I’ve had an interest in English for quite some time, and I credit that to my teachers in high school. I was constantly encouraged by them to write creatively and find my own writing style, and I was usually praised for my work. With this in mind, I was certain that my college English debut would be just as spectacular as the one I had enjoyed in high school. But English 203 was different. Much different. I came into this class not knowing anything about Percival Everett. Or even what the exact definition of intertextuality was. Percival Everett Intertextuality has challenged me to look deeply not only into writing, but into everything surrounding literature. To find meaning in the meaningless. And while I had lauded myself in the past for having a decently analytical mind when it came to literature in the past, the level of analysis this class required was far beyond what I had done. And to match that pace, I had to change. I had to change both my writing style as well as my way of looking at literature.
One of the course’s epigraphs summarized this change well. The epigraph I chose is from Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, which tells the story of Not Sidney Poitier, a boy who looks remarkably similar to the famous 1950s actor Sidney Poitier. At the very end of the book, Not Sidney has taken the place of Sidney Poitier, ignoring his past identity and embracing his new self, almost as if he has forgotten about who he was. However, when he is awarded the title of Most Dignified Person in American Culture at an awards ceremony, he gives following speech:
“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:
I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”
This quote is the final line of the book, and also acts as a throughline for the book itself. For the majority of the story, Not Sidney is mistaken for Sidney Poitier; and when these people do learn his real name, they either respond with confusion or anger, like when he is beaten up by boys in town for simply introducing himself and explaining his name on page 13. So, when he is given the opportunity to throw away his name in exchange for a better one, it makes sense to me that he would seize it. And yet, as he says in his speech, he is ‘not himself today’. Despite the fact that things are better now, he cannot deny the fact that he’s putting on an act. The person who he was for the majority of the book is who he truly was—who he wanted to be. But the world didn’t want Not Sidney Poitier. “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.” The self that he’s talking about is unclear; after all, it is unclear which ‘self’ the people at the awards ceremony want to see, but Not Sidney tries to be the ‘self’ that they’ve imagined. And just like how he alters himself, I’ve had to alter the way I write in order to match the expected level of this class, and college in general. And while this new style that I’ve taken on in order to keep up with my classes has been noticeably better, I’d be remiss not to admit that it isn’t really me anymore. As much as I’ve tried to include my own voice in my writing, I’ve found time and time again that what works isn’t my personal style, but rather these new techniques that I’ve been taught. And through the constant use of these new techniques, just as Not Sidney’s identity has begun to change, so too has my personal style begun to alter.
As I’ve continued to write in both this class and other classes, I’ve found that the line between my old and new writing styles has begun to waver. My identity as a writer has been thrown into question, and I feel that the character Vlepo from the book Frenzy, another work by Percival Everett that we read for class, embodies this feeling. Vlepo is an entity surrounded by mystery who acts as a spy of sorts for the god Dionysus throughout the events of the book. Though he is at first satisfied with his way of life, he begins to become more and more curious about his origins and who, or what, he really is. These feelings that he holds culminate when, after telling the woman he loves about his affections and she instead asks for his master, he goes to talk to Dionysus about his identity. The exchange starts with the following sentences: “‘I have a question about my origins.’ I said. ‘Yes?’ ‘What are mine?’ I felt the god observing me. ‘Where do I come from?’” (113) He is not given a real answer, but this question represents what Vlepo is truly concerned about. He doesn’t know who he is. His identity is only confirmed by the existence of his master, and his identity separate of Dionysus is unclear. And similar to Vlepo’s worries about his identity, I too have slowly noticed that I can’t really define where my old writing style stops and my new one begins. While I’ve never really had a trademark style to speak of, I’ve always had a pretty free-form way of writing. And while my new style feels a bit more rigid, I still notice hints of a freer style in my current writing. “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 even I can tell what my writing identity really is. And my chosen epigraph reflects this sense of a wavering identity.
Percival Everett’s works, or at least the ones that we have read in class, are quite varied. In terms of tone and subject matter, they are often so unalike that they seem as if they were written by different authors. However, the epigraph that I’ve chosen acts as a throughline through each of the works we have read. As I’ve shown, several of the characters in his stories have trouble with their identities, and Not Sidney’s speech is a prime example of this struggle. They are united by this struggle. And I feel that my writing has undergone the same struggle too. My writing has changed so much since starting. I feel that it has become more analytical and more concentrated, which has definitely been an improvement. But it’s different. My writing has undeniably changed. And in line with GLOBE’s (Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education) message that all Geneseo students should have practice in the ability “To reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time”, my epigraph has helped me to realize these changes. The quote not only forces me to acknowledge the fact that my writing has changed, but also my view of learning. By becoming more precise with my reading, I’ve begun to take a more in-depth approach to learning about literature. And this improvement is really important to me.
As a dual major in both Musical Theater and English, I have to do a lot of work in order to keep pursuing both of my passions. There are often times when I’m not entirely sure I can keep up with both at the same time. But this improvement stands as proof to me. It exemplifies the progress that I’ve made in my writing abilities; progress that I’ve made alongside pursuing Musical Theater. And by making me reflect on my progress, my epigraph has encouraged me to stay on my path, no matter the difficulties. College has forced me to change a lot. In the words of Not Sidney, “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.” I don’t think I can ever go back to the ‘myself’ I once knew. And, honestly, I think that’s ok.