Works such as Joseph Keller’s Catch-22, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are both examples of novels that bothered many of my friends, while I happened to enjoy them. Both of these works, much like I Am Not Sidney Poitier stray off the conventional path as they tell nonlinear stories; Slaughterhouse-Five even does something similar to Everett’s work by jumping between lucid dream states and chaotic realities. In trying to articulate why I could tolerate one over the other, Professor McCoy suggested that I look at I Am Not Sidney Poitier as an anti-war novel. This got me thinking, and so, I tried to separate the differences in order to connect the similarities, and maybe shift my perspective. This post is what I came up with.
I’ll start with a direct comparison, a vague summary of both pieces. See, Vonnegut’s work was distinctly anti-war, moving between the protagonist’s experience as a war captive, and the alien abduction scenes representing his mind trying to cope with what happened to him in Dresden. Everett’s work on the other hand, moved between the protagonists experiences as the subject of hatred and racism and the Sidney Poitier film sequences. This tactic of Everett’s to pair many of Not Sidney’s most trying experiences with themes of Sidney Poitier films, I believe, may have been used similarly to the pairing of many of Billy Pilgrim’s most difficult experiences with his imagined memories of living amongst aliens for a period of time in Slaughterhouse-Five. By this, I mean that Not Sidney may be imagining the similarities of his life to that of his almost-namesake as a way to understand the type of world in which he lives, a world that still carries the same prejudices of ages past.
For example, in the portion of the novel in which Not is arrested in Peckerwood county for no other reason than the colour of his skin, and he is launched into the plot of The Defiant Ones. In the novel, however, Not Sidney is shown far more hostility from the white Southerners than Sidney Poitier had in the film, made worse by the impression that the novel is set closer to the present day. After encountering the characters of Sissy and Bobo, Not Sidney is introduced not by a name, but again by a slur for the colour of his skin. It is at this meeting that Sissy tells Not Sidney about how her grandfather had been a slave owner with a plantation; only after this does Not Sidney falls asleep to dream of himself in the film Band of Angels. This Sidney Poitier picture follows a slave named Rau-ru (or ‘Raz-ru’ in the novel), before and during the American Civil War, as he seeks some semblance of justice for his enslavement. Not Sidney goes through this dream not as a bystander but as if he truly were going through the experience.
Outside of this dream, this portion of the book shows the treatment of Not Sidney as if times have yet to change in the South from the way things were before the Civil War. In many ways, this holds true. At the end of this encounter, Not Sidney leaves on the train back to Atlanta without waking Patrice, Bobo, or Sissy, stating that he ‘left them sleeping there where they belonged, with one another.’ (p.79). For the entirety of the sequence that shadows The Defiant Ones, he had been as helpful as his conscience would allow, yet there is a distinct shift in attitude following the Band of Angels dream. After this dream, Not Sidney seems to become more aware, and more vocal in his thoughts concerning the repulsive qualities of his company and their small-minded discrimination.
I should also bring up Everett’s choice to have his protagonist take after Sidney Poitier, one of the most prominent black actors in cinematic history for being one of the first non-white actors to star in multiple Hollywood films. Despite this, Sidney Poitier was still mostly confined to roles designed specifically for an African American actor, and thus to fit with the racially staggered society of the mid twentieth century. This contradiction of a star in a movie that perpetuates discrimination against that star, is the same kind of highlighted hypocrisy that I’ve noticed in the anti-war novels that I’ve read. Everett’s renditions of Sidney Poitier plots for Not Sidney Poitier to follow tend to show something closer to what the reality must have been at the time those movies were made. Under this light, one may be able to argue that I Am Not Sidney Poitier follows the convention of an anti-war story in the ways it strays from standard novel writing and uses a chaotic style of formatting and storytelling in order to capture the character’s own chaotic reality. In novels such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonists tend to be the only one to see the state of disorder they are forced into, and, similar to Not Sidney’s experience confronting someone he trusts, such as the characters of ‘Ted Turner’ or ‘Percival Everett’, they are met with odd answers that tend to confuse them and spike their sense of injustice. To highlight the injustice of war, novels such as Vonnegut’s or Keller’s, much like Everett’s, tend to throw their protagonist into the most unjust of situations in what I can only imagine as an attempt to make the reader see the injustice of war, the injustice of a society that would threaten the lives of others in the name of justice. Looking at I Am Not Sidney Poitier as an anti-war novel casts it as a work more racially charged than it had been through my initial reading of it. One can argue that it was written with the intent of wartime-satire, and uses such similar methods of showcasing issues of injustice as so many anti-war novels in order to depict the chaos of the social war still being fought in modern America. Everett may be seen as emphasizing the battle for equality in respect and social treatment still being fought by many similar to Sidney Poitier.