Game of Names

At the beginning of the semester, Professor McCoy presented to us to three course epigraphs: the “Suspicious Pants,” Percivial Everett’s statement on the genuinity of irony, and the concluding paragraph from Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Originally, the epigraph which resonated with me the most was Everett’s statement on the genuinity of irony. Specifically, the phrase “Real irony is far more sincere than earnestness,” stood out to me, because it was the first time I heard such a claim. Until the commencement of this course, I figured that irony and earnestness where foils of one another. However, the epigraph’s message proved to be a new take on a subject in literature, which I had worked with on multiple occasions during my two year tenure as an IB Diploma Candidate in highschool. In fact, I drafted my Extended Essay for said program on George Orwell’s use of irony in his timeless classic 1984. In my two years of study, however, the concept presented in the aforementioned excerpt never occurred to me, despite rigorous revision and gathering of literary criticisms. At the beginning of the semester I was focused on irony, and upon initially reading I Am Not Sidney Poiter, I maintained this narrowness. However, by the end of the novel, and subsequently by the end of the semester, I can not get the idea of self, and what defines self, out of my mind. This has prompted me to shift my directive away from the epigraph concerning irony, and towards the epigraph concerning introspection. With that being said, the chosen epigraph reads as follows: 

“Thank you,” I said. “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:

I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

The epigraph is an excellent summation of the themes presented in the two most impactful texts that we studied this semester (in my opinion that is) I Am Not Sidney Poiter, and re:f(gesture). It captures the most prevalent message in both of Everett’s works; and interestingly, despite the texts’ differences in structure, they share a common message. In fact the disparity between their genres and structure, but their parallel themes, continues to emphasize one of the paramount points Everett makes throughout the two works: the insignificance of names, labels, or any other moniquer. To clarify, I Am Not Sidney Poiter is a novel constructed with a clear narrative, that although can be ambiguous, generally follows Freytag’s Pyramid. For those that are not familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid, it is the general structure of plot which usually flows in the following order: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (resolution). Whereas re:f(gesture) is a poetic (literally) anthology, that contains drastically confusing works, which do not follow Freytag’s Pyramid. Granted it is less common for a poem to follow that geometric narrative style, but nonetheless, the two texts are dramatically different barring themes. 

With structure aside, and to continue with themes, the epigraph encaptures Percival Everett’s message in both I Am Not Sidney Poiter, and re:f(gesture). That message being the futility of names to provoke any tangible change in either human behavior and experience, or the essence of life and its constants. For instance, in the former of the two texts, our protagonist Not Sidney Poiter, lives the life of the actor Sidney Poiter despite his name. Not Sidney embarks on a journey through parodied Sidney Poiter movies including: The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Lilies of the Field. Through his misadventures, Not Sidney slowly realizes that his name does not define him. Moreover, that his experiences rather than his label determined the man he was, as demonstrated by the quote: “…that body in the chest was Not Sidney Poitier, then I was not Not Sidney Poitier and by all I know of logic and double negatives, I was therefore Sidney Poitier. I was Sidney Poitier.” This can be noticed again with a quick exchange that Not Sidney has with an escort taking him from the airport:

“Are you not Sidney Poiter?”

“I am.” 

In the beginning of the novel, our protagonist is insistent upon his name being “Not Sidney Poitier,” but by the conclusion, he is accepting and relatively embraceful of “Sidney Poitier,” instead. This is because of the remarkably parodied life he has lived, and the occurrences which made him “…Sidney Poitier as much as anyone.” This theme is furthered in Everett’s anthology re:f(gesture), especially in the poem “Logic.” Everett writes: “Let us assume X. Even such signs have some place, some language X. Constituent parts compose this reality — molecules, atoms, simple X.” In this stanza the insignificance of labels is emphasized by the juxtaposition between the complex, interwoven, fabrics of the universe and “simple X.” One can deem atoms and molecules whatever name one pleases — even “X,” but this does not alter their existence, nor change their course of action. They will continue to exist and act as atoms and molecules do, even without those labels, or the label “X,” or any other letter or number. The chosen epigraph condenses this theme to a singular paragraph, and could even condense it to a singular line as “I have learned that my name is not my name,” also communicates the shared theme adequately. 

The importance of this epigraph for me currently, as opposed to a little over three months ago at the start of the semester, is its ability to capture what I have taken away from this course. With the varied, and often confusing works that we have examined over the course of the semester, it would be rather difficult to epitomize what I have learned without the chosen epigraph. While I did learn about the importance of “slowing down,” and “unpacking” claims, in writing a piece that allows readers to get as close as they can to my brain without performing a lobotomy, what I took away from this course is ultimately more ideological than anything else. “Ideological,” referring to the life lessons I gathered from the aforementioned Percival Everett texts, not necessarily the literary ideologies of Intertextuality and New Criticism — two concepts which I did gain knowledge on thoroughly, I might add. Prior to this course, and its texts, I had overestimated the power of a name. For me, a name, or label, was binding — a sort of intangible fetter that restricted movement more than a ball and chain. I always believed in Mary Shelly’s interpretation of labels, as Frakenstein’s Monster (who is not actually a “monster” at all) is corrupted by the harshness of the world around him; including the names he is referred to as, such as “The Creature,” “The Fiend,” or “The Demon.” What was a being who sought the tools to learn to live, was distorted into a killer because of the labels he was given, which eventually convinced even him that he was an abomination. It is because of this interpretation, and my love for the story of Frankenstein and his monster, that the epigraph with which I am working now did not make sense to me, and thus was not chosen initially. Yet, upon reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and re:f(gesture) I received a new perspective on the power of names, or rather, the lack of power that they actually possess. Not Sidney Poitier’s life of Sidney Poitier, and the persistence of innate constructs, such as atoms and molecules, demonstrate the opposite of what Mary Shelly presented to me approximately three years ago. Whereas previously I thought names and labels to be a determining factor in one’s character and destiny, I have now discovered a more relieving counter — that names and labels are not nearly as important to defining self as the experiences that one has, and the people one meets during those experiences (as Not Sidney encounters a colorful range of characters that often prompt him to keep trying to find himself). In conclusion, the chosen epigraph, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, re:f(gesture), and our “unpacking” of them, have inspired me to live my life as if my name is not my name, rather my name is something that I must find and build from within, throughout the duration of my time on this planet.

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