Sarcasm as a Tool

Percival Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, uncovers the story of an African American boy Not Sidney who is raised during a time of racism. He is raised before 1954 since segregation was declared unconstitutional during that year, according to the Brown versus Board of Education case in 1954. While he is initially uneducated about racial distinctions between Caucasians and African Americans, one of Not Sidney’s household teachers, Betty, aids him in understanding that these two groups of people are not considered equal under the law. Betty helps arm Not Sidney with sarcasm to distract him from the distinctions and slurs directed towards him on the basis of his color.

Everett integrates sarcastic humor into the personality of his main protagonist. Sarcasm, according to Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray’s The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is defined as “intentional derision through cutting humor or wit, often directed at another person and designed to hurt or ridicule… [it] involves verbal irony” (392). This is the quality that Not Sidney uses most often as a strategy to distract himself from the racist remarks said about him.

In order to help build his thick skin, Betty educates Not Sidney. She is his teacher at home and is described as a “raving socialist” who is fond of him (9). This quality means that she believes all people should be considered equal under the law. She also calls herself “big boned” (9). While she teaches Not Sidney about “the fall of the Roman empire and about how the British lost their empire”, she also helps him understand the inequality of American democracy so that he be aware and understand his place in society (9).

Not Sidney summarizes all of the information she has told him previously, mentioning, “She taught me that America preached freedom yet would not allow anyone to be different” (9). While Betty may have previously told Not Sidney this, because of his young age, he may not have been able to apply the message to his own life. In a later conversation, Betty speaks about a white man Ted Turner, saying, “That man is the devil. You be careful around that white man, and around whitey in general” (10).

She explicitly tells Not Sidney that he must take precautions around Turner, because of the color of his skin. This is the first time Not Sidney is told to look at a person on the basis of their race, rather than solely by their personality.

Innocently, Not Sidney asks, “Why do you say he’s the devil?” to which she responds “young brother, young brother, you have no idea. Money be green, we be black, and the devil be white. That’s all we know and all we need to know” (10). She separates the African American community from success as she pinpoints money. She then separates her own community as she herself, makes the distinction between Caucasians and African Americans. “The devil be white” is essentially her way of emphasizing that all Caucasians at the time are considered evil people who will cause harm and discriminate against minority groups.

Cleverly, Not Sidney tells her “I just don’t see why him being white makes him the devil. My mother liked him. My mother was smarter than you. I like him. And he likes you” (11). The sarcasm used early in his sentence serves as a mechanism to prevent his categorization into a racially distinct category when he says his mother liked Turner and that his mother was smarter than Betty. In other words, Not Sidney humorously follows his mother’s influence in saying that simply because she liked him, he likes Turner too. Even while he had good intentions in his response, his humor offends Betty’s intellect in the process.

While Not Sidney finds it challenging to wrap his head around the idea that such racial barriers exist, had Betty not stated this complicated relationship, Not Sidney would have continued to be unaware of existing boundaries between himself and other majorities of people.

Especially in the school setting, when he is assaulted by his teacher, Not Sidney uses his humorous nature to explain to the Superintendent Dr. Gunther that he was assaulted, while insulting his teacher in the process. He says “I decided not to beat around the bush, but dove straight into it, to offer the shock of it. ‘She drove me to her tacky house, got on her knee-socked knees, and gave me what I have since learned is called a blowjob… And, to tell the truth, she wasn’t very good at it. I don’t think it’s supposed to hurt’” (42).

Despite Not Sidney’s attempts to seek help from his Superintendent, he is aware that people do not believe his story, yet he explains it in more of a light-hearted manner. This sarcastic, light-heartedness helps him in two distinct ways. This speaking manner first softens the figurative bruising he receives since people do not believe him, but instead laugh at him. Also, this serves as his coping mechanism through times when he encounters racial barriers.

Without the education Betty instills in Not Sidney, he would not be as knowledgeable of existing racial distinctions, nor would he know how to handle or conduct himself.

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