What does it mean to be a sheep?

While reading Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier for class on Friday I was struck by something that the character of Percival Everett says to Not Sidney. Not Sidney goes to Everett’s office to get his permission to join an English course entitled the Philosophy of Nonsense. In the middle of the conversation Everett asks Not Sidney “Are you a sheep Mr. Poitier?” and Not Sidney responds, “I don’t think so.” Everett goes on to say “Most sheep don’t think they are sheep. I wonder what they think they are. Pigeons maybe.” They continue their conversation and the idea of sheep does not come back until Not Sidney is about to leave. Everett’s final warning to Not Sidney is “Don’t be a sheep, Mr. Poitier. Be anything, be a deer or a squirrel, a beaver or a gnu, but don’t be a sheep.”

Throughout the novel Everett’s character seems to make no sense when he speaks. In his class, many students leave believing he is extremely intelligent but do not understand what he means. However, when Not Sidney tells Everett after class that he did not understand a word of the lecture, Everett admits to being a fraud. After this interaction, as a reader, I began to question if anything Everett’s character was saying was supposed to add any meaning to the story. Perhaps, like the title of his class, Everett was simply spouting nonsense. However, as I was thinking about this, I remembered something Dr. McCoy had said to Molly while we were working in small groups. Molly had mentioned that she felt this book was a lot easier to understand because it wasn’t very deep. Dr. McCoy responded to our group that you could not read a deeper book. Therefore, I felt that there must be some sort of deeper meaning to Everett’s advice.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary one definition of sheep is “a timid docile person, one easily influenced or led.” This definition reminded me of a popular sweatshirt design that a few members of my high school wore. The design imitated the popular expensive logo design of Jake Paul’s brand Supreme by replacing the word Supreme with Sheep. The idea of the sweatshirt mocked those that wore Supreme brand apparel calling owners of the expensive design sheep. In other words, the sheep sweatshirt made a statement that people were being easily influenced by social media stars by purchasing expensive clothing and displaying the Supreme brand.

One interpretation of Everett’s advice to Not Sidney could be to think for yourself. He’s telling Not Sidney not to let other people influence his actions or lead him along like someone herding sheep. This idea is also emphasized in Not Sidney’s mother’s views about television and news. Not Sidney remembers her saying “Trust me Sidney, it won’t be enough to report it, news will have to be made. It’s going to be a bad thing but it’s going to be. That’s where we’ve gone. Everything in this country is entertainment. That’s what you need for stupid people.” Not Sidney’s mother is cautioning him against listening and being too easily influenced by the media. She warns that eventually the news will become entirely entertainment because “that’s what stupid people want.” In a sense, his mother is saying that those who listen to the “entertainment news” are like sheep. These people are easily led and follow others blindly.

Everett gives Not Sidney another piece of advice for when he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents for Thanksgiving. Everett tells Not Sidney to “be yourself.” Not Sidney responds, “Who else would I be.” Everett answers “I don’t know. You might decide all of a sudden that you’re Sidney Poitier. You’re not you know. Though you do look alarmingly like him.” This advice is very difficult for Not Sidney because of his name. People are constantly comparing him to Sidney Poitier and commenting on his appearance. In his childhood, Not Sidney even got beaten up due to the confusion and peculiarity of his name. Despite him trying to be himself, his name makes it difficult for him to be accepted and understood by others.

This reminded me of my classmate Ashley’s post which references our third course epigraph. The line “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” relates well to Not Sidney’s constant struggle with identity. His name is Not Sidney Poitier and he is in fact, not Sidney Poitier but that begs the question who is he? Ashley states in her post, as Not Sidney gets older people are finding that he resembles Sidney Poitier more and begin to recognize him more as Sidney than as Not Sidney.

While Everett is advising Not Sidney to think on his own, not be a sheep, and ultimately be himself the advice is nearly impossible to follow because people are always associating him with someone else. As humans we are all constantly struggling to differentiate ourselves from others and develop our own identity. But what is our own identity when it is so easy to relate to the course epigraph in feeling not like one’s self today. Not Sidney is told not to be a sheep and that his is not Sidney Poitier but it seems he is still far from discovering who he really is.

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