It’s on page 87 of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, when a peculiar character is introduced. His name is Percival Everett. Yes, the same name as the author, Percival Everett. He is made known as Not Sidney’s college professor that teaches the aptly named course, the Philosophy of Nonsense. I have to admit, when I read Percival Everett’s name as a character in his own book, I was shocked. It is certainly something I have never seen done in a novel before. Of course, Everett uses the names of other real people in his novel, but to use his own name takes a certain level of audacity that I wonder if only Everett could pull off. Everett’s character with the same name proves to have a considerable role in the story of Not Sidney. I would like to explore this character to see if I can better understand why Everett included him in the novel and even more so, why he named him after himself.
From his first interaction with Not Sidney, Professor Everett appears to be a quirky, yet friendly college teacher. He asks Not Sidney several random questions that concur with his position as a professor of nonsense, “‘Do you play golf? And I don’t mean miniature golf.’ ‘I never have.’ ‘Good. It’s a stupid game.’” This conversation is one example of the arbitrary nature of Professor Everett’s first communication with Not Sidney. These “random” attributes of Professor Everett continue throughout the book.
After Not Sidney sits through his first lecture of the Philosophy of Nonsense, he quickly realizes that he does not understand what Professor Everett is talking about. So, Not Sidney goes to his professor after class to tell him that he is unable to follow the lecture. To this, Professor Everett candidly admits to being a ‘“fraud, a fake, a sham…”’. I believe that author, Percival Everett intended for this to be humorous to the reader. Here is a character with a respectable career and a PhD for goodness’ sake admitting to not know what he is discussing in his own lecture! But I also believe that with Everett’s writing, there is often a deeper meaning behind just the comedic aspect of a situation. It seems as if Everett may be poking fun at himself or even towards larger ideas like college professors and institutional learning. This is interesting to me as Everett is a Professor in real life also. In fact, he is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California according to google (emphasis mine). If Everett’s own livelihood mirrors that of the character Professor Everett, why would he mock it so?
To better understand this question, I will define satire in terms from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. According to this source, satire is a tool used by writers that wish to use various devices like irony and sarcasm to display the vices of human society. Unlike comedy, satire is not just for entertainment, but for moral purpose that could include provoking a response from its audience to reform the human failings being depicted. From the ironic characterization of Professor Everett’s character as a bumbling and logically incapable man, it becomes apparent that Everett intended this character to be a satirical representation of either himself or the “typical” college professor.
Since satires are generally meant as criticisms of human failings according to the Bedford, Everett must be saying something about colleges and institutionalized learning. Everett emphasizes Professor Everett’s illogical way of thinking and cluelessness in the classroom, leading me to believe that he thinks that college professors aren’t as capable as our society would have you believe. Perhaps he wants the reader to think that of all college professors or perhaps he is merely calling himself out for his own misgivings as he does use his own name for the character. Everett’s inclusion of Professor Everett in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, provides a commentary about college professors and college education. Because of this, I am able to reflect on my own college education thus far and compare.
I personally have found my teachers this semester to be very competent in the subjects they teach and well-versed in the way they teach their students. It is only my first semester, so maybe I just got lucky, or maybe it is because SUNY Geneseo is a college that prioritizes its student’s education by providing the most qualified professors. Either way, I have not had any Professor Everett-like teachers. However, if Everett is commenting on the entire institutionalized education system, I can understand his distress. College is majorly expensive, with even a state school like SUNY Geneseo’s cost going upwards of $25,000 a year. The argument of a college education’s worth is swiftly becoming a debate in modern society. I have heard the argument that a college degree is the new high school diploma and that it no longer sets its receiver apart from job competition. If this is true, college students will be paying more with a smaller reward than previous generations. Perhaps Everett is hinting at this controversy with his depiction of Professor Everett.
More evidence for Everett’s disdain for the college education system can be seen with Not Sidney’s story. Not Sidney never even finished high school, but was able to pay his way in through his enormous inheritance. This implies that colleges are greedy, money-hungry institutions with little respect for the student. Then, when Not Sidney becomes disinterested in school, he quits without consequence because of his wealth. Is Everett suggesting with this that a college education is only necessary in order to get a job and not worth the actual educational aspect? I personally do not agree with this idea. I believe that college is not only for achieving a degree, but for stepping out of your comfort zone and honing your academic skills. However, if our society continues to only place value on money, degrees, and results instead of the process of education, perhaps this is where a college education is headed.
Percival Everett includes a bizarre character to Not Sidney’s story who he ironically names after himself. After thorough consideration, I am confident that he does this purposefully to provoke a commentary about a college education in America. By him doing so, I am inspired to reflect on my own college journey to see if it compares to the one Everett describes. In this way, Everett is successful in his attempt at satire as he is able to get the reader to think about the possible vices present in human society.