Final Reflective Essay INTD 203 – Understanding Suspicious Pants

On the first day of classes Dr. McCoy wrote a quote on the board from Percival Everett stating, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood.” Being that it was my first day of class I jotted down the words without really giving much thought to their meaning. The class then broke into groups to discuss one of the syllabus course epigraphs which was a tweet containing a picture entitled “Suspicious pants.” My initial reaction to the tweet along with, I’m sure many of my group members, was puzzlement. Why am I contemplating a pair of pants on the first day of my first semester college?

I remember thinking that the exercise was rather peculiar, silly even, until Dr. McCoy mentioned that she believed all of Everett’s work can be wrapped up in this one tweet. Having never read anything by Everett before, I was confused and a little frustrated. Obviously if these pants are a representation of all of Everett’s work, I felt I must be missing something. I expected, as in many of my high school classes, that the “answer” to the meaning behind the pants would be resolved by the end of the class. Thinking back to this day and revisiting those same “Suspicious pants” has made me realize just how much my mindset has grown.  

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Structure and Understanding

In class recently after reading Body from Percival Everett’s re:f(gesture) Dr. McCoy provided a prompt for further discussion. This prompt states:“Percival Everett’s “Body” intervenes in the blazon form. More specifically, the poems may be understood as arguing/suggesting/criticizing/celebrating/questioning…”

Blazon according to the Poetry Foundation catalogues the physical attributes of a subject, usually female. Everett’s poem Body draws attention to specific parts of the human form. It consists of a unique structure, that uses imagery to connect the focus of the reader’s mind outside, inside, over, under, around, and through with each part of the body. Similar to a tour, the poems guide the reader to the areas of importance and places these areas as the focus of what one must seek to understand. But why this order? Why are we leaving from the neck, travelling to the chest and foot before returning to the eye, then tongue, then nose? As I read through the poem once again, I continued to struggle to find the purpose for the poems seemingly random order. 

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Composite or Whole

Recently, in preparation for class, I read a section of poems from Percival Everett’s re: f(gesture) called Logic. As we were discussing these poems in small groups, I found myself drawn to one particular line that states, “Are you a composite? Or are you a whole, your name, all of you at once, a simple element?” I drew the attention of my group to this section of the poem and one member, Claire raised the question: If two people were to meet as children and then become separated so that they do not meet again until much older, perhaps they hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, are they still meeting the same person? My initial response to the question was yes. Although thirty years is a long time, my initial thought was surely at the core people remain the same. However, a few of my group members disagreed. Thirty years is such a large portion of a person’s life inevitably a person’s relationships, access to higher education/professional training, and social life will greatly impact who they become. It is nearly impossible to remain completely the same and not be impacted by the thousands of life experiences that one encounters. So, the question remains, are we a composite or a whole?

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Abecedarium and Meaning

            In preparation for class this past week I read the poem Zulus from Percival Everett’s re:f(gesture). Dr. McCoy had previously shared that the poem is an abecedarium, which means that it follows the order of the alphabet. In Everett’s poem each page addresses a different letter and states what it “is for.” For example, the first page begins with the line “A is for Achitophel” and the last page ends with “Z is for Zulus.” In a previous class Dr. McCoy had our class arrange ourselves in alphabetical order by name and then asked what the significance of this order meant. As a class, we determined that the arrangement of letters that we consider the alphabet is completely arbitrary but useful in providing order. The alphabet is necessary to provide a structure that remains consistent. A reader can expect that in an abecedarium the text will start with the letter A and end with the letter Z. This led me to wonder why Everett chose to arrange Zulus in abecedarian form. What is the purpose of this arrangement and structure?

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Privilege and Not Sidney Poitier

Recently for my Sociology 100 class I read an excerpt from an article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. This article includes a list of advantages that McIntosh found she received in her own life, as a white woman, simply because of her race. Some of the advantages she listed were “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. If a traffic cop pulls me over or an IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.” As I read through this list of privileges it reminded me of the challenges that Not Sidney faces in Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier. Throughout the novel, Not Sidney constantly experiences skepticism and injustice because of his dark skin color. After reading McIntosh’s article I thought about how different the story would be if Not Sidney had been a white character.

