The Importance of Choosing to be Yourself

“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:


 — 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.

Intertextuality in “Zulus”

In English 203, we’ve discussed several ways to analyze literature. Two methods we explored thoroughly are intertextuality and New Criticism. Both methods have positive and negative elements, but I have found intertextuality to be particularly helpful when examining Percival Everett’s collection of poems entitled “Zulus”. I would like to delve into New Criticism and intertextuality to see why I find intertextuality more applicable for these poems.

New Criticism, according to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms and the handout from Dr. McCoy, is derived from a group of Southern intellectuals called the Fugitives who began meeting around 1920 as a poetry workshop. As a response to the political and social climate around them, the Fugitives developed the New Criticism technique for analyzing literature, especially poetry. New Criticism operates under the idea that literature is self-contained and therefore should be studied “within the text rather than on external factors.” These external factors that New Criticism avoids include the author’s perspective, historical context, and the reader’s feelings/own interpretations while reading. Although it may seem unlikely that any piece of text is not influenced by at least one of these factors, the New Criticism method advocates that the text at hand should be observed on its own, aesthetically and structurally.

Despite New Criticism losing some of its influence since the early twentieth century, the practice of close-reading is still a helpful tool for literary analysis today. To perform a close-reading of a text, one must center the analysis on observable patterns within the text’s language and structure. This means the reader should look for literary devices like rhythm, repetition, and the format of the piece.

Using close-reading as a tool, I can evaluate “Zulus”. At first glance, I notice that the poems are structured in alphabetical order with each poem beginning with a letter and the word it stands for in the poem, “A is for Achtiophel.” Because New Criticism preaches that a work of literature’s meaning cannot be divorced from its structure, noting the poems’ organization is crucial in understanding the poems’ meaning. However, it is difficult to produce a developed theory about the poems’ significance without any other context outside of the poem itself. Hence, this is the predicament with New Criticism. In my opinion, this aspect of New Criticism can be constricting in the study of literature. While I believe it is vital to assess structure and format when reading a work of literature, I think that the reader should take all aspects of the piece into account in order to achieve the best possible analysis.

Intertextuality is a tool I can use with this kind of detailed investigation. Intertextuality explained in the Bedford is “interconnectedness among texts.” In this way, intertextuality is the idea that all texts can be connected through “allusion, quotation, genre, style…” and that no text is completely without the influence of another. This method is vastly different from New Criticism as it encourages looking outside of a text at other texts and information to fully understand the text in examination.

Returning to my earlier analysis of “Zulus”, I can use intertextuality to build a more in-depth analysis. In terms of structure, I can use previous knowledge on author, Percival Everett to possibly deduce why he may have formatted the poems this way. My experiences with reading Everett’s other works have led me to believe he writes to get his readers to think. Most of what he writes consists of more meaning than what can be seen at surface value. With this in mind, I can infer that he positioned the poems this way to make a statement about human organization. Perhaps he wanted to draw attention to the arbitrary nature of the alphabet’s order. He may have intended to show that the alphabet’s order is necessary for humans to be able to communicate, even though the order itself is meaningless. While I can never know Everett’s intentions by just reading his poems, I can make a confident inference about his ideas behind the structure with intertextuality.

Intertextuality is helpful to uncover other potential ideas in “Zulus” besides structure. Each poem in “Zulus” is brimming with references to other texts. For instance, in the poem centering around the letter I, the words ichor, Indian Reorganization Act, and Isaiah are included. Not knowing these terms off-hand, I researched each word. Ichor is from Greek mythology and it refers to the fluid that flows like blood in the vies of the gods. Isaiah is the name of the Hebrew prophet who the Book of Isaiah is named after in the Bible. Finally, the Indian Reorganization Act is an important historical event that promised the return of some land lost to Native Americans. My understanding of the poem increased through the process of intertextuality.

With more intertextual research as demonstrated above with poem “I”, I have been able to generate even more ideas behind Everett’s intended meaning for the collection of poems in “Zulus”. I have found strong evidence behind the idea that Everett wrote “Zulus” to create a commentary about genocide. Beginning with the title, “Zulus”, I’ve discovered that the Zulus are a South African tribe especially known for their brutal war tactics. This is notably evident under the rule of Shaka Zulu, who expanded the rule of the Zulu tribe over large parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Shaka is actually mentioned in poem “S”. Shaka Zulu’s armies aimed for their enemy’s complete destruction in war, so much so that they are responsible for 1-2 million deaths during that time. This period of expansion is of many African peoples from the Zulu tribe. If Everett named his poems after this tribe, perhaps he is insinuating themes of genocide. There are other poems that exhibit a similar theme. One example is with the poem “P”. “P” begins with the word peace, suggesting Everett is against killing and genocide. “P” continues with “P is for population and the density therein affected.” Here, Everett could be talking about population losses due to genocidal acts. Other poems have words that imply a similar meaning as in poem “P” such as “orphans”, “killing”, and “slaves”. I can also find more evidence pointing to genocide in poem “R”, where Maximilien Robespierre is discussed. Robespierre is a prominent figure of the French Revolution who was known for his role as execution during the Reign of Terror. Being responsible for numerous executions, Robespierre contributed to a national genocide. Finally, I return to poem “I” to see another reference to genocide. As I mentioned earlier, “I” includes the Indian Reorganization Act. While this act itself is not considered a genocide, many believe that the colonization of early America by white settlers lead to a genocide of the Native American people. When settlers came from Europe to the Americas, they killed the Native Americans in battle and gave them diseases that decimated large numbers of their population. With this textual evidence, I interpret “Zulus” to be a message about the harsh effects of genocide, a warning against it.

