In Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett (the character) warns Not Sidney, “‘Don’t be a sheep, Mr. Poitier'” (90). The professor cautions against joining the herd; it seems he thinks people should be their own person, not just blindly follow the crowd. In my opinion, the novel attempts to evoke a conversation about conformity and its dangers; what are the repercussions when people try to fit in with the herd–with the status quo? I would like to explore this within the novel as well as in regards to our discussions about literature and film in class.
It becomes clear that Not Sidney does not take Professor Everett’s advice. He decides to try and earn membership to a fraternity at Morehouse College, launching himself into a painful hazing process. The older brothers of the fraternity have absolute power over Not Sidney and the other pledges; the new recruits become “subject to all their commands” (94). He goes on to describe his first task: “I was required to wear a red T-shirt, the same one at all times, without washing or rinsing it…” (94). It is unsurprising that when the professor sees the disgusting red shirt, he bleats “‘Baaaa'” (94).
The red shirt, to me, symbolizes conformity. In an attempt to be a part of the flock (in this case, the frat), Not Sidney dons the same shirt as everyone else. He sacrifices his own dignity in order to be accepted. Luckily for Not Sidney, he finds the power to release himself from the allure of fitting in before he suffers much more emotional and physical strain. He decides to abandon his goal of being accepted into the fraternity, telling Morris in the midst of Fesmerizing him, “‘You are not to admit me'” (103).
While that particular plot line appears to end there, the moral of the story seemingly clear-cut, it occurred to me with further reflection that this snippet of conformity is a microcosm of the entire novel. In my previous post, I discussed the extent to which Not Sidney’s identity is his own because of how closely many of his life events imitate the acting endeavors of Sidney Poitier. In a sense, Not Sidney could be painted as an almost unintentional sheep, blindly following the actions of someone else. Is this some unique version of conformity in which one conforms to the reality of another? Can Not Sidney even really avoid this kind of “sheep-hood” as Professor Everett advises him to do? I’m not sure he can transcend this in the way he does with the fraternity.
All of these thoughts about conformity brought me back to several discussions we had in class a number of weeks ago about genre. On multiple occasions, I remember quite a few of my classmates commenting upon the restrictive nature of genre; although genre can be helpful at times to express what a work might entail before even reading or watching it, it can also be incredibly frustrating for an author because there is a pressure to conform to the rules of the specific genre one chooses to write in.
According to Ross Murphin and Sofia M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, in the Neoclassical periods of literary criticism, there was an expectation that separate genres strictly follow their own “‘laws of kind;'” this “purity of genre” was championed (175). Works that “did not ‘fit'” into a specific genre or cross-bred two or more genres were met with a critical eye (175). This discourse is very similar to the conversation about sheep in the novel; genre, at least in that specific time period, was employed as a method to ensure conformity in writing. Just as Not Sidney wrestles with the strict rules of the fraternity, authors are, at times, barred from their fullest individual expression in the process of trying to fit in with the rules of a particular genre.
In the same vein of thinking, I considered our in-class reading of “The Motion Picture Production Code” from 1930. Again, there is a strict set of rules; this time, these rules are employed to ensure conformity in the film industry. The code essentially outlines a number of things that cannot be shown or addressed on screen, and all filmmakers are expected to comply with these rules. In many ways, the contents of the code is a pocket-book version of the unspoken code of society at that time. The sentiments regarding vulgarity, sex, race, etc. were reflections of what was deemed “correct” by society as a whole. The code acts as a means to not only limit the film industry, but also perpetuate complacency and reinforce conformity to the standards of that society.
I think the ultimate lesson that I Am Not Sidney Poitier tries to impart on this topic is this: yes, one should attempt to avoid becoming just another sheep in the flock, but further, this is can prove to be an incredibly daunting task and at certain instances can seem almost unavoidable. At one point or another, there will always be an expectation to conform; how often are we asked to blindly follow the rules or the actions of someone else? How often is this done unconsciously? I’m not sure anyone can strictly follow Professor Everett’s advice.