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Nunsense: The Irony of Naming

By: Hannah Smith, Joe Sharak, Mia Sidoti, Liz Roos, & Susanna Dolan

When reading Percival Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, our group observed the multitude of intertextual references to Sidney Poitier movies in his novel. Celena Kusch defines intertextuality in Literary Analysis: The Basics as “The web of interrelationships among texts of various times and contexts, including indebtedness to earlier plots, common metaphors, idioms, and other literary figures, and other influences and repetitions of language.” One example is Everett’s reference to  Lilies of the Field. In referencing this movie, Everett changed the names of the nuns. Professor McCoy prompted us to look deeper and interpret why Everett may have done this. Our group believes the irony in Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a driving literary device. His decision to convert the names of the nuns in his interpretation of Lilies of the Field plays off of this overarching irony by illuminating the juxtaposition between novel characters names and their actions, highlighting how a name is only a name.

Lilies of the Field was released to audiences on October 1st, 1963 and it depicts a black handyman, Homer Smith, who stumbles upon a group of German nuns in the middle of Arizona. After asking for some water for his car, the nuns convince him to fix the roof, and eventually build them a chapel. Smith believes that he will be paid for all of his work, but in the end drives away with the same amount of money he had when he arrived. In the novel, Everett uses excerpts from Lilies of the Field to depict the situation Not Sidney has found himself in. In the book, Not Sidney also encounters the nuns and is put to work right away. While Not Sidney is very wealthy and can pay fifty-thousand dollars for the chapel to be built, Homer Smith has to build the chapel from the ground up with people living in the surrounding area. While there are obvious connections throughout the movie and book, we can also focus on the differences that appear, such as nuns having different names and Not Sidney spending far less time there than Homer Smith did.

Irony in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms is defined as: “A contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality.” Moreover, there are multiple types of irony. Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier is fueled by verbal and situational irony, but it is the latter which will be the focus. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms denotes situational irony as: “…deriving primarily from events or situations themselves, as opposed to statements made by individuals, whether or not they understand the situation as ironic.” Not Sidney Poitier, the narrator, exemplifies this irony by simply living his life, and telling his story. Despite being named “Not Sidney Poitier,” the narrator arguably lives Sidney Poitier’s life to a higher degree than the actor himself. Although the narrator does his best to carve out a life that is uniquely his, originally by attending a college, and later by attempting to travel from Georgia to California, these actions only lead to the reinforcement of his life as a series of Sidney Poitier movies. It is on that cross country road trip where Not Sidney Poitier encounters five nuns by the names of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmillian, and Chrysostom. These names have deep histories in the Catholic church, dating back to times prior to the Crusades. They are all either of Greek or Roman roots, and all originated in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Despite the complexity of their names, the nuns that Not Sidney runs into are from North Dakota. Therefore, Percival Everett writes his nuns to have very foregin, and Catholic names, but to not be foreign to the United States. This is reversed in the movie Lilies of the Field. The nuns are given the names Maria, Gertrude, Agnes, Albertine and Elizabeth. They are not from North Dakota, but from Germany. Despite their foreignness by birthplace, their names are rather familiar, or at least not as entrenched in Catholicism as the names bestowed upon the nuns in the novel. The juxtaposition between the names and birthplaces in the novel emphasizes the author’s use of situational irony as a persistent device in I Am Not Sidney Poitier. However, the name-change is not the only alteration to the nuns that Everett makes in his parody of Lilies of the Field. In the movie, the nuns are stereotypical. They bawk at even the slightest utterance of profanity, and are stern, but generally benevolently-intentioned. In the novel, on the other hand, the nuns’ integrity is questionable, as Irenaues steals Not Sidney’s money, despite his unreasonable generosity. Everett’s characterization of the nuns suggests that one’s given name does not necessarily determine their character. Despite bearing overly-saintly names, the nuns partake in less-than-saintly acts. Similarly, Not Sidney experiences a similar paradox, as despite the denial in his name of his status as Sidney Poitier, he lives the actor’s life almost uncannily. Percival Everett’s contrasts between names and actions for the sisters and Not Sidney Poitier, emphasizes to the reader the futileness of determining one’s actions based solely on their name. 

