney Poitier. Why? We never find out. Is the actor Sidney Poitier his real father? Dunno. There are hints that he is, but we never find out. The novel does a lot of moving around, but it never gets anywhere. Maybe the point is that there is nowhere to get.

    Then there’s the incorrect use of the word “y’all.” Writers mocking Southern locutions often screw this up, but you’d think that Everette, being black, would not. Black people, correctly, use ‘y’all’ only as a plural, as do all Southern speakers. Writers mocking Southern locutions use ‘y’all’ in the impossible singular. ‘Y’all’ means “You all” and can only be plural.

    Example from the text:
    “‘Y’all be careful with dat peashooter na, boy,’ Patrice said. [should be ‘you’ since there is only one boy addressed here]] I moved away from Patrice and we slowly found our feet. ‘Why you two chained up like dat?’ [here we could use ‘y’all’ and be correct since two persons are addressed; “How come y’all chained up like that?” Use of “dat” presents another problem, but we won’t get into that here. Trying to write dialect by using distorted spellings presents lots of sticky problems.

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