How a New Critical Perspective on Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier Communicates the Importance of Introspection.

New Criticism is a literary ideology that revolves around examining a text for the content within its pages, and not outside them. Meaning, there is little focus placed on contextualization. Specifically, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines New Criticism as: “The New Critics treated literary works, which they viewed as carefully crafted, orderly objects containing observable formal patterns, as self-contained and self-referential and thus based their interpretations of elements within the text rather than on external factors.” With this being said, Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a parody of a handful of famous Sidney Poitier movies. This of course, begs one to use intertextuality (the study of the relationship between texts containing similar features,) as a mechanism to examine the text. Although the novel is a parody, it presents its own themes that differ from those of its source materials. The importance of self-discovery, introspection, and creating an identity are accentuated throughout the text. This is possible because of Percival Everett’s ability to convert a culmination of separated tales, into one cohesive narrative, that is able to express the aforementioned ideas. Contextual information is unnecessary, as Everett allows the stories to create a new identity in the novel as a unit, which is unfettered by the conditions of the source material. 

The protagonist, Not Sidney Poitier, is determined to make a name for himself in the world, and is taken on a wild journey to do so. He is arrested for his skin color in the deep South, and is sent to prison. On route, his prison bus crashes, and he is forced to escape the wreckage, and traverse the countryside to avoid the law; all while chained to a racist white man named Patrice. As they trek to liberation, they encounter a woman and her brother who, after sheltering the convicts, accompany them. As they settle in for the night prior to their departure, Not Sidney determines that: “Perhaps they were decent enough, but the place that made them was so offensive to me that all who lived there became there.” Firstly, the juxtaposition between “decency,” and “offensive,” represents the catalyst for Not Sidney’s decision to again try his hand at exploration, later in the novel. Not Sidney witnesses that they are decent at their core, but they are ignorant because they have never been outside of the area before, which prompts him to seek alternatives to “home.” Secondly, the diacope in “there became there,” draws attention to the idea that the longer a person resides in a location, the more congruences they form with the tropes and traditions of the area. This is exactly what Not Sidney had been apprehensive of prior to the initiation of his road trip, and now he can observe his trepidations first hand. Patrice, and his impromptu family, symbolize everything that Not Sidney Poiter does not want to become. Thirdly, their acceptance of their ignorance allows them to exist blissfully together, which is perhaps a connection that Not Sidney desires too, as he states: “I left them sleeping there, where they belonged, together.” The pause between “belonged,” and “together,” suggests that Not Sidney is perhaps jealous of Patrice, as the latter knows his place in the world, and his content with it. Meanwhile, Not Sidney is still trying to find a name that suits him, literally and figuratively. Overall, the sheer ignorance of Patrice and his gaggle illuminates how a place, such as the deep south, can dictate a person’s character. Not Sidney refuses to allow this to happen to himself.

Onward, Not Sidney attends college and meets his first girlfriend. She invites him home to Washington D.C to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family. Upon reaching their destination, and upon interacting with her parents for the first time, Not Sidney is skeptical of his compatibility with Maggie (his girlfriend.) Not at least because, although Maggie and her family are also black, they are “light-skinned,” whereas Not Sidney is “dark-skinned,” and Maggie’s parents make this distinction all too apparent. Maggie’s mother, Ruby, even says to her husband “But he’s so dark [after discovering he is extremely wealthy.]” She states again just a few lines later “He’s so black.” Clearly the color of his skin bothers Maggie’s family, but they insist on putting on a facade of hospitality solely because of Not Sidney’s fortune. Here, Not Sidney is introduced to the concept of color, and its influence on the actions and demeanor of people. Whether the color in question is black, white, or green (for money) Not Sidney becomes “…sadly, irritatingly, horrifyingly observant of skin color and especially my own.” The homoioteleuton created by the repeating ly sound at the end of “sadly,” and so on, garners attention to Not Sidney’s disgust at having fallen victim to the close-mindedness of Maggie’s parents. In fact, our protagonist’s eye-opening experience allows him to see the juxtaposition between the colorful and the colorless, as he makes a remark concerning a character named Jeffery, who joins the family for Thanksgiving: “…sweet, innocent Jeffery, completely lacking pigment and outside the bizarre game altogether.” The words “sweet,” and “innocent,” grant “lacking pigment,” a positive connotation. Moreover, a juxtaposition is established by the “innocence,” surrounding a lack of color, and the corruption that color, or the emphasis thereof,  can cause as presented by the homoioteleuton. Thanksgiving dinner with Maggie and her ethically questionable family members demonstrates to Not Sidney the importance of color in defining a human being. Meaning, he understands the necessity of color as a perception of electromagnetic radiation, rather than a tool to differentiate good from bad, and important from disposable. He is disdainful that Maggie’s family only sees him for his blackness, and his money, which urges him to not permit his ethnicity to characterize him. Rather, he is inspired by the pigmentless, and subsequently child-like innocence of Jeffery; who normally, because of his appearance and demeanor, would not be given a moment’s breath.  

Towards the end of Not Sidney’s misadventures, he happens upon a group of nuns who are struggling to make a living for themselves. They help him fix his car (which was being uncooperative at the time) and he agrees to aid them in return. Ultimately, the sisters desire is to construct a church from scratch, and they task Not Sidney with doing so. Although he refuses initially, he reluctantly pivots and agrees to fund the church’s construction. However, he is deceived by Sister Irenaeus, who steals his money and attempts to flee Smuteye, Alabama with a faux architect named Thornton Scrunchy. Despite her saintly name, and saintly profession, Sister Irenaeus is no-more saintlyl than Thornton Scrunchy, who was willing to commit murder for 50,000 dollars. The irony between her name and her actions demonstrates to Not Sidney that a name, is well and truly, just a name. They do not determine an individual’s qualities, and are as binding as they are tangible. Not Sidney’s thoughts on the matter can be summarized well by the line: “All four eyes were wide open and staring into what I believed the sisters would have called the afterlife — into what my mom would have called nothing.” The contradiction between “afterlife,” and “nothing,” emphasizes to the reader the insignificance of names. No matter what post-life is deemed, death is death; despite the name’s we bestow upon what happens after it, they do nothing to yield a result beyond death. Irenaus’ name did not stop her from committing a crime, and the name given to the world beyond death (if there is one) did not reverse her fate. It is this realization that provokes Not Sidney to simply go by “Sidney,” (or at the very least accept it when others called him that.) From this experience he is aware of a name’s inability to define one’s destiny. Despite his name “Not Sidney,” he lived Sidney Poitier’s life to an arguably higher degree than the actor himself. 

Although Everett’s work is a compilation of parodies of the Sidney Poitier films: The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Lilies of the Field, the narratives stand apart from their parent texts. Each one could be viewed independently for the lessons they convey to our protagonist, and collectively as the novel I am Not Sidney Poiter, for their overarching message. Everett illustrates through the misadventures of Not Sidney, how one can allow a place, color, or name to define them. Through Not Sidney’s triumph, Everett encourages his audience to not be complacent, and allow themselves to discover who they really are, barring outside elements. Everett implores his readers to come to the conclusion that Not Sidney Poitier, or Sidney Poitier, comes to by the end of the novel:

“I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

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