While New Criticism can give the reader a way to analyze a text closely and attentively, intertextuality allows for a deeper analysis of the themes and references covered in the poems. I used intertextuality to uncover a potential theme about the horrors of genocide. Intertextuality proves to be a more rewarding method for me as I explore the content in “Zulus”.

A Blazon “Body”?

“Adorned with beautyes and vertues store,

Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,

Her forehead yvory white,

Her cheeks lyke apples which the Sun hath rudded…”

(original spelling from Poetry Foundation)

Above is an excerpt from the poem “Epithalamion” by Edmund Spenser. I’ve included this poem at the start of this post to give an example of the poetic mode, blazon. According to the Poetry Foundation, blazon uses literary devices such as metaphor, simile, and other forms of figurative language to describe the physical attributes of a subject. The subject is often female but not exclusively. The physical attributes of the subject are compared to beautiful, mystical, or rare objects. This is certainly evident in the excerpt from “Epithalamion”. Spenser uses simile to compare his subject’s eyes to shiny jewels, metaphor to describe her pristine-looking forehead, and simile again for her cheeks, which are as red as a ruddy apple. As stated in the Poetry Foundation’s description of blazon, this technique was made famous by Francesco Petrarca, Italian scholar and poet. Petrarca depicts his female beloved by describing her in parts, similar to Spencer’s poem above. Blazon also thrived amongst poets during the Elizabethan literary period when “Epithalamion” was written. Blazon still occurs in contemporary literature.

One possible example of blazon in modern literature is in Percival Everett’s re: f (gesture). This collection of poems includes a section labeled “Body” where each poem is entitled with the medical term for a body part, followed by a description of that body part. In my previous post, I deliberated this use of scientific language in poetry. I came to the conclusion that Everett’s reason for doing this was to give the reader a realistic depiction of the human body. Of course, I don’t know Everett’s intentions, but I believe that he wrote the poems in admiration of the body to celebrate its natural features. This choice of language also helps determine whether or not the poems are classified as blazon or not.

For example, if I examine the poem titled, “Labia Majora”, I see anatomical terminology that describes a women’s vulva, “Posteriorly lost in the neighboring integument, between areolar tissue, sweet fat, vessels, nerves.” Because the description is of female genitalia, the criteria that the blazon often centers around a female subject is full-filled. However, the scientific language used does not compare the body part to a rare gem or a blissful sunrise, like a typical blazon might. Instead, it chronicles the aspects of the labia major with literal, scientific terms. Even though I decided in my previous post that Everett does this as a celebration of the human body, is not done in the traditional way that the blazon celebrates its subject. So, can Everett’s poems in “Body” be considered a blazon?

To better comprehend this question, I want to look at what contreblazon is. The Poetry Foundation defines contreblazon as the invert of blazon. Poems that are contreblazon compare the subject’s attributes to something wonderful but then negate it, changing the meaning. William Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet number 130 is an example of this, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sun, Coral is far more red than her lips red…”. I would not say that the poems in “Body” represent a contreblazon. This is because I believe that Everett wrote the poems to celebrate and recognize the human body. So, the contreblazon, which is a device used to insult the subject’s physical appearance, isn’t fitting.

I am convinced that the poems in “Body” would be an example of blazon despite their lack of some of the traditional elements normally in a blazon. Sure, the body parts are not compared to stunningly beautiful natural phenomena or objects, but the way each poem is written makes it clear to the reader that Everett admires the subject’s beauty. This is evident by Everett’s inclusion of every small detail of each body part and his crafting of each word or phrase.

In my opinion, Everett’s choice to use literal language instead of figurative, is more alluring than the more traditional blazon, “Epithalamion” referenced above. I feel this way because the way conventional blazons are written, the woman is never revered as she is, but instead is compared to another object. Of course, this objectifies the woman and causes women readers (like me) to assume that I cannot be beautiful the way I am unless I look like a gemstone! Also, in the poems in “Body”, Everett discusses some unusual parts of his subject’s body that would normally not be considered beautiful. An example being the previously referenced poem, “Labia Majora”. Not only is this body part often not discussed at all in literature, it is almost never looked at through poetry as a beautiful thing. While this honest viewpoint in “Body” may make some readers uncomfortable, it allows me to realize that every part of our human bodies is naturally beautiful as is.

Percival Everett’s “Body” represents a non-traditional and contemporary blazon that calls attention to the human body differently than most blazon poetry. This divergent interpretation can cause readers to look at societal standards of beauty and assess what really is beautiful.

A Beautiful Body

In Percival Everett’s collection of poems, re: (f) gesture, there is a section that focuses on body parts. It is appropriately called “Body”. Each poem is entitled with the biological term for the body part being described. This scientific language seen in each title is also present throughout the poems as they describe that body part’s features and functions. The dialect Everett choses to use in his descriptions is a helpful tool in understanding the meaning of the poems. 

