I Am Who I Choose to Be

“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

What is a sentence? A set of words that are strung together to form a statement. Or is it a question that is used for clarity? Sentences can be rhetorical. It can also be a way of expressing strong emotions or feelings. It is an opinion, a demand, a question, or a fact. It can tell an entire story. Sentences can be one word. It is also a concert fact and can be left up to interpretation. It can end with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. It can also end with freedom or invertible death. A sentence must be true or false. It can be read from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. A sentence’s comprehension is only given access to a select few with jargon. Sentences are meant to be shared or hidden. They are confusing and concise. You can take the time to make them rhyme. Sentences can start with but or because. But one thing is true about them all, sentences must always have an ending.
This semester has proven to us how versatile a sentence can be. We’ve used texts written by Euripides and Percival Everett, to reframe our image of ourselves as scholars. To many, these texts have portrayed twisted and confusing storylines that make it easy to get lost in the plot. This, however, has forced us to dig deeper and break the habit of looking to the teacher for the answer. The Bedford Glossary was a vital tool throughout the semester in trying to further connect with the texts and understand the reasons why the authors chose the language that they chose. We’ve been encouraged to focus on problem-solving and self-discovery to not only focus on the text but to use this lens and zoom out on the broader understanding of how and why the story is told the way it is. Yet, somehow in trying to find meaning in the text with the use of external materials we can never truly have a definite understanding of the text. Just as the text we have tried to decipher is intricate and complex, the materials we’ve used also exhibit these same patterns.
To start with Euripides, The Bacchae can be described as a play that explores the concepts of the struggle with power and poetic justice. For much of the play we are witnesses to Dionysus, the half-mortal, and half-god son of Zeus, and Pentheus, the king of Thebes, as they battle each other over the loyalty of the people of Thebes. We use the words autochthony, which is described as something being native to the place where it is found, and allochthon, defined as originating in a place other than where it is found, to determine the place Dionysus has in the city of Thebes. we are asked to determine whether the punishment ascribed to Pentheus at the end of The Bacchae is justifiable for his “crimes”. Without the knowledge of the alternative definitions of the words allochthon and autochthony means, it becomes confusing in conceptualizing how we apply them in the context of The Bacchae. When looking up the words allochthon and autochthony, also refer to geological terms on the rock formations of large blocks either being rooted to the basement block or being relocated from their site of formation. The versatility of these two words calls to question whether we can fully understand The Bacchae. In the play, Dionysius goes by multiple titles and it makes it confusing to understand the play to the full extent. The Bacchae being written around 400 B.C. only allows us to interpret the full meaning of what was truly happening. Reading The Bacchae sets us up for the rest of the semester on how we should approach the dissection of all other pieces of writing going forward. We are then forced to take a broader look at how we were treated as scholars throughout our k through 12 education and in higher education and ask if the penalties we received were beneficial to our education. For many of us, we often experience an assertion of power from the teacher with the idea that they are the ones that are the holders of knowledge, and we are the seekers for their guidance.
This concept of refining the relationship between the teacher and scholar was further developed with the analysis of Frenzy by Percival Everett. In the novel Frenzy, we were reintroduced to the characters in The Bacchae, but from the perspective of Percival Everett. Everett uses the Play and retells it in it the way he feels it should have been told. This is to say, we now see the situations Dionysus encounters through the eyes of his loyal servant Vlepo. We now are forced to disregard what we knew about Dionysus and reinterpret and redefine who he is as told in Frenzy. To revisit the epigraph, which discusses how “meanings need not and does not confine itself to that intention”, we must do the same for the character Dionysus. Through reading both The Bacchae and Frenzy, we are exposed to new layers of Dionysus and must weave them into the idea of who we thought he was. Through this novel, I interpret Everett as trying to illustrate to his readers that no one story is gospel and that we must never believe something without any doubt. As scholars, we are taught that the knowledge that we are given is the truth and to not question it. This causes us to create the habit of only seeking the answers through others. We don’t question what we are taught because doing so creates a false sense of security. We are scared to challenge what we know because if things are not what they seem, and our identities revolve around what we know then who are we?
This is what I assume is the concept Percival Everett is trying to relay in the novel I AM Not Sidney Poitier. Throughout the novel, Everett alludes to numerous films starring the real-life actor Sidney Poitier while the protagonist, Not Sidney, is depicted professing just how much he is not Sidney. It was hard to fully understand the message Everett is trying to convey as the text becomes convoluted without the background knowledge of these allusions. The novel becomes just a bunch of sentences put together attempting to mean something that can never be understood without the literary context of the allusions. In the novel, Not Sidney takes a course by Professor Everett on nonsense where Everett reveals to Not Sidney just how much nothing really matters. This is something Not Sidney finally realizes at the end where in his acceptance speech he declares “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY”. It is only then at that moment that Not Sidney accepts that he is whoever he wants himself to be. He seems to no longer confine himself to an image that others perceive him as. It is at this point that Not Sidney chooses no longer to confine himself to the meaning of his name and the intentions of others. My final analysis from what I have learned as a scholar this semester is to not take things for what it seems and we as people must do our due diligence and not take things for face value. We must learn to assess everything using our own interpretations.

