It’s Incredible That an English Course is Ever Understood

This semester in Dr. McCoy’s English 203 course we discussed a variety of Percival Everett texts, including Frenzy, I am Not Sidney Poitier, and re:f (gesture). At the start of this semester, during the third week of the course, I wrote an essay on the Reader and Text Blog entitled, “Feeling Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable”. In this essay, I discussed the course epigraph, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.”-Percival Everett, Erasure. In this essay, I explained my interpretation of the chosen epigraph based on the pieces of literature we discussed during the first classes of the semester. In the essay, I wrote “Like the epigraph stated, a sentence is never understood. A sentence can have multiple meanings based on who said it, their tone and their intentions. It can have even more meanings when you are the one who is hearing or reading the sentence”. I based my original essay on the idea of interpretation, and the variety of interpretations that can be associated with a single piece of literature based on the class discussions regarding the Suspicious Pants tweet, and “The Act of Scaring” by Laura Skrzpczyk. My essay also discussed the idea of searching for the “intended meaning and interpretations” of literature, set forth either by the professor or the author, instead of having confidence and belief in my own understanding. I wrote, “We felt comfortable and familiar with the routine of searching for the answer the instructor already knew. The concept of creating our own interpretation felt foreign.”

Along with my interpretation of the epigraph, my essay also discussed my goals for my work in English 203, and for myself. My main idea while constructing my essay was that throughout the semester, I wanted to work towards adjusting to having different interpretations of literature than those around me. Meaning, that if I believed an author had a different intention in a piece of literature than my peer, my goal was to not fall back into the mindset of assuming I must have interpreted the work incorrectly. Not to dismiss my own interpretation and findings to adhere to what those around me interpreted and follow their lead. Instead, I wanted to work towards developing my own interpretation and understandings, without trying to find what I believed was “expected” of me to discover and interpret, either by my peers, teacher, or by the author. 

When I wrote my first essay, I was confused and worried. I was confused because the first essay, though it had a prompt, did not have a set structure of what to write. I was confused on where to start and how to explain all my thoughts in a cohesive way when we, as students, were given a large amount of freedom with what we chose to write. The prompt for essay one read, “does your selected epigraph get you to thinkING about anything?” (McCoy). The freedom of structure led me to rushing through my essay, and submitting without even proofreading, due to fear of completing the assignment incorrectly, or different than my peers. I didn’t love my first essay submission at the time I submitted it, because I was doubtful of myself and my skills. I did not know exactly the approach to take and having a final product that was different than my peers worried me.

Now, looking back on my first essay, after a semester of group discussions and collaborations, as well as dissecting a variety of literature written by Percival Everett, my perspective on the course epigraph, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood” (Percival Everett) has shifted. As defined in the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, an epigraph is, “A passage printed on the title page or first page of a literary work or at the beginning of a section of such work. Epigraphs, which tend to set the tone or establish the theme of what follows, are generally taken from earlier, influential works by other authors.” (Bedford Glossary, 146). In terms of our English 203 course, this specific epigraph can be applied to a variety of the texts we engaged with throughout the semester. 

In I am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, Not Sidney’s entire identity is based on the idea that he is in fact both Not Sidney Poitier and not Sidney Poitier. The confusion in conversations between Not Sidney and those he meets are a continuous idea relevant throughout the book. “‘Are you saying that ‘you did not’ or are you saying ‘you did, Not’?’ I asked. ‘I did not say untiringly twice, Not.’” (Everett, 11). It creates a feeling of confusion, anger, and miscommunication for those he meets. “‘My name is Not Sidney Poitier.” ‘I can well imagine.’ She studies my features. ‘You do look a lot like him. Now, what is your name?’” (Everett, 41).   In doing so, we would often have to question who exactly our group members were referring to. We also found ourselves frequently saying “Not Sidney is both Not Sidney and not Sidney”, which would lead to us laughing at our own words and the comical sentences that we had just said. 

Another common confusion while discussing this book was the character Percival Everett, the nonsense professor at Morehouse College. However, him also being the author of the book created the same common confusion. While participating in a group collaboration essay on the book, my group and I would often have to stop each other and say, “Percival Everett the author, or the character?”. This aspect would become confusing specifically for myself as the meaning of the sentence could become completely altered based on the intention of the sentence. The miscommunication aspect could result in a sentence having a completely different meaning. 

In Percival Everett’s re:f (gesture), the section entitled “body” describes in detail specific parts of the body. While describing the larynx, Everett writes, “her throat is smooth and her organ lies narrow, placed higher in relation to her cervical vertebrae..” (Everett, 55). He further describes other parts of the body such as the nasal fossae, the tongue, and the sternum. Prior to our group discussion on the book, most of the class had no reasoning behind why we thought Percival Everett wrote about body parts in such detail. Dr. McCoy explained to us how “body” was resembling sex. Everett wrote about each muscle and body part related to intimacy. 

In both works, we were found attempting to understand the sentences placed before us. In I am Not Sidney Poitier, the confusion of the character’s names led us to become disorientated within our own conversation. In Frenzy, the detailed description of common body parts caused us to overlook the overarching idea of intimacy. To refer back to the course epigraph, a sentence is,  “Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention” – Percival Everett, Erasure. Typically, for a sentence to be understood, both the speaker and the listener must understand the meaning of the sentence. However, this course epigraph helped me to acknowledge that you can understand a sentence without understanding the meaning. 

For example, in Frenzy, I fully understood that Everett was breaking down the details of body parts. However, I completely missed understanding the meaning of the work. In I am Not Sidney Poitier, as a group we understood that Not Sidney was not Sidney Poitier, but we did not understand Percival Everett’s intention behind the complication of names throughout the work. After dissecting the book throughout the course, we recognized there was potentially a greater significance behind naming the protagonist Not Sidney. The conflict that arises based solely on a name, as well as the repeating idea from those he meets that he resembles Sidney Poitier. We can assume the potential deeper meaning behind this move was to have a theme of identity throughout the book. A sentence within itself can have one meaning, but the meaning is not restricted to the individual sentence. The meaning behind a sentence can be far beyond the sentence itself. 

As I look back onto this semester, I will continue to strive towards the goals I set for myself at the start of the course. I also plan to continue practicing the skills I acquired throughout the course. I am confident that I have changed since the start of the course. As I read and reread my first essay, I noticed that I switched from “a sentence is ever understood” to “a sentence is never understood” in the middle. At the time, I saw it as a typo, but since then, I have realized it was due to the act of wanting to get the essay done, rather than focusing on what I wanted to achieve through my blog post. As I write this essay, I have found myself slowing down, thinkING instead of rushing, and appreciating the process instead of the product. I will continue to slow down, and understand that there is beauty in the confusion and the unknown. 

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