The language in Everett’s “Body” alternates between the colloquial language that I am more familiar with, and terminology that almost mimics a medical diagnosis. An example of this medical language can be seen with the poem entitled “Nasal Fosse”. This title refers to what is more commonly referred to as a nose. Everett continues this poem by describing the various parts of the nose and its canals, “…the posterior nares in the naso pharynx”. This language is not commonly used in poetry or in literature in general. So, the fact that Everett has chosen to use such scientific language in a poem piques my interest. I want to examine poetry as a literary form and explore Everett’s decision to include scientific vocabulary in his poems.

Poetry is defined in the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms as “literary expression characterized with particular attention to rhythm, sound, and the concentrated, concrete use of language.” The Bedford continues by characterizing poetry as a literary genre and comparing it to other artistic forms of expression such as dance. With these attributes in mind, one can assume that poetry falls under the realm of the humanities. Speaking on behalf of the many stereotypes I have personally witnessed, the humanities are often thought of as a creative, philosophical, and abstruse discipline. Because of its non-concrete nature, the humanities are often seen as lesser than other areas of concentration of study.  I have often heard the joke towards a humanities major about what he or she could “realistically” do with his/her degree once out of college.

Science, on the other hand, is a more valued and respected area of study in our society. It revolves around tested theories and mathematical equations, ensuring to others that it is based on the facts of our world. People who study science are supposedly unopinionated and detached from their work, contrasting with the creative humanities that generally place emphasis on the person’s emotions. The differences between these two practices are great, and yet both disciplines are intertwined in many ways. The long-standing partition of paradigm between these two concentrations prevents humans from realizing the capabilities that both practices can offer us together.

Joe Moran explores this issue in Science, Space, and Nature. Moran explains where the divergence between the humanities and the sciences potentially began with Francis Bacon’s formulation of scientific discovery. Bacon argues against believing in the arbitrary and that “human beings… should be studied without fixed preconceptions” that the humanities are apparently full of. These ideals enhanced the credibility of the sciences while making the humanities seem less plausible. Thus, the sciences and humanities were innately separated ever since. Or were they? Moran continues by showing various times when scientific endeavors have used literary techniques from the humanities and vice versa. One example is through map-making. One would probably consider maps to fall under scientific boundaries. However, there is evidence of the literary use of metaphor within maps. This is because maps are not the actual territory, they present but a mere representation of that territory, just like how a metaphor in language represents a situation without actually embodying it. Moran also includes data describing how maps were often works of fiction in earlier times, where the inspiration did not come from the topographical features of the territory, but instead from speculation of the territory’s inhabitants. Moran’s argument that maps are interdisciplinary is significant because it proves that the humanities and the sciences are interlocking despite what people’s original beliefs are.

Percival Everett does his own version of interlocking of these two disciplines through his poems in “Body”. While I can never truly know the author’s intentions, analyzing Everett’s choice of language allows me to consider different ideas that he possibly wants to come across in his writing. Perhaps he wants the reader to see the beauty of the human body in its natural form. The jargon that Everett uses is medical, but the poems aren’t written as a medical description of the body. Instead, they are written as beautiful depictions admiring the human body. This is evident in the poem, “The Sternum”, “Oblique in inclination from above and downward, it is my shield.” Here, Everett describes the shape of the sternum literally, yet compares it to protective armor figuratively. By using both literary and scientific terms, Everett is able to convey a unique meaning with this poem. Everett also doesn’t shy away from arresting details of the human body with this language, “…they press gently past vulval orifice, toward her anus” (Labia Majora). I believe that this is a very powerful way to write. He does not sugar-coat any graphic descriptions of body parts and by doing so, allows the reader to truly marvel at how the human body works. In my opinion, the scientific language allows for a more realistic interpretation of the beauty of the body. It also connects the more credible discipline of the sciences with poetry of the humanities making the poems themselves more conceivable.

Percival Everett’s “Body” is a celebration of the human body in its realest form. Through his use of biological and literary words, Everett’s “Body” is a perfect example of interdisciplinary writing. This choice of language affects the overall meaning of the poems and influences the reader’s interpretation.

Professor Everett

It’s on page 87 of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, when a peculiar character is introduced. His name is Percival Everett. Yes, the same name as the author, Percival Everett. He is made known as Not Sidney’s college professor that teaches the aptly named course, the Philosophy of Nonsense. I have to admit, when I read Percival Everett’s name as a character in his own book, I was shocked. It is certainly something I have never seen done in a novel before. Of course, Everett uses the names of other real people in his novel, but to use his own name takes a certain level of audacity that I wonder if only Everett could pull off. Everett’s character with the same name proves to have a considerable role in the story of Not Sidney. I would like to explore this character to see if I can better understand why Everett included him in the novel and even more so, why he named him after himself.

From his first interaction with Not Sidney, Professor Everett appears to be a quirky, yet friendly college teacher. He asks Not Sidney several random questions that concur with his position as a professor of nonsense, “‘Do you play golf? And I don’t mean miniature golf.’ ‘I never have.’ ‘Good. It’s a stupid game.’” This conversation is one example of the arbitrary nature of Professor Everett’s first communication with Not Sidney. These “random” attributes of Professor Everett continue throughout the book.