As stated previously, irony is one of the central themes that can be observed throughout I Am Not Sidney Poitier. By changing the names of the nuns from Lilies of the Field to less traditional, more ludicrously religious names such as Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmilian, and Chrysostom, Everett is able to highlight just how different the movie nuns’ dispositions are from the book nuns. Though in the movie the nuns, especially Mother Maria, are portrayed as intelligent characters, in the book they are much less fleshed out, and do little more than simply repeat “You have to build our church.” While the events in the book might not seem more realistic than what occurs in the movie, I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s nuns are far from the innocent nuns depicted in Lilies of the Field. This can be seen when they, along with Thornton Scrunchy, become involved with the murder of Not Sidney’s doppelgänger in an attempt to steal the money Not Sidney arranged for the building of the nuns’ church. Regardless of the meaning behind the nuns being named how they are, it is just as likely that Everett changed their names because of copyright. Pulling the narrative from not one, but two of the movies that Sidney Poitier starred in was already borderline plagiarism, and changing the names of the nuns could have just merely been another way to avoid the book being withheld from publishing.

Throughout the novel, Everett chooses unique names to draw attention to different characters. Due to his unusual name, Not Sidney faces bullying throughout his childhood and has to deal with the emotional strain of being compared to the “real” Sidney Poitier. As the story progresses, Not Sidney alters his introduction by simply calling himself Poitier so as not to face the confusion. By the end, he accepts the identity of Sidney Poitier when he receives an award by the wrong name. In the final paragraph of the book, Not Sidney proclaims one of the course epigraphs when he states “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.” This statement brings us back to the essential element; that our names do not necessarily determine our identity. When Not Sidney is on the stage he ends the book stating “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.” Although Everett chooses to name the nun characters in his novel after historically moral figures the nuns do not display moral actions.  The idea of naming reminded us of a famous Shakespearean quote from Romeo and Juliet “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This novel shows that ultimately our names do not define our character. Not Sidney Poitier is still not Sidney Poitier, and the nuns are both holy and unholy, regardless of their given names. 

Plagiarism with Purpose

Recently in class, Professor McCoy had us take Milne Library’s Plagiarism Tutorial. This course served to teach us about the different types, and extent of plagiarism. It also provided us a better understanding of how to protect ourselves as writers. The tutorial defined plagiarism as “using the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, and without giving proper credit to the sources you have used.” It stated that any reference to facts, ideas, or data that are not considered common knowledge must be properly cited. As we worked through this tutorial Professor McCoy pointed out the irony that students are cautioned against plagiarism even though many writers are guilty of using the ideas of others without citing them. Students can get into serious trouble for not crediting their sources properly whereas authors, including Percival Everett receive no penalty. As I worked with my group to finish up the tutorial I began to wonder if Percival Everett was guilty of plagiarism.

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What does it mean to be a sheep?

While reading Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier for class on Friday I was struck by something that the character of Percival Everett says to Not Sidney. Not Sidney goes to Everett’s office to get his permission to join an English course entitled the Philosophy of Nonsense. In the middle of the conversation Everett asks Not Sidney “Are you a sheep Mr. Poitier?” and Not Sidney responds, “I don’t think so.” Everett goes on to say “Most sheep don’t think they are sheep. I wonder what they think they are. Pigeons maybe.” They continue their conversation and the idea of sheep does not come back until Not Sidney is about to leave. Everett’s final warning to Not Sidney is “Don’t be a sheep, Mr. Poitier. Be anything, be a deer or a squirrel, a beaver or a gnu, but don’t be a sheep.”

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Conventions v. Creativity in Genre

Recently, in my English 203 class, Dr. McCoy showed us four videos by Demi Adejuyigbe. On September 21st, 2016 he posted a video of himself dancing to Earth, Wind, & Fire’s song “September”. Adejuyigbe has posted a September 21st video every year since 2016 thus, as stated by Dr. McCoy, he has created a new genre of videos. According to Celena Kusch’s Literary Analysis, a genre is a “category or type of literature, such as poetry, drama, or prose. Recognized by common conventions of length, style, form, content, and other features.” According to this definition a genre needs to have a set of common conventions. Literary Analysis defines conventions as “the set of typical features traditionally associated with a particular literary genre, subgenre, or form.” As a small group we were tasked with identifying the conventions of Adejuyigbe’s emergent genre.

In order to understand the conventions, our group made a list of consistencies between the four videos that Adejuyigbe has tweeted. I noticed that in each video he wears sunglasses and some variation of the same shirt with “September 21st” written across the front. His first shirt had the message “That’s Today” on the back and to keep this convention Adejuyigbe always reveals this message somewhere during his successive videos.

