Control and Apathy

Professor McCoy commented on one of my previous posts, Mindfulness, suggesting that I consider an alternative interpretation of Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier. While I had originally based that post on an interpretation of racism in the novel and its prevalence today, I thought more and more about how else this novel could be interpreted.

My mind drifts to the idea of control. I specifically link this term to Not Sidney’s life, his various life events are not choices made by him but are rather occurrences as a result of other people. As readers, we then do not get to see an emotionally invested protagonist, but rather a character who is unemotional and dry since his life’s direction is out of his control. Therefore, in controlling Not Sidney’s various life events, Everett portrays Not Sidney as a restrained individual.

The term control, as defined by Lexico, is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” In this case, through both his mother’s death as a child as well as through his arrest as a teenager, Not Sidney exemplifies the influence other people have on him and how this influence makes him more distant from readers.

The first instance in which control is exerted over Not Sidney is after his mother’s passing. While he was obviously very young at the time and at an age where he could not independently make his own decisions, he was controlled in the sense that he had to then live in Ted Turner’s house and pay ‘rent’ for living there. Even while living in Turner’s home, he establishes no emotional connection to him, which implies that during his upbringing, Not Sidney has a weak emotional support system. He does not learn how to express his emotions, how to feel emotions, or how to seek support to handle his emotions.

“Anyway, Turner showed up and, to the drop-jawed bewilderment of the neighborhood and city, took me away to live with him to Atlanta…. I lived at one of his houses and was left pretty much to my own unformed devices,” (Everett 8).

This example demonstrates that despite his youthful age, Not Sidney did not have a choice in his living situation. This forced living situation is then an example of how Not Sidney emotionally distances himself as a protagonist from his readers. This means that because he distances himself, he becomes more apathetic, where he shows less emotion for the different events and/or situations that occur in his life (Lexico).

For starters, his actual home is the one he is born in, which implies that he has no emotional connection to Ted Turner’s living space; he is quite simply temporarily living there.

Not Sidney specifically says, “to say that I lived with or was raised by Turner is misleading and simply or complexly untrue… I hardly ever saw Turner…” (Everett 8).

Had Not Sidney’s mother not passed away in his early youth and had he spent more time with her, he likely would have had more time to develop a more emotionally invested personality and/or self. In contrast to Turner, his mother made cookies while home, provided him company, and managed a motherly role. Turner, on the other hand, does not even call Not Sidney by his correct name and