After Not Sidney sits through his first lecture of the Philosophy of Nonsense, he quickly realizes that he does not understand what Professor Everett is talking about. So, Not Sidney goes to his professor after class to tell him that he is unable to follow the lecture. To this, Professor Everett candidly admits to being a ‘“fraud, a fake, a sham…”’. I believe that author, Percival Everett intended for this to be humorous to the reader. Here is a character with a respectable career and a PhD for goodness’ sake admitting to not know what he is discussing in his own lecture! But I also believe that with Everett’s writing, there is often a deeper meaning behind just the comedic aspect of a situation. It seems as if Everett may be poking fun at himself or even towards larger ideas like college professors and institutional learning. This is interesting to me as Everett is a Professor in real life also. In fact, he is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California according to google (emphasis mine). If Everett’s own livelihood mirrors that of the character Professor Everett, why would he mock it so?

To better understand this question, I will define satire in terms from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. According to this source, satire is a tool used by writers that wish to use various devices like irony and sarcasm to display the vices of human society. Unlike comedy, satire is not just for entertainment, but for moral purpose that could include provoking a response from its audience to reform the human failings being depicted. From the ironic characterization of Professor Everett’s character as a bumbling and logically incapable man, it becomes apparent that Everett intended this character to be a satirical representation of either himself or the “typical” college professor.

Since satires are generally meant as criticisms of human failings according to the Bedford, Everett must be saying something about colleges and institutionalized learning. Everett emphasizes Professor Everett’s illogical way of thinking and cluelessness in the classroom, leading me to believe that he thinks that college professors aren’t as capable as our society would have you believe. Perhaps he wants the reader to think that of all college professors or perhaps he is merely calling himself out for his own misgivings as he does use his own name for the character. Everett’s inclusion of Professor Everett in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, provides a commentary about college professors and college education. Because of this, I am able to reflect on my own college education thus far and compare.

I personally have found my teachers this semester to be very competent in the subjects they teach and well-versed in the way they teach their students. It is only my first semester, so maybe I just got lucky, or maybe it is because SUNY Geneseo is a college that prioritizes its student’s education by providing the most qualified professors. Either way, I have not had any Professor Everett-like teachers. However, if Everett is commenting on the entire institutionalized education system, I can understand his distress. College is majorly expensive, with even a state school like SUNY Geneseo’s cost going upwards of $25,000 a year. The argument of a college education’s worth is swiftly becoming a debate in modern society. I have heard the argument that a college degree is the new high school diploma and that it no longer sets its receiver apart from job competition. If this is true, college students will be paying more with a smaller reward than previous generations. Perhaps Everett is hinting at this controversy with his depiction of Professor Everett.

More evidence for Everett’s disdain for the college education system can be seen with Not Sidney’s story. Not Sidney never even finished high school, but was able to pay his way in through his enormous inheritance. This implies that colleges are greedy, money-hungry institutions with little respect for the student. Then, when Not Sidney becomes disinterested in school, he quits without consequence because of his wealth. Is Everett suggesting with this that a college education is only necessary in order to get a job and not worth the actual educational aspect? I personally do not agree with this idea. I believe that college is not only for achieving a degree, but for stepping out of your comfort zone and honing your academic skills. However, if our society continues to only place value on money, degrees, and results instead of the process of education, perhaps this is where a college education is headed.

Percival Everett includes a bizarre character to Not Sidney’s story who he ironically names after himself. After thorough consideration, I am confident that he does this purposefully to provoke a commentary about a college education in America. By him doing so, I am inspired to reflect on my own college journey to see if it compares to the one Everett describes. In this way, Everett is successful in his attempt at satire as he is able to get the reader to think about the possible vices present in human society.

Copy That

In the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, Not Sidney experiences many of the same events as the real Sidney Poitier did in his movies. I am confident that this is done purposefully by Everett to produce both a comical and satirical effect. However, there is little difference between what Everett writes in his book and what happens in the movies. Everett takes dialogue, plotlines, and characters directly from the films, sometimes even word-for-word. This seems to be a clear-cut example of plagiarism. After many English lessons about the horrors of plagiarism, I can’t help but speculate about the ethicality of Everett’s actions. I’ve decided to utilize some of my class resources to assess what qualifies as plagiarism and compare what I find to the book.

In a past English 203 class, Dr. McCoy gave us access to the Milne Library Plagiarism Tutorial. This online course allowed the class to refresh what we already know, and possibly learn something new, about plagiarism. While reading the section on paraphrasing, I realized quickly that “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” is full of it. Paraphrasing, according to the course, is when a writer uses another person’s ideas or work and puts it into his or her own words. Everett does this by using Sidney Poitier’s film plots, with a few modifications, to enhance the satirical nature of his book.

Both the movie and the novel start the same with a bus full of inmates and either Sidney or Not Sidney’s “right wrist shackled to a white man’s left.” In the movie, Poitier’s character is joined to a man he nick-names Joker. Everett adjusts this to Not Sidney being shackled to Patrice instead. He also divereges from the movie’s ending where the men form a bond that results in their capture, to Not Sidney leaving Patrice with the young woman and boy they stayed with the night before. This allows Not Sidney to escape and continue on with his own narrative.