Another consistency is that the tweet is always under two minutes long and released on September 21st. Julia noticed that each video begins with Adejuyigbe out of the frame and entering during the song’s introduction. Ryan identified that the song is not in its original form and that Adejuyigbe makes use of a technique called dubbing. According to the Film Terms Glossary, “Dubbing [is] the act of putting a new soundtrack on a film or adding a soundtrack after production.” Adejuyigbe uses this technique to keep the melody of the Earth, Wind, & Fire’s song “September” but replaces all the lyrics with 21st night of September.            

Joe found that the dubbing of the lyrics and revelation of the message are examples of anaphoric repetition. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines anaphoric repetition as “a rhetorical figure involving the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or stanzas.” Joe explained that the repetition of “21st of September” as the introduction to every new line, and in fact as the body of every line creates a Pavlovic familiarity for the viewer, that, when satisfied, releases serotonin amongst other pleasure – driven chemicals to the brain. Our group had agreed after first watching the videos that they made us collectively feel happy and we described them as wholesome. Joe’s explanation helps us understand why. The repetition of the lyrics in the dubbed version of the song releases chemicals in our that make us feel pleasure.

This reminded me of a section that I had read in Celena Kusch’s Literary Analysis. It was noted that “literature is a mode of communication, but one deeply concerned with aesthetics as well… An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing you’re experiencing.” As a group we determined that the video genre has a wholesome, sweet, comical aesthetic which is created in part using anaphoric repetition. This fun aesthetic along with the release of “happy chemicals” in the brain is what makes viewers come back each year to see the next video.

In another area of the book Celena Kusch draws attention to another aspect of the video. In Literary Analysis it states, “Readers often reject texts that follow the rules of genre too closely. Texts which obey all generic conventions to the letter become predictable and formulaic- in a word, boring.” Relating this idea back to the “September 21st” genre, our group looked for the differences Adejuyigbe incorporated to keep the videos interesting. Dr. McCoy directed us to look up the term diegetic sound. According to the Film Terms Glossary, this is “any sound presented from an originated source in the film’s world.” Adejuyigbe adds diegetic sound when he plays different instruments on the screen. This addition to the genre sparks the viewers interest. They are still hearing the same song, but the source of the music perceived on the screen is different.

Ryan determined that Adejuyigbe also makes use of different visual illusions. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary an illusion is “a misleading image presented to the vision.” One example occurs in the fourth video when it appears as though Adejuyigbe goes into a television and through to the other side. Ryan told us that Adejuyigbe most likely used a technique where he moved around the camera while filming to create this visual illusion. Like the use of diegetic sound, illusions are another way of maintaining the viewer’s interest by incorporating a “new twist” to the genre.

Adejuyigbe’s “September 21st” videos have conventions and consistent aspects that make each video recognizable as being part of the same genre. If each video had just been him dancing to the same song every year viewers would lose interest because the tweets would become too predictable. The use of anaphoric repetition and conventions create a positive aesthetic for the videos which is important for their success. However, while conventions are important to make the videos identifiable, there must also be a balance with creativity and originality. The extra elements of diegetic sound and illusion are what draws the viewer’s attention and leaves them wanting more. An understanding of this balance can be applied to all forms of literature. If an author follows conventions of a genre too closely their work is not appealing because readers feel like they have read the story. On the other hand, if an author veers too far, their story may no longer be classified in the same genre and could overwhelm the reader. Therefore, when forming a genre, one must be aware of conventions but also willing and able to change parts to make the story their own.

Knowledge vs. Love

Recently in my English 203 class Dr. McCoy asked us to work in a small group to discuss what Percival Everett is doing for, to, and with Euripides play The Bacchae in his novel Frenzy.  Immediately our group began to examine the additions that Everett made to the original story. Frenzy incorporates the character of Vlepo, whose sole purpose is to observe and perceive for the god Dionysos. A member of my class, Kevin, found that the origin of the Greek name “Vlepo” means “to see.” Vlepo literally exists to see and feel, so that Dionysos can understand human emotion. As a group, we began to question why Everett chose to make the addition of this character. What does Vlepo’s knowledge do to the story?

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