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. 

Feeling Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable

While reflecting on the course epigraphs and what we have read and discussed with our peers, one epigraph resonated with me. The course epigraph I have selected is “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.  When I first read this statement before our classes began, it felt simple. Sentences can be complex, sure. However, after we began discussions and readings, I realized there was a completely deeper meaning to this epigraph. During one of our first classes, while discussing Laura Skrzpczyk’s “The Act Of Scaring”, my group put our minds together and assumed that we needed to uncover the designated interpretation that Dr. McCoy had determined it to be. Although she never told us there was only one correct interpretation, my group was used to thinkING in a black-and-white mindset. We asked ourselves, how does a picture of pants correlate to an article about academic probation? 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. After reflecting and working through our thoughts, wrapping ourselves into our own confusion, Iliana confused us even more through her support instead of disapproving our interpretations. She agreed with all of our interpretations, even though they were not similar. Skrzpczyk stated, “In making the letter more focused on the resources available to struggling students rather than a harsh assertion of the problem, students were more willing to put the work in and get their grades up. Those who received the first, almost shameful letter were more likely to drop out of college, and in doing so end their academic partnership” (Skrzpczyk). Skrzpczyk reflected on the idea that the way a message is delivered can alter the meaning. In this case, it was the difference between a harsh warning of academic probation, against a kinder, more gentle message that there were resources available for you to help get you back on track. Even though both of the academic probation letters said the same general message, it was the effect on the structure of the sentence that completely changed the reader’s mindset. Once we focused on this sentence, the idea that interpretation of a message is relevant to each individual became clear. We came to the conclusion that there is never one simple interpretation of a story, novel, poem, or even a sentence. We became more lost in trying to understand the “ideal” meaning of the work, that we were not comprehending that there may be no designated answer. 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. When the class analyzed the “suspicious pants” post, we came up with multiple meanings for the same two words. Who is suspicious? What are they suspicious of? Why? Are the pants suspicious of something else in the room? Are the pants themselves suspicious? Questions began arising from a sentence that seemed simple. After all, a sentence is never understood. 

While it may have confused me, all the work we have read and analyzed has made me start thinkING about my goals for myself and my work for the remainder of the course. First, I hope to eliminate the black-and-white mentality that I have acquired from elementary school and my adolescent years. In classes, we were taught that there is one interpretation of a story. “The lamp in the corner of the room symbolizes her mothers death” and “her dress is a metaphor because she loved birds and the ocean”. These were the types of scenarios I experienced throughout my years of schooling. There was no freedom of interpretation, no matter if you felt the work presented expressed a different meaning. I hope for myself that I can be comfortable with having a different interpretation and viewpoint of a piece of literature than those sitting next to me and around me. “A sentence is never understood” is what I aim to continue reminding myself throughout the course. After years of being the student who felt like they were the only person who missed the main idea and meaning of the literature, I hope to make steps into the direction of confidence and flexibility when analyzing pieces of literature. 

As I began reading Euripides’ “Bacchae”, I, like most others, was extremely confused on my very first read through. The language was difficult to understand, and the story line seemed bizarre. For example, “Let me see you dressed like a woman, a maenad, a Bacchant, on your way to spy on your mother and her company!” (Bacchae). After reading through a second and third time, and reading feedback from Dr. McCoy, “If you find yourself confused, make lemonade out of the lemon: think about how the confusion might be the point and not a marker of failure or insufficiency on your part”, I started to change my thinking from “this is confusing”, and feelings of frustration, to wondering if that was the author’s goal for the reader. It made me start thinkING and wondering about how we will use Bacchae in connection with Percival Everett’s texts. Truthfully, I do not know anything about this author or his work. Based on the texts we have discussed so far, it makes me curious and slightly confused to know what and how the elements and characteristics will connect the two. Confusion does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, because a sentence is never understood. What makes sense to one does not make sense to all, and no two interpretations will ever be the same on how the work is connected. This experience has created one of my goals for myself this semester to not put all of the blame on myself and my own capabilities for not grasping the concepts or feeling lost and confused, but instead to embrace it. Instead, I hope to be more curious as to why a piece of literature feels so confusing and if the confusion has a purpose.

My main goal for the semester is to work for the process and not the end product, which I tend to do. I am aiming to continue thinkING, and eliminate the thought process of rushing through literature to try and find what others “expect” me to find. I am aiming to be comfortable being uncomfortable.