These adaptations may separate Everett’s version from the original, however, Everett still copies other parts from the film in great detail. This is evident in the scene where the two men must help each other across a river. In the film, Joker responds to Sidney Poitier’s thank you after they survive the river with “Man I didn’t pull you out, I kept you from pulling me in.” This is almost verbatim to Patrice when talking with Not Sidney after the same event, “She-it, I ain’t pulled you out. I kept your ass from pullin’ me in.”

 The Milne Library Plagiarism course emphasizes that if paraphrasing like this is done without citation, it is considered plagiarism. Everett certainly doesn’t cite the Defiant Ones in his book. The question is, has Everett changed the plot and the plot’s meaning enough for the novel to not be considered plagiarism?  

To better understand this question, I will return to an earlier class discussion about Theseus’ Ship. The Ship of Theseus is a paradoxical situation that scholars still debate today. It begins with the original Ship of Theseus being placed in a museum. As time goes on, the initial wood begins to rot and is replaced by new wood. Once all of the wood is replaced, is it still the same ship as before? Because it is a paradox, there is no one right answer. I might argue that it is the same ship, as it has the same purpose as before. Yet, someone else who is thinking more literally might claim that since it is made from different materials, it cannot be the same ship. Thus, is the fundamental argument of plagiarism in art and literature. If an author uses another person’s work for inspiration, is that plagiarism? And if not, how much of the original work can the author use before it is?

Everett largely uses parts of the Defiant Ones in his novel. Although he changes some aspects, one could still argue that he plagiarized. Everett makes references to other various Sidney Poitier films through out the novel as well, one being Lilies of the Field. We watched this comedy about five nuns acquiring a young, black man, Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier’s character) to help build them a chapel, in class. Not Sidney also happens upon five nuns in the novel, but instead of building them a chapel, he offers them $50,000 of his own wealth. This would be an obvious reference to anyone who has seen the film, Lilies of the Field, but what about those who haven’t?

I now want to look to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms definition of allusion. According to the Bedford, allusion is any indirect reference to “a person, event, statement, theme, or work.” The author’s use of this is often assuming that the reader will understand the reference. In other words, the reference is considered common knowledge. I think that Everett’s use of Lilies in the Field could be considered an allusion. But whether or not the reference is common knowledge isn’t quite as clear. I know that I personally wouldn’t have understood the reference if we hadn’t watched the movie in class. The film was released almost sixty years ago in 1963. So, while it might be a classic for an older generation, it is probably not as well-known by younger readers. If the allusion made by Everett isn’t realized by the reader, Everett becomes dangerously close to committing plagiarism.

After analyzing parts of Everett’s text and studying some class resources, I have decided that one could argue that Everett’s work in this novel is definitly plagiarism. I cannot say for certain if it is because I am not qualified to make that claim. What plagiarism is or isn’t is such a fine line with literature that it is like Theseus’ Ship. There are many right answers and no one indefinite one.

In my opinion, Everett’s depiction of Not Sidney’s life as a young, black man in American is well worth his risk of plagiarizing. At first, when I read the parts of the book that almost completely copied the movies, I was confused. I thought that the replication of the plots was unethical and unnecessary to the plot. After further consideration, I have realized that Everett does this purposefully to provide a commentary on the types of roles Sidney Poitier played throughout his career compared to Not Sidney. From the films I have seen, Sidney Poitier often plays a good person who is put in a bad situation. He is usually at the mercy of the people around him and is discriminated against because of his skin color. He is persecuted against and called derogatory names. These films took place in a much older America, but I think perhaps Everett is trying to say that discrimination of black people is still rampant today. Everett uses the plot lines to further depict Not Sidney as someone who is also judged for the color of his skin. Even though Not Sidney is different than Sidney Poitier’s characters, he still experiences the same circumstances being a black man.

Everett teeters on the line of plagiarism in his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Nonetheless, he does so to create a social and political narrative about black people in America. The funny and ironic novel uses the plot lines of past Sidney Poitier films to bring attention to the inequities faced by black people today.

Plot Twist

When Dr. McCoy instructed the class to produce an aspect of the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poiter, by Percival Everett, to unpack one chilly, October afternoon, I immediately thought about my frustration with the aimless format of the satire. I Am Not Sidney Poiter evades a traditional plotline with each event happening seemingly for no reason and in no particular order.

I Am Not Sidney Poiter begins with an odd introduction for its main character, Not Sidney, where he hilariously explains his mother’s 24-month-long pregnancy in first-person narration, “I am the ill-starred fruit of a hysterical pregnancy…” (Everett, 3). Although unusual, I was able to follow this introduction. However, the novel continues with a quick plot twist where Not Sidney’s mother dies of a mysterious illness by page seven and Not Sidney moves in with Ted Turner, a TV company-owner (not to be confused with the real-life Ted Turner of the same name/occupation). Different adventures ensue from there for Not Sidney, all of which happen in a random order and in arbitrary timelines.

 An example of one such adventure is when Not Sidney tries to leave Ted Turner’s place in Atlanta, and promptly gets arrested, leading to a side plot that mirrors the plot of the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones. This quirky transition caught me off-guard while reading. I understand that part of the comical element in this novel is Not Sidney experiencing the same events as the real Sidney Poiter’s roles in his movies, but I feel that the arrest came out of nowhere, distracting the reader from Not Sidney’s personal plot line.

