Final Self-Reflective Essay. Epigraphs and Learning

“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 unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:


 — Percival Everett, I am Not Sidney Poitier

At the beginning of this semester we were introduced to our course’s epigraphs. Then we learned what an epigraph was. An epigraph is a short text placed at the beginning of another text. The epigraph is often a text from some outside source that does not seem connected to the main text that we are viewing. Part of what we learned about epigraphs is that they should make more sense to you after the completion of whatever they are attached to. So in this case, our course epigraphs should have some more clear meaning after the completion of the course. I was unsure of their meanings at the beginning. However, throughout the course all the little bits and pieces from the texts have come together to fit the puzzle in my head.

Following our discussion of the course epigraphs we wrote an essay about one of them. The essay was about what we were thinkING about following our reading of the course epigraphs and what sort of goals we could set for ourselves after thinkING about them. The essay was easy to write, and it wasn’t. The part of the essay that I found easy was being able to write about my opinion, my goals, and being able to write it in my voice. I find that if the essay allows me to write with my own voice I am more easily able to get my thinkING and writing flowing. The part that wasn’t easy was finding my start and being confident in my writing. Because I was slightly unsure about what to write, especially at the beginning, I had trouble starting my paper. Also, as I wrote it I felt slightly unsure if it was even relevant enough to the prompt. It was an interesting challenge that’s hard parts felt like the reverse of other essays I’ve written. During my first essay I focused on a different course epigraph that felt more relevant and interesting to me at the time. However, after coming to the end of this course I have found a different epigraph speaking to me more.

The epigraph I am focusing on for this essay is a quote from Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier. I realized while reading the book that Everett’s use of contradictions, negations, and oxymorons was extremely captivating to me and this excerpt from the end of the book is full of the negations that I love. Furthemore, I feel that I have already expanded too much on the epigraph from my previous essay. Though I love the quote from Erasure, I found that I am Not Sidney Poitier as a whole text made such an impact on me that I can’t help but delve deeper into Everett’s book.

Throughout the semester we have looked at the texts I Am Not Sidney Poitier, re: f (gesture), Lilies of the Field, The Bacchae, Frenzy, and The Defiant Ones. Through each of these texts I believe the epigraph can apply in one way or another, especially when looking at them through an intertextual lens. The first text that comes to mind when looking at this epigraph is the text that it’s from, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. The book follows the story of a character called “Not Sidney Poitier” as he goes through trials and tribulations in his life. Already from the title we notice negation. The character’s name is Not Sidney Poiter, and he looks identical to the actor Sidney Poitier, however, he is not Sidney Poitier. The book is full of contradictory sentences that make it sometimes difficult to decipher meaning. For example, one important part of the story is that Not Sidney is wealthy beyond belief. Where did he get his fortune from? An inheritance from his mother who invested in the Turner Communications Group, a television broadcasting company. This is interesting because she hated television, in I Am Not Sidney Potier she called them “evil picture boxes” (Everett 16). If she hated television so much, why did she invest in it? It made her rich, yet she still doesn’t like or trust it. She believes in books. There is a lot to be unpacked from this small detail. It might show us that she believes that books are more important than television for learning, but she recognizes that TV is an unstoppable force that she can profit from. On the other hand, this contradiction could just go further to help illustrate her eccentricity. It might also be reflective of how Everett himself feels about television. There is no end to the amount of ways you could interpret this use of contradiction, and that is why I find his writing to be so fascinating. By adding the one line about her thoughts on television it gets you thinkING about things from inside the book and outside contexts.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is about the life of the character Not Sidney, but many events in his life mirror the plots of the actor, Sidney Poitier, films. At one point in the book, Not Sidney is arrested and taken to Peckerwood County Correctional Prison farm. When he and a group of prisoners were being transported via bus, the bus crashed allowing Not Sidney and Patrice (another prisoner he was chained to) to escape. They then go on the run to try and find safety and become unchained from each other. This section of the book follows closely with the plot of The Defiant Ones, a 1958 film about two prisoners (one black and one white) on the run from the police after their prison bus crashed. There are a lot of contrasts in the book to the movie. In the book, Patrice is a “Peckerwood Hick.” He is nasty, racist, foul-mouthed, and a terrible speaker. He has a thick accent that is shown to be sometimes incomprehensible in the book. However, in the movie, his corresponding character “Joker” is a more genial character. He is definitely racist, but he’s not quite as raging and small-minded as Patrice. This decision to change Joker from a more open-minded white guy who has a change of heart, to a small-minded southern man who stays nasty throughout the novel gets us thinkING again. It might be a criticism of the way Hollywood tried to “solve” racism in the 1950s through small gestures and packages wrapped up in a neat little bow. It could be showing a more realistic version of the story, while occurring within a fantastically fictional setting. All of Everett’s contradictive choices in his texts are important because of how they get us thinkING.