My Name and My Identity

Leah Harper, Emma Griffin, Hannah Philgence, Emma Pozak, Amanda Hibbard 

I am Not Sidney Poitier, written by Percival Everett, is a novel that serves the purpose of putting a comedic twist on films starring 1960s actor Sidney Poitier. These films include Lilies of the Field, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones. This novel unravels the story of the character Not Sidney, a boy who looks strikingly similar to Sidney Poitier and is continuously compared to the actor. Before his mother died, she named him the unfortunate name of Not Sidney. This name connects him further to the actor he wishes not to be associated with as he deals with the power imbalance of being a rich black man. 

While reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier, we connected the novel back to the film Lilies of the Field and noticed both the similarities and the differences. In the film, we are introduced to nuns from Germany who seek to build a new chapel, as their current church is in a parking lot. Our main character’s name is Homer Smith, a baptist traveling the world. As he stops at the desert where the nuns’ Mother Maria, Sister Gertrude, Sister Agnes, and Sister Albertine are located he asks for water. The nuns end up roping him into helping them build up their new chapel. Homer, the independent man he is, decides to help but expects payment in return for his services. Mother Maria refuses, forcing Homer to try and leave. But, his kindness and care for the nuns push him to continue working and further build their connection. I Am Not Sidney Poiter references this movie heavily, however, Percival Everett changes the nuns’ names. The names in the book are Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmillian, and Chrysostom. These are very catholic names in origin and are not commonly recognized in the U.S. Not only do we see these name changes, but we also do not see the relationship develop between Not Sidney and the nuns as we did with Homer and the nuns. Homer taught the nuns English to try to connect with them better, as well as help them connect with others. He taught them new religious songs to sing instead of the traditional catholic music the nuns would normally perform. Homer taught the Nuns how to live and experience life in a way they seemed to never have before, but this connection is lost in I am Not Sidney Poiter. The nuns’ names seem to be extremely religious names to actually characterize them as nuns, but the actual character development that we see in the movie is lost in the novel. The personalities of the nuns in the book are lost, and the character that we expected does not define what we were given in the book. This later foreshadows the end of the book when Not Sidney defines himself as his own person and the character he was put out to be. 

In our course epigraphs, we are introduced to the quote “ I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” written by Percival Everett in I am Not Sidney Poiter. If you haven’t read the book yet, it wouldn’t make sense as it does after dissecting this literature so deeply. We think a proper synonym for this is “CHARACTERS DO NOT DEFINE A PERSON”. Not Sidney throughout the story acts the way everyone else thinks he should. He is ashamed of his name, he is ashamed of the character other people made him to be. It isn’t until the end when he accepts who he is, he accepts his name and breaks away from other people’s definition of who Not Sidney is. 

“I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” is not the only quote in I am Not Sidney Poitier that reflects heavily on the theme that Not Sidney is his own person, and should be seen as who he makes himself out to be rather than the character others see him as. 

“And be yourself”

“Who else would I be?” 

“I don’t know. You might decide all of a sudden that you’re Sidney Poitier. You’re not, you know. Though you do look alarmingly like him. Tell me, whom do I look like?” 

This quote is a scene between Not Sidney and Professor Percival Everett, as author Percival Everett had inserted himself into his own novel. This quote feels as though Professor Percival Everett is trying to help Not Sidney see that each and every one of us could be compared to a movie star, however that doesn’t make us that movie star! We are still our own people, time and time again. We can look and act like anyone in the world but that does not change the fact that we are individuals with different thoughts and feelings from everyone else.  The character does not define a person, is something that is relatable throughout this course and throughout our experiences at Geneseo. We all came in with set characters and we all experienced life at its own pace. Being first-year students, we all had our “characters” defined by our past high school experiences. Geneseo allows us for the first time to redefine ourselves and allows for a fresh start. At the beginning of our course, we had an in-depth discussion about what literature we experienced in the past and we took part in the frenzy mini collab. We discussed how classes in our past defined our characters today as well as how our “characters” have changed since college. To relate this idea to this class, we are graded solely on our effort and “character” rather than on how smart we are or how well we can regurgitate the professor’s ideas back to them. All of the students in this class use all of their different experiences, whether that be our majors, races, or how long we’ve been in college to come to the realization there is no right way to learn or interpret something. This ties into the point Everett is trying to make with the class on nonsense.  The class on Nunsense is also up to the students’ interpretations of their coursework. The students in Everett’s class are looking to their teacher for guidance, but the class is about what they think, not about getting the right answer. This is very similar to the way Professor McCoy structured the class, it is not about the right answer. It is about thinking for yourself.