My discomfort with Everett’s choice of structure may be because I’m not as familiar with it. We read about a more common way of formatting a novel in the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Freytag’s Pyramid is a typical structure for plays that can also be applied to novels. This pyramid was constructed by German writer Gustav Freytag in his book, Die Technik des Dramas, in 1863. The Pyramid’s format consists of an “introduction…rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe” (Murfin and Ray, 166). While I didn’t know what it was called, the format of Freytag’s Pyramid is easily recognizable to me. Its design can be seen in many classic Disney movies like Cinderella, where the princess is introduced, is distressed, must do something grand, then lives happily ever after with her prince. It’s satisfying, isn’t it? When you read a book or watch a movie knowing exactly what to expect? I suppose it is a bit juvenile but I still enjoy the predictability of this format. 

Unfortunately, real life events hardly follow this clear-cut pyramid’s path. Perhaps Everett is perhaps trying to say something about this fact with his non-traditional format of I Am Not Sidney Poiter.

One theory I’ve developed is that Everett is trying to capture the irony of real-life events. He utilizes an irrational plotline to portray events in the novel like they are happening in real-time. If I go back to when Not Sidney is arrested, it provides further evidence for my idea. When he’s arrested, its at an inconvenient time for the plot, and isn’t that how arrests are in life? They disrupt the life of whoever’s getting arrested and throws him or her off from whatever “plot” he or she is living. Hence, this a perfect example of the contingent plot line lending itself to depicting real life events.

If Everett is, in fact, attempting to demonstrate how real life works through this novel, it allows me as the reader to relate to what Not Sidney is going through more. In my own life, there is certainly no format guide. For instance, when I graduated from high school ending that chapter of my education, it felt like a resolution where a book or movie would end. Except, here I am, continuing my life by beginning a new experience here at college! These seemingly never-ending expeditions in my own life are akin to the way Everett tells Not Sidney’s story. So, even though I am not found of it, the randomly-timed plotline does help me better understand Not Sidney’s life.

Everett’s format adds a layer of complexity to the novel that may not be there in a traditional novel using Freytag’s Pyramid. From outward appearance, the novel seems to be goofy, ironic, and entertaining. However, when given a closer look, the text has a deeper meaning. If Everett uses character names from real people and a plot line that reflects how events happen in real life, then maybe he is trying to say something about life with this bizarre tale. He could want the reader to see Not Sidney’s life compared to young black teens in America today. As Not Sidney was basically arrested just for the fact that he’s black, Everett might be hinting at America’s withstanding unfair treatment of black people. This is speculation on my part, yet, the fact that I was able to interpret the novel this way proves that there are deeper themes in this book than meets the eye.

My annoyance at Everett’s choice of format is what started my thinking towards these profound ideas located in the novel. This shows that every choice an author makes can send a reader in a certain direction. I believe that Everett’s choice was purposeful, intended for further analysis by readers like me.

Don’t Stereotype My Dionysus

Don’t Stereotype My Dionysus!

In my previous blog post, I discussed some discrepancies between the Bacchae and Frenzy’s version of Dionysus. My primary focus was Dionysus’ complicated identity and desire for belonging. I want to utilize this post to delve further into Dionysus’ character in Frenzy, and explore why Percival Everett wrote the character this way.

The Dionysus in Frenzy is a god with an intricate history. He isn’t accepted by humans or the other gods due to his unusual birth out of Zeus’ leg. This lack of belonging leads to Dionysus making odd choices that are uncharacteristic of the typical Greek god archetype.

A recurring example of this is Dionysus attempt at sleeping. Despite his lack of need for it, he feigns sleep every night by mirroring his human followers’ actions. Dionysus’ companion, Vlepo, notices this and realizes that he is, in fact, not truly asleep but pretending, “my master had somehow found that quasi sleep again…” (Everett, 140). When I read this passage, I interpreted Dionysus to be interested in human characteristics and possibly trying to fit in among his followers. This, again, emphasizes his want for acceptance, whether it be in the god or human world. I also found it unusual for a Greek god to be so absorbed in human behavior when, traditionally, humans are disposable to the gods.

 Dionysus’ amusement with sleep stuck out to me as a curious attribute of Frenzy’s Dionysus. It is a character trait that is also not mentioned in The Bacchae. So why is Dionysus’ mimicking sleep so important that it needs to be included several times in Frenzy?

One can look at the original Bacchae for evidence behind Everett’s decisions in developing Dionysus as a character this way. The Bacchae is a classic and old Greek tragedy. Being this ancient, many of its characters are archetypic. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines archetype as “the original model from which something is developed or made…” (Murfin, Ray, 24). Based on the Bedford’s definition, it makes sense that an original Greek play written in 405 BC would include some of the infant models for characters used today. However, these character archetypes are basic and one-dimensional, often depicting characters as people with only one goal or emotion. This creates an improbable and frankly, boring character.

Dionysus for example, is vengeful against Pentheus’ town because of their lack in belief in him as a god, so he plots the town’s demise. This is an understandable viewpoint for a Greek god except that it is the only one we see Dionysus having in the Bacchae. This is not a realistic interpretation of any character even if the character is a god. It is also a stereotypical goal as Greek gods are normally portrayed as self-absorbed and power-hungry individuals. Perhaps this is because the Bacchae was one of the initial Greek tragedies and it represents an archetype for later Greek plays and stories.

