“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 strange faces, I finally know what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:
I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”
— Percival Everett
When presented with the epigraph above at the beginning of English 203, I admittedly found it baffling. The ideas were too complex for me to understand at the time. So, when it came time for us to choose one of the three epigraphs listed in the syllabus for our first blog post, I immediately steered clear of this one. Now, after becoming more familiar with the class, and sharpening my writing/analyzing skills, I feel that I can conquer unpacking this epigraph to its full potential. In fact, after rereading it, I realize that its message parallels my own academic journey throughout this class.
This epigraph is at the end of Percival Everett’s hilariously satirical story, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. It is a speech that main character Not Sidney makes after winning an award intended for the real Sidney Poitier. This ending reflects a theme of missing identity that is present throughout the novel.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier follows Not Sidney as he navigates young adulthood all while experiencing events eerily similar to ones experienced by Sidney Poitier’s characters in his movies. Not Sidney struggles with his identity from birth. This is likely because he is never given his own name, just the negated version of someone else’s. Because his first name is not his own, Not Sidney is brought into this world already lacking a sense of self. His name also causes confrontation among him and other kids, “What’s your name?…”Not Sidney”…”Okay, then what is it?” “I told you it’s Not Sidney…”Ain’t nobody called you Sidney.” Not Sidney seems to accept the frequent teasing he gets about his name and doesn’t try to change his name or go by a nickname. Not Sidney’s reluctant admission to his flawed name is a prime example of how his identity is defined by others. He is often at the mercy of those around him but he never tries to overcome this by forming his own personality. Instead, he depends on other’s perceptions of him. This lack of action continues when he goes off to college. He struggles to fit in anywhere, often eating with his Professor at lunchtime instead of with other students. While college can be a place of great growth for many, Not Sidney does not take the opportunity to make friends or join any groups. He admits to the reader that he’s “as much of an outcast at the university as [he] had been in high school.” I can compare Not Sidney’s insecurity and dependency on other people’s opinions of him to my own when I began English 203 this year.
Although I felt insecure about my place initially in English 203, it was not because I felt rejected by my fellow classmates. In fact, I found my peers and Dr. McCoy to be exceptionally welcoming and accepting. I could relate to Not Sidney’s dilemma because I felt that I did not belong academically among the versatile writers and thinkers that sat beside me in class. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and going to my English classes in high school. But after realizing the intensity that a college English class promises during the first few weeks of English 203, my confidence was shaken. During our in-class discussions, it seemed like everyone could come up with excellent ideas, while I felt stuck. Furthermore, this uncertainty that I had in class was also apparent in my first few blog posts. I did well on the first post thanks to the prompt, but after that, my grades started to drop. Coming from an environment in high school where grades are stressed, this concerned me greatly. I felt like the subject I once was good at was slipping away. Overwhelmed, I debated switching concentrations. I thought that maybe I would never be able to better my writing and English abilities. Luckily, I realized that if I made adjustments to my writing, study habits, and most importantly, my attitude, I was completely capable of writing more cohesively and professionally than I ever have before.
Despite my difficulty with the first few weeks of English 203, I believe that it was necessary for me to become a better writer. If I am honest, I had been able to coast through my high school English classes, never really developing a consistent technique to use for my writing. This is like Not Sidney, who doesn’t try to change, but instead drifts through the world uncertain of his identity. English 203 challenged me to motivate myself with the floating deadlines, practice my writing skills with the amount of blog posts due, and contemplate broad societal values through the complex works of Percival Everett.
The first step in improving my writing was to let go of the notion that getting good grades is the most important aspect of education. At the start of the semester, I focused primarily on grades. If I liked my writing before, but then I received a grade I didn’t like, I wouldn’t be able to see any positives about my writing anymore. Hence, I let the viewpoints of others determine my worth, just as Not Sidney does throughout his life. Of course, it is vital to aim for to success in school, but the mindset that good grades are the only goal is constricting towards any kind of educational growth. Dr. McCoy helped to inspire this change of attitude in me when she remarked, “I only use grades to get the student’s attention.” By this she means, grades are her tools for getting the students to recognize what they still need to work on with their writing, and not a numerical assessment assignment to my worth as a student. This idea allowed me to focus on my own journey with the writing process instead of what other’s opinions are of me.
I also knew that if I was to improve my writing, I needed a better system for outlining and editing my work. Dr. McCoy also helped me with this by providing me with a potential template to get me with each blog post. This assisted me in formulating clear and concise ideas before I even started writing. Once I finished with a blog post draft, I would edit it by comparing it to the ideas I had written out in my outline. This way, I could see if my writing stayed on task by following the outline of what I wanted to say. I also began editing and rewriting multiple drafts for each blog post. In the past, I would try to pound out an entire paper in one night, barely reading it over. But if I spread out the editing process over the course of a few days, I found that I was better able to craft better thought-out theories in my writing. With these tiny changes to my writing process, I was able to make monumental enhancements to my writing. Thus, my faith in my writing, and more importantly myself, increased.
Not Sidney’s identity evolves throughout his story, albeit different than my own. The culmination of his identity is in the epigraph above at the end of the book. Not Sidney returns to his hometown to potentially find more about his identity, but, as he explains to the audience of celebrities, he is unable to find anything and believes that it is them who know him better than he knows himself, “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.” Not Sidney believes that a group of strangers’ superficial opinion of him is more accurate than his own proving that he only exists for the viewing of others. I believe that Everett created a character like this purposefully to comment on the stagnant roles that the real Sidney Poitier had to play in most of his films. Perhaps Everett wanted to show how black men are often put in a box when it comes to their identity. Black men in America are stereotypically thought of as strong, stoic beings that are expected to be subservient to white people. It is possible that Everett wanted to portray this constrictive identity through Not Sidney’s own experience.
What I have just demonstrated with my analysis behind Not Sidney’s identity is quite possibly the most essential lesson I have learned from English 203: the importance of including the “so what” in my writing. The “so what” is the idea that every choice an author makes or includes can be applied meaningfully and expansively towards broader societal issues. Percival Everett’s work is overflowing with evidence of this as he is often writing with larger intentions than what can be seen at the surface level of his writing. Learning to not just write about something I noticed an author does, but explaining my interpretations on why he or she does this, has led my writing to become more comprehensive than ever before. It excites me to come up with possible ideas and also engages the reader more when I write about something I am passionate about. I will continue to apply the “so what” aspect in my future writing.
Though the character, Not Sidney, and I had many similarities when I began English 203, I know that his journey and mine will not end the same. Not Sidney accepted his misplaced feelings of identity at the end of the novel, letting people’s viewpoints continue to define him. Unlike Not Sidney, I have decided to improve upon myself as a student and writer in English 203. I’ve discovered that while college English may not be easy like high school, it is better and more worth-while. By altering my attitude towards the writing process, I have been able to focus more on improving my writing skills than the end result. The tools that I’ve developed in English 203 such as outlines, editing, and carefully crafted thoughts, will continue to help me in the future. I will likewise continue to find the relevance of the “so what” in everything I write to hopefully enrich my reader’s sense of the concepts I am discussing.
As I advance with my college education as an English concentration, I will challenge myself to uncover new ideas within my writing. I am grateful for the shaky beginning I had with English 203 because it taught me that in order to flourish in future English classes, I needed to establish better writing habits and methods. I will remember Not Sidney’s story as a reminder that in all my writing, “I should choose to be myself” and be proud of the work I produce.