As we can see, the epigraph’s contradictory aspects have followed us throughout the semester. Obviously, it is found a lot in the text that it’s from, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, but it can also be seen in the contrasts between texts like The Bacchae and Frenzy too, because Frenzy is a retelling of the classic story. It’s clear that a major reason for the epigraph is to get us thinkING and that’s what we’ve been doing all semester. We have learned how to learn, how to unpack ideas. We’ve become so good at it that we came to the conclusion that there is no end to learning. Through this course my perspective on learning has changed and is constantly changing because there is no perfect way to learn. That is one of the biggest takeaways from the semester. Learning is a constantly changing process. All of this can be found through the course epigraph. The epigraph itself represents what it means to learn. When looking at the epigraph with no context you can try to unpack as much meaning as you can, but it can be mostly impossible to understand. That is one level of learning. As you move further and you gain context, you can find more meaning in the quote and have a more solid understanding of what it means. Then you can look at outside contexts that can affect the meaning of the epigraph. The course epigraphs created a lens to interpret our whole course through. Moving forward I will always be thinking about the way I am learning and paying attention to what I like about writing styles because of the course epigraph.

Learning How to Think

In our first few weeks of classes we’ve already learned a lot. We learned how to think and how to learn. This might sound like pretty basic stuff, but it’s actually critically important to not just this course, but to our life. We have learned how to critically think, how to unpack ideas and analyze them more closely than we might have before. One of our course epigraphs illustrates this idea well, Percival Everett states, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean some thing, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.” 

The first sentence “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood.” condenses some of what I said before, the idea that anyone can ever understand each other is crazy to think about. Everybody has unique thoughts and feelings, yet through inflections and common words people can understand each other. This got me thinking about something from our class, The Bacchae. The Bacchae was written around 405 BC. That means it has been around for 2427 years, and we still understand it, we can still study it. The Bacchae was written by people who lived in a completely different time period but it still makes sense. It’s hard to wrap your head around that. This idea tells us a few things, one of the obvious being that language is a connector. Through language we can connect with the past, with their ideas and feelings. On top of that, because these texts still make sense to us it shows how similar we are to people in the past. People were still people then, just living in a different situation. This can be seen as both comforting and scary. It’s nice to think that people have been thinking and communicating in similar ways for centuries. It’s also scary to think about how little has changed over what seems like such a large span of time to us. That one single sentence led me toward thinking about The Bacchae and about the minds about people from ancient times.

In our first few classes we learned to think critically about everything. One of our course epigraphs was an internet meme, something most people wouldn’t give a second thought to. However, we spent at least 20 minutes discussing and unpacking meaning behind it to grasp a better understanding. Critical thinking can make your mind run wild in all different ways. If you try hard enough you can connect almost anything to something else. In my paragraph above I moved from a one sentence quote about  language and communication and connected it to our reading of the Bacchae. These texts don’t have any crossover within them, but finding connections between them is a huge part of what we should do when thinking critically. “Intertextuality is the condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others…” (Murfin and Ray 476). Using this theory we are able to find connections between texts. Moving forward in this course, and in life, I’ll be making as many strong connections as I can between works. This may help me to find inspiration when I’m trying to write an essay, or allow me to explain something more easily. Another thing we learned was about how to learn effectively. We should be learning so that we can teach the topic we’re learning about, not just memorize parts to pass a test. Finding connections makes this easier. As a student hoping to become a teacher in the future this is one of the most important concepts to me. The avenues that critical thinking opens will be extremely helpful to me as a student. I’ve already written half of this essay based around just the first sentence of one of our epigraphs.

The second part of our course epigraph that says “Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean some thing, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.” This part of the epigraph is a little bit more confusing than the first. It almost feels like this second half is explaining pieces of critical thinking. Sentences are meant to be understood. The reason we form sentences is to communicate with others and get our ideas across. What this quote shows is that people often understand each other. Normally when people speak to each other the meaning doesn’t get lost, but it’s not impossible. When people think critically about what people have said, what words they’ve used, it can change the intended meaning. That’s why Everett said “the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.” This makes me think more about what I say. Going forward I am going to be more critical of my choices in speech. I don’t want my intentions to be misinterpreted, as it is possible to do. Part of the way I plan to make my meaning more clear is through consistent communication. The more well I know somebody, the less likely it is that I am misunderstood. I think that implementing clear communication in class will help to keep my intentions clear and also promote good faith.

So far, this course has already been one of the most beneficial to me in just a few weeks of having it. I had never heard of an epigraph before this class but after learning more about them I can’t stop noticing things that would make great epigraphs in future writing. I think another hugely important part of this class that’s more of a theme, is operating in good faith. I find it easy to operate in good faith when I know the professor is too. I have already found myself pushing myself harder for this course and being more critical of my work because I want to meet the good faith expectations that have been set. I think that will be the most impactful thing in this course. A goal I can already set for myself is to plan ahead more. I think that the level of work we are doing can be seen just by the amount of critical thinking we’ve already done and if I’m going to keep up and work in good faith I’m going to need to plan ahead. My main goals for this class will be to plan ahead and openly communicate. These two goals will help me to operate in good faith and succeed.