Archives and Intertextuality

On Monday, Professor McCoy allowed us to take a mini field trip around campus with the mission of finding as many “archives” as we could. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an “archive” as “a repository or collection especially of information.” As my group and I would soon discover, these repositories can be found in a variety of forms, from the library to a bulletin board to a tree. We even discussed how people could be regarded as archives as well; their brains act as a repository for all the memories and experiences they’ve had in their lifetime. I was keeping a record of all the examples we discovered, and I became a bit overwhelmed; I could barely keep up with the quickly lengthening list. As my group member Liz put it, “The world is your archive!”

While the activity was interesting, I wanted to explore how this applied to our class specifically. There is perhaps a semi-simple explanation: this is college, and college requires research, and research requires accessing archives. However, I think that in a class whose title includes the word “intertextuality,” the connection goes much deeper. Archives are a vitality when establishing connections between texts, connections with other media, historical background, cultural context, and more. While doing the activity, I thought back to my reading of I Am Not Sidney Poitier and how dramatically my understanding of the text would have changed without access to the wealth of information made available to me from various archives.

In reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier, one of the things I struggled the most with was identifying the multiple Sidney Poitier movies that Not Sidney’s adventures imitate. While a New Critic (someone who would, according to Ross Murphin and Supriya M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, only base literary interpretations “on elements within the texts rather than external factors”) might argue that we should focus on the plots depicted within the novel alone, I would argue that then the entire point of the book might be missed in doing so. Without having at least a basic understanding of the original plots and characters, how can someone try and understand Percival Everett’s purpose in changing these things, or even why he has Not Sidney embark on these similar adventures in the first place?

It’s undoubtedly true that I would have been lost without Google–perhaps the world’s largest digital archive–in my reading of the text. For example, were it not for my use of this archive, I would have never figured out that the dream sequence beginning with “The year was 1861. Somehow I knew that and somehow I knew that I was in New Orleans” was mimicking the plot of the 1957 film Band of Angels (63). Some might argue that this information would not be entirely necessary to understanding the novel, but in my opinion that is not the case. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it reveals yet another connection to a Sidney Poitier movie. The sequence shows that even in his dreams, Not Sidney cannot help but be forced to fill Sidney Poitier’s role–an essential aspect of why Not Sidney inevitably abandons his own identity and takes on Sidney Poiter’s.

A lesser reason to use archives to understand the novel is also revealed with this particular example: humor. I Am Not Sidney Poiter is, as a review from Bookslut states on the back of the novel, “damn funny.” While this humor is visible on the surface level, Everett also buries jokes within the text that I would have not understood had I not accessed the internet archive of Wikipedia. In Band of Angels, for example, there is, according to Wikipedia, a character named “Amantha Starr.” In the novel, however, Everett changes the character’s name to “Samantha Moon” (65). Everett’s play on words (swapping out “Starr” for “Moon”) was a little joke that could have been overlooked by those who didn’t know the background information of the original movie.

I wanted to also talk about another valuable archive my group discussed. The internet isn’t the only archive there is, and it wasn’t the only one that aided me in understanding I Am Not Sidney Poitier. I mentioned earlier that my group realized that even a person could be an archive; that reminded me of a phone call with my grandmother that allowed me to work out some holes in my understanding of the novel. I happened to ask her if she had watched any Sidney Poitier movies, and she immediately replied “Yes!” and quickly suggested that I watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. After she gave a brief overview of the plot, I realized it matched the events in I Am Not Sidney Poitier when Not Sidney goes home with Maggie for Thanksgiving dinner, a plot sequence that I had yet to match with a Sidney Poitier movie.

Sidney Poitier and his co-star Katharine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner via The Real Deal.

My grandma also helped me to understand a character change in The Defiant Ones sequence of the novel. I was unsure why Everett changed the wife in the movie to a blind sister: “A young women stepped out onto the rickety porch… The way she tilted her head told me she was blind” (61). My grandma mentioned that one of her favorite Sidney Poitier films was A Patch of Blue, in which a blind white girl (played by Elizabeth Hartman) falls in love with a black man (played by Sidney Poitier) in an era where this kind of interracial love would be seen as wrong. Not only did this knowledge help me to trace one of the novel’s source materials, but it also allowed me to see a connection between that movie and The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. According to Wikipedia, “Scenes of Poitier and Hartman kissing were excised from the film when it was shown in film theaters.” This would have been in accordance with the code, which stated “miscegenation” (according to Dictionary.com, a relationship “between two people from different racial groups”) was strictly prohibited.

Sidney Poiter and his co-star Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue via the Critical Commons.

These connections could not possibly be made without the help of archival knowledge whether that be in the form of the internet, a human being, or otherwise. My reading of I Am Not Sidney Poitier would have been drastically altered without the availability of this information. I think that in this sort of novel especially–a parody–intertextuality is unavoidable, and thus the use of these sources of knowledge should be unavoidable too.

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