Hiding Pain With Comedy

When I started reading Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the first thing I thought was that the book was funny. It had a certain charm to it that was way different from what I had expected that I would read in an English class, and it had a very different feeling than the other work of Everetts that we had read prior, Frenzy, which to me felt much more serious and professional. And the main source of this comedy was the narrator of the book, Not Sidney, who told the tale of his trials and tribulations with a grain of salt, and kept the story interesting and entertaining through his commentary. However, as I continued to read the book, his comedic moments seemed to become more and more sparse. And as I looked back through the earlier chapters, I realized that a lot of the events that he had gone through at earlier points in the book were pretty traumatic for a boy his age. But Not Sidney hides any grief that he might feel. In fact, he holds back on expressing almost any emotion. And because of this, it seems very likely that Not Sidney is hiding his pain behind comedy. 

There are plenty of different traumatizing events throughout the book that affect Not Sidney during the plot, but a major connecting line is racism. In his writing, Everett is unafraid of making it clear just racism how bad racism can get under certain circumstances. For instance, there is a moment in the book where Not Sidney decides to leave Ted Turner’s house and drive to Alabama to decide his own future when he is suddenly stopped by a police officer. He is pulled over, and after not being allowed to show his registration, he is suddenly arrested. When he questions why he is being arrested, the officer laughs at his question and then states, among other false accusations, “And then [you’re arrested] for being’ a [n-word].” (48) Having had experienced mild racism before in earlier sections of the book, Not Sidney is slightly used to racism being part of his life. But the extent of the man’s openness about his racism is pretty shocking to our narrator. However, while he is terrified of the situation, Not Sidney also tells the audience that, “Evolution might have been glacial where they were concerned, but not with me.” (49) Almost as if by instinct, he responds to danger with humor, trying to distance himself from his predicament with a joke about their intelligence. And although this humor is due in part to Everett’s style of writing, the way that it portrays Not Sidney as trying to distract himself with humor gives another layer to the comedic direction that book takes. 

As I read these contrasting moments in the book, where Not Sidney matches the terror of the events that surround his life with jokes, I began to realize that, through portraying this contrast, this book sends a message; that those who are comedic are often the most hurt. Though this isn’t exactly a new concept, it isn’t a topic that I hear mentioned enough. According to Elite Daily, the funniest people are often those who suffered the most in their lives. The article claims that the reason why people find jokes to be funny is because they are true. They offer an unabashed look at our society and use its inherent flaws to make us laugh. And the reason why comedians are good at their craft is because, “Comedians are keyed into what’s really going on in the world, which is a curse as much as it is a blessing.” Not Sidney fits this description pretty well. He’s a very analyzing person, as evidenced by his comments on the difference in intelligence between himself and the police mentioned earlier, and he’s had his fair share of hardship. From his mother dying at the start of the book to failing out of school, his life has been pretty rough. But instead of giving in to despair and terror that could come with such trauma, he turns to comedy. He takes his pain and he uses it to entertain the audience, almost as if to ease the pain of others going through similar scenarios. Due to how much he pays attention to the details of other people, Not Sidney appears distanced from both reality and his emotions. There are very few mentions of him being happy, and when he is there is usually a stipulation, such as when he and his first girlfriend, Maggie, make love for the first time. While he is at first comforted to feel closer to her, he is suddenly reminded of when he was sexually assaulted by his teacher years prior, and a bit of his happiness fades. And yet, despite all of his past trauma, he still tells an engaging story that I felt was full of comedy. And even though he had trouble being happy himself, I think that his humorous attitude served not only to distract himself from reality, but also the reader.

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