I Am Not Myself Today, But Then, When Am I Ever

I wouldn’t describe myself particularly as a fan of Percival Everett. Going into this class, I had never heard the name before, and as I became more acquainted with his works, it became increasingly difficult for me to write about them. In one of the first class periods for this class, we discussed growth mindsets, and at one point in the semester, I believe I locked myself so effectively within the cage of a fixed mindset that I had difficulty moving past my own personal scorn in order to write professionally about Everett and his works.  This isn’t new to me, if I dislike an author, character, or work, I don’t shy away from saying so; at one point, one of my teachers genuinely recommended I become a critic because I try and pull direct pieces of evidence and thoroughly look into what it is that I dislike about it and why. With the works of Percival Everett, however, this was not enough, I was still writing with too much disdain in my written voice for a professional piece. It took a serious effort on my part to listen and learn from what Professor McCoy was trying to teach me about thinking through such strong emotions before including them in my writing. I could see the shift in my writing, and it pleased me to improve. I changed because I saw the opportunity, and I was willing to move forward. 

As Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier progresses, however, his protagonist is more accepting of moving backwards. Not Sidney becomes less inclined to correct people on his name; in the beginning, as a child, he tells his full name, persists on it even in spite of how angry it makes those he speaks to. As he grows older, however, and the events of the story play out, and he learns more, this effort fades. In Smuteye, when he introduces himself at the diner, he says his name is Sidney Poitier, finding amusement when Diana asks ‘“You name’s not Sidney Poitier, is it?’”; knowing full well what she means, he has fun at her expense and answers that it is. By the time he finds the body that resembles him, Not Sidney begins to contemplate his own identity as a whole, at one point coming to the conclusion that ‘if that body in the chest was Not Sidney Poitier, then I was not Not Sidney Poitier and that by all I knew of logic and double negations, I was therefore, Sidney Poitier. I was Sidney Poitier.’. He repeats the phrase ‘I was Sidney Poitier’ as if coming to terms with his new identity, it’s as if his identity changes ever so slightly through every portion of the novel, and this is his moment of clarity that a new shift has occurred, leading him to declare that ‘I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY’.

Not Sidney was not himself because he believed he had become Sidney Poitier. This, however, is quite a strong relation of one’s identity to a name. As soon as his name seems to change, he goes through a complete change in personality. And yet, he has been changing constantly throughout the novel, as regular people tend to change consistently throughout their lives. It is as if becoming Sidney Poitier was his way of acknowledging that change within himself, yet he takes it in the most dramatic direction. The more that Not Sidney goes through on behalf of Sidney Poitier, the more he finds himself merging with the separate being, as if he sees this as the only option left for him. He takes into account the moments of his life that led him to the stage, and rather than consider that it was the moments of his life in unwilling imitation of the Sidney Poitier films that led him there and created his personality, he decided that he is not Not Sidney, while also, by giving a speech as Sidney Poitier saying that he was not himself, is almost saying that he isn’t Sidney Poitier either. 

Most of the English classes that I’ve taken throughout my school years have tried to inspire individuality. Maybe that’s why it was so startling to me that Not Sidney accepted what appeared to be the fate laid out for him. Then, I suppose that most of Everett’s works, or at least the ones that we’ve read for this class, tend to deal with the matter of an identity crisis that leaves the narrator confused. In Everett’s Frenzy, he goes through the trouble of creating a new character tethered to Dionysos in the way that Not Sidney is tethered to Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney starts his life attached to someone else from birth. From his naming, he was threaded to the identity of Sidney Poitier, actor, influence, and one of the biggest names in cinematic history. By naming her son Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney’s mother at once binds him, and distinguishes him from Sidney Poitier; his name will forever remind people of Sidney Poitier, while at the same time telling them that Not Sidney is not Sidney, that Not is his own person with his own identity. However, due to the reference in his name to Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney tends to go overlooked in most introductions as the conversation veers in the direction of the actor, to whom he is not. 

Similarly, Vlepo doesn’t seem to know quite what he is, never mind who. He knows from the beginning that he is a tool of the god, telling the reader that he is ‘his aide, his chronicler, his mortal bookmark… I am not his creation, but I cannot claim a life away from him. My experience is, of a kind, my own, but it is shaped by what is chosen for me to see.’ (Frenzy). Vlepo begins the story without questioning himself, yet as the events play out, and he is flung from object to person, from mind to mind, he begins to grow, to pick up new things, new feelings and new knowledge of the world around him and the way other people think and feel. Each time he returns to Dionysos, he returns with a growing capacity for empathy, as can be seen in the section of the story in which Vlepo is brought to Orpheus, feels Orpheus’s struggle, and feels his own pain and aggravation as Dionysos retrieves his mother, through Vlepo’s repeating of Persephone saying ‘Fine’ and having that be all it took for his master, who couldn’t truly bring himself to care for anything at all. By the end, Vlepo has developed as a character to the point of at least wanting to be separated from his master, and knowing the only way to achieve that is through the murder of the god, and himself. He takes the most extreme course to become truly himself, and his own being, while Not Sidney takes the ultimate course to not have to deal with that decision.

I believe that reading has a way of flinging one into the minds and lives of others. Writing then comes as a way of expressing what has been learned, much like Vlepo interpreting emotion for Dionysos. Writing, especially for a writing intensive course, such as this one, can also lead to as much personal growth.This class, these readings, have brought me to seriously contemplate what it means to be oneself, really. I came to the conclusion that to be oneself is to be a collection of one’s experiences, and decisions that led them to where they are. I believe that this course has helped me grow in the way that Dionysos led Vlepo to grow, in empathy, in consideration of the world around me. As a writer, I see myself constantly developing in style, changing slightly with each teacher or professor that reads my work, and it will probably continue to change as I continue to learn and grow as a person. I think that it’s a strange thing to say that ‘I am not myself today’, I don’t believe we can ever truly be anything but ourselves, but that we can be different versions of ourselves at once, and that is what this course has led me to think about. Keeping to your own beliefs while presenting them with the highest standards one can have for themselves. That is what I’ve learned, and that is what I will continue to hold true.

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