“The Ship” (and Not Sidney?) are Not Themselves Today

During our class period on Friday, it became Susanna’s job to yell “The ship!” every time the philosophical problem of Theseus’ ship was applicable to some aspect of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Susanna said this on multiple occasions (and with amazing delivery!) throughout our discussion. In particular, I would like to examine how this pesky problem applies to the formation of Not Sidney Poitier’s identity in the novel.

To briefly review, Theseus’ ship, from Greek mythology, has its parts replaced slowly throughout its usage in order to keep it new and well-functioning; eventually, all the original parts are gone. According to an article by Philip Perry from BigThink, this ship has sparked philosophical debate for ages. The general debate is as follows: is the ship the same ship it was at the beginning even though it does not contain the original parts, or is it an entirely new ship at the end? Then, if it is a new ship, when does it cease to be the old ship and when does it start to be the new one? To give a more human example, if a person grows and they reach a point when they are entirely composed of cells that they didn’t have at their birth, are they still the same person? This discussion can also be applied to emotional and mental maturation; with each newly added experience, does a person become someone new or are they fundamentally the same? It is all a bit mind-boggling, and I won’t pretend to fully understand it. I am able to gather, however, that the ship essentially elicits a conversation about identity, and how far one can reinvent themselves without becoming an entirely new person.

The question of Theseus’ ship from Philosophy and Medicine Club at Tulane University.

While reading about and puzzling over this paradox, I began to think about my first blog post, in which I talked about identity in regards to the third course epigraph on our syllabus. The line “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” jumped to my attention; is this not the same conundrum the ship faces? In the process of being entirely rebuilt, some would argue that it is, in fact, not itself anymore; in their opinion, it has lost all its original parts, so it cannot possibly be the ship today that it was at the start.

I shifted this thinking about identity towards Not Sidney. Indeed, he is undergoing similar change as the ship, and is with each day becoming less and less himself. Not Sidney’s principal Mr. Clapper remarks to him at one point, “‘You know you’re looking more and more like that Sidney Poitier every day… Yes, very much like him'” (Everett 37). As Not Sidney grows, it seems he is becoming more Sidney Poitier than Not Sidney Poitier, just as the ship, in some opinions, loses its original identity.

The gradually-added parts of the ship, then, can be made synonymous with Not Sidney’s various adventures. These new experiences make him into someone new (in this case, into Sidney Poitier). When Not Sidney is thrown into the plot sequence of The Defiant Ones, he mirrors Noah Cullen, played by Sidney Poitier. He experiences the same events that Sidney did while acting out the role. I was able to discern this happening again in two of Not Sidney’s dreams; in one instance, he inherits Sidney’s role of Dr. Luther Brooks (in the novel referred to as “a young doctor with a Bahamian accent” (142)) in No Way Out, and in another he becomes Rau-Ru Ponce de Leon (in the novel, “Raz-ru” (63)) from Band of Angels. As I haven’t watched any but one Sidney Poitier movie and am relying solely on my ability to google the general plot, it’s highly probable that this occurs more than just these three times.

So, when Not Sidney remarks, “not only was I Not Sidney Poitier, but also… I was not Sidney Poitier,” is he actually correct (92)? In gradually accumulating the same life experiences as Sidney Poitier, does he not, at some point, actually become Sidney Poitier? If our life experiences are what make us as we grow up, then it could be argued that living the exact same life as someone else almost makes you that person. Not Sidney seems to begin to question this when he sees himself (and Agnes) in the mirror: “I looked so much like Sidney Poitier that I was momentarily distracted” (142). He goes on to add, however, “until I remembered Sidney Poitier would never have appeared in a scene like this one” (142). It seems Not Sidney is still able to recover a piece of his own person because he has done things that Sidney would not be able to do. My question is, then, how many of Not Sidney’s Sidney experiences will there be before they simply overtake Not Sidney’s own experiences? When will Not Sidney truly become not himself today?

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