I think that Everett noted the Bacchae’s quintessential characters and believed they could be perceived as stereotypical and uninteresting for modern audiences to read. So, he created a dynamic Dionysus that is much more complex of a character than the original. His Dionysus is not so much arrogant as one might assume a Greek god to be, but fascinated by his human followers which we can see by his imitation of them sleeping. We can also see this different depiction in Everett’s Dionysus with his urge to belong in the world as I looked at with my last blog post. This way, Frenzy’s Dionysus is not an archetype but a realistic illustration of what a Greek god could be.

This discussion of Everett’s choice to disregard the stereotypical archetype Greek god for Dionysus’ character in Frenzy reminds me of our first class in English 203 this year. Dr. McCoy pulled up a twitter photo with the caption “suspicious pants” above a photo of khakis hanging over the back of a chair. I’m assuming the photo and caption are supposed to be humorous as the pockets look like two eyes squinting suspiciously. Dr. McCoy separated us into groups to examine how we interpreted the epigraph. I explained to my group that I saw the pants as having eyes squinting menacingly at someone doing a suspicious act. In that way, they were suspicious of someone. I expected most people in my group to have seen the same thing as I did. However, Sarah, a member of my group, quickly pointed out that she saw the pants as looking suspicious themselves.

These differences in opinion lead to a larger class discussion of divergence in perceptions among humans. I thought of this experience when thinking about the possible reasons for Everett creating such a convoluted character of Dionysus in Frenzy. Perhaps Everett wants to show his readers that no character is completely as one perceives them and that can’t be represented with the simple archetypes from the Bacchae. For example, one might believe Dionysus in Frenzy to be a stereotypical Greek god who is longing for revenge, when in actuality, he may be a character who is lost and looking for acceptance just as any human can be.

I enjoyed reading Frenzy more than the Bacchae because of the in-depth characters I could relate to. Archetypes serve a purpose as templates for future roles but they are difficult to impart upon modern readers as memorable and engaging characters. Everett avoids these archetypes and in doing so, creates an expansive character that readers can contemplate in more ways than one.

Dionysus was Bacchus

One may find Euripides’ The Bacchae to be an entertaining play, however, I consider it to be insufficient in exploring its characters, especially with the main role of Dionysus. From my limited experience with Greek mythology, there is often a recurring plot line involving unknowing mortals getting caught up in a god’s spiteful plan. This common model matches Dionysus’ appearance in The Bacchae. Granted the play was written with the intention of having actors perform it live, I found the development of Dionysus’ character and storyline lackluster.

Dionysus is first introduced in the Bacchae as a god who seeks revenge on his mother’s city that refuses to recognize him as a god. This is fairly simple characterization for Greek gods as their reputations often include a quick temper and conceited personality. Dionysus remains virtually static throughout the play, with these characteristics. He slyly plots against the doubting King Pentheus, and tricks him into dressing as a woman “Let me see you as a woman, a maenad, a Bacchant on your way to spy…” (Euripides, 151) Thus, leading the king to be attacked by the Bacchant women. Dionysus is likely an interesting character to watch performed on stage, but is a stagnant character on paper.

This could not be less true for Dionysus’ character in Percival Everett’s adaptation of the tragedy in Frenzy. Frenzy begins with listing the various names that Dionysus has, “Dionysus was Bakkos was Ikkahos was Bromius…” (Everett, 1). This invites the reader to immediately note the many layers of the god. This complex characterization continues throughout the book showing unexpected aspects of Dionysus’ character.

Dionysus is one of the twelve Olympians, although his bizarre birth causes him to be seen as an outsider amongst the other gods. The Bacchae mentions that Dionysus had to be sewn into Zeus’ thigh as his mother was killed while she was still pregnant, but Frenzy delves more into detail. Frenzy utilizes new character, Vlepo, to convey Dionysus’ beginning. Vlepo, who serves as his master’s eyes, is shown how Dionysus’ mother, Semele, is tricked by her lover Zeus’ jealous wife Hera and is violently killed, “On the bench where Semele had sat was a pile of ashes…” (Everett, 16). Not only does Frenzy create more detail in recounting the event, it also gives the reader insight about Dionysus’ mother in the process. Frenzy characterizes Semele as a stunningly beautiful and sweet woman. She is innocent—she has never seen her lover in full form and is easily tricked by Hera to do so. By describing his mother and emphasizing the rough start he had entering the world, Frenzy offers more depth to Dionysus’ character.

Dionysus’ morality in Frenzy contrasts with the original character in the Bacchae as well. In Frenzy, Dionysus isn’t portrayed as a villain seeking revenge. It’s as if he returns to Semele’s town to connect with his origin, rather than wreak havoc on the town’s disbelieving people. He still influences the women of the town to escape to the mountains, yet he seems uninterested in their obsession of him. He seems dissatisfied with being a god, yet unable to be truly human or possess human characteristics. He is looking for something to complete him and for what is up to the reader’s interpretation.

 I believe Dionysus wants a place to belong.

