The Prevalence of Racism

Percival Everett’s novel entitled I am Not Sidney Poitier, contains a lack of temporality in the context of the novel. Being that this novel is strongly focused surrounding the issue of racism, I initially assumed, as seen in my third post, that the contextual time period was likely before 1954. I assumed this because of the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 that declared segregation as unconstitutional. However, after closer analysis, I discovered that Everett does not provide a specific year to base his novel on. As a reader, I followed closely to see that in the year of 1970, Not Sidney was two years old, but as mentioned, racism was declared unconstitutional in 1954. After discussing my observations with Claire about the confusion of years, she helped me arrive at the interpretation that perhaps Everett’s intention in including the uncertainty of years is to show the prevalence of racism. Perhaps he wants to convey that racism, even though it was declared unconstitutional in 1954, is still a prevalent issue in today’s society.

Racism, according to Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray’s The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is defined as, “the destructive devaluation of one cultural group by another based on supposed (but in fact nonexistent or insignificant) differences” (365). This term applies to the idea of this novel in general, being that the main protagonist is African American and experiences racism.

Not Sidney, the novel’s main protagonist, grows up in Atlanta, Georgia. The only time he mentions a calendar year is at the mention of being two years old as he says, “When I was two, in 1970…” (Everett 6). Upon encountering this specified year, I felt both confused yet somewhat understanding. I felt confused since I know background information about the Brown vs Board of Education case in 1954 and its decision, but I also somewhat understood that there must be purpose in including the year 1970. Without considering possible interpretations of these mixed messages and also of his birth year, I asked myself a range of questions: had Not Sidney just started to experience racism? Was Not Sidney experiencing the lasting effects of racism? Had any higher officials, like the President of the United States, acknowledged the issue of racism previously?

Everett specifically omits the mention of years because he intends for readers to perceive racism as an ongoing issue. At a later, unspecified date, Not Sidney decides to leave Atlanta, and in the beginning stage of his travels he is pulled over. The officer, using racist language, says, “Y’all done heard me na, boy! Move na! Move yo black ass. Na, git out chere, raght na!” (Everett 47). At this point in the novel, all I know is that Not Sidney is almost at the legal age to drive; he is not yet able to though, according to the law. He uses a “fake” license (Everett 45). With the uncertainty of his age at the time he starts driving, as well as the occurrence of being racially profiled, Everett deliberately leaves me baffled in my attempt to decipher between how many years have passed since Not Sidney was a young boy.

I find it challenging to grapple with the duration of time that Not Sidney has had to experience racism. Not Sidney, since his early childhood, has been both exposed to and confronted with racism. In his early childhood, when Betty first introduced him to the concept of racial distinctions as she said, “the devil is white”, Not Sidney has both known and has had to accept that the treatment he receives is incomparable to the treatment of Caucasians (Everett 10). He begins to learn and understand that because of the unequal treatment that many African Americans face, those whom have achieved successful, stable jobs, have had to work tirelessly since members of society who have more racist attitudes have tried to keep them “down” (Everett 128).

When Not Sidney is meeting his girlfriend Maggie’s African American family during their school’s Thanksgiving break, she describes to him the politics that her mother is involved in, assuring Not Sidney that he should feel comfortable while at her home. She explains her mother’s job as she says, “My mother testifies before Congress and goes on television all the time talking about conservative issues. She’s trying to get rid of the welfare system because it keeps black people down and to stop gay rights because it endangers the family structure and keeps black people down and to abolish affirmative action because it teaches special preference and that keeps black people down. That sort of stuff” (Everett 128). Her mother’s job is relevant to today’s society since African American people are still being kept “down” (Everett 128). Today still, many African Americans are still discriminated against and are not given equal financial opportunities in comparison to Caucasians. According to a statistical wealth gap produced by American Progress, “In 2016, the median wealth for black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared with white families’ median wealth of $171,000.”

Additionally, while in the car with Maggie after meeting her father, Maggie tells Not Sidney about her father’s background. She says, “My father has gone through a lot to get where he is. From dirt poor Alabama to Yale… It’s very impressive. My father is one of the biggest and most successful lawyers in D.C.” (Everett 137-138). While there are some people in society who have racist attitudes regarding African Americans, Maggie’s father defeats this stereotype as he exemplifies that the color of his skin cannot prevent him from seeking out an education. Despite the continuum of racist mindsets, he emphasizes that success is possible for minority groups that are still being discriminated against.

Even though the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 declared segregation as unconstitutional, individuals both in the novel and in today’s society are complicit in perpetuating the unchanging, arguably racist attitudes towards African American people.

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