This craving stems from his coming from both human and Olympian worlds. In Frenzy, Dionysus and Vlepo venture to the underworld to find Semele. Since he bribes the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, Dionysus is able to locate his mother and bring her back to the living. The issue does not resolve so easily, however, as his mother struggles to recognize Dionysus as her son, “…my eyes have no memory, my heart possess no recollection… My son? You might as well be a column of rising smoke before me.” (Everett, 25) Semele was killed before she was able to give birth to Dionysus, explaining her lack of familiarity with him. Dionysus gives his mother with a new name to protect from Hera’s further wrath, and leaves her in the hands of the goddess Hestia. I assume that Dionysus wanted to set his mother free, expecting to find a piece of himself with her, the same way that adopted children yearn to know their birth parents as if it will give them a glimpse into their identity. However, Dionysus quickly realizes that she cannot give him the belonging that he wants.

Dionysus is a much more complex character in Frenzy than in The Bacchae. In my opinion, this allows for the reader to better understand the actions of Dionysus. I have found that I appreciate Frenzy’s Dionysus more than the original because I can relate to his very human emotion of wanting acceptance.

I am glad to have read The Bacchae, but I am even more glad to have read the expanded version, Frenzy. With Dionysus’ character being more detailed and easier to relate to, I am more interested in the story line. Frenzy adds and changes aspects of the original but all to magnify the original timeless tragedy. 

Isn’t it Ironic?

The interesting thing about irony for me is that real irony is far more sincere than earnestness. To accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it. Utter sincerity suggests a kind of belief that one knows all there is to know about a given circumstance. That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation. Irony is not always funny. Humor is not always ironic. –Percival Everett

Irony. It’s all around us, in plays, movies, school, and relationships.

Irony is especially important in the literary world. This is evident from the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms’ four-page-long definition and examples of the word. The general definition of irony from the Bedford is “a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality.” (Ross Murfin and Surpryia M. Ray, 217). What I get out of this definition is that irony is unexpected for the person experiencing it, and that it is often something that occurs in the opposite way than the person’s original intent. When I think of irony, I think of a humorous blunder of one’s words backfiring against oneself. However, as listed in the Bedford, there are many different types of irony that can have various effects.

 One example is dramatic irony. This specific type of irony is often involved in theatrical experiences where the reader or audience is aware of an important plot point while a character or actor on stage is not. One can see this play out in the famous Greek tragedy, the Bacchae, written by Euripides. In the play, Greek god Dionysus plans to cruelly punish the town where he was conceived that didn’t recognize him as a god. We can see dramatic irony in the play when Dionysus spitefully encourages the king Pentheus to visit the women of the town that have run to the mountains under Dionysus’ influence. Dionysus dresses Pentheus in women’s clothing as a disguise and lures him to where he will order the women to attack him. All this time, Pentheus does not know Dionysus’ true identity whereas the reader/audience does. Thus, it is dramatic irony.

Tragic irony is complementary with dramatic irony in the Bacchae. Tragic irony is when a character’s previous ideas or words end in the character’s tragic end. We see this when Pentheus’ hate towards Dionysus comes back to haunt him as he is murdered by Dionysus’ followers at the end of the play: “… with unending shrieks, fell Pentheus. For he realized his fatal hour had come.” (Euripides, 1110, 157)

After experiencing the different aspects of irony from the Bacchae, I am not surprised that one of the epigraphs Dr. McCoy offered for our class to use for our first blog post assignment is a quote from author, Percival Everett, about irony.

In this epigraph, Everett looks at irony candidly with an alternative perspective. Even though irony can sometimes be a bad thing, as seen with the gruesome death of Pentheus in the Bacchae, Everett argues that irony is essentially human and that viewing life with an ironic perspective is healthy. He believes that irony is actually quite genuine — even more so than utter sincerity, as it recognizes the imperfections of life. He does emphasize the difference between irony and humor, by stating that irony should never “make light of serious or grave and important issues.” (Everett)

I agree with Everett’s perspective on irony. I believe it is true that the only thing humans can know for certain is that they don’t know anything. Perhaps irony is a way of realizing this absurdity of life and accepting it. In my daily life, I experience irony. I may want to do one thing but I end up doing another. A funny example of this is the story of how I became an education major. Both my parents are teachers. Naturally, I never wanted anything to do with the field of education because I didn’t want to be the girl who does exactly what her parents do. But after realizing my love of helping others, especially children, I knew I had to be an elementary school teacher. Thus, is the irony of life.

  I can apply irony to school, in particular, to English 203. Especially with writing, as subjective as it is, one may believe he or she is making one point, but the reader could interpret that same point much differently than intended. I will do my best to clearly illustrate my ideas while keeping in mind another Everett idea, that “it is incredible that a sentence is ever understood.” (Everett, Erasure) It is also ironic that sometimes, when I write, I am more focused on achieving a high final grade than actually progressing my writing skills. I know that this is not a method that will help my personal growth. In this class, I will strive to better my writing abilities to promote further self-growth instead of constantly trying for a perfect grade.

I can tell just by this short epigraph about irony, that Everett is a wise man who doesn’t pretend to know everything, as some “wise” men do. He affirms the importance of irony by explaining that it is not just a tool for humor or a literary device, but an outlook on life. I am looking forward to reading more of this wise man’s works and excited to try pushing new boundaries in the classroom where I will always keep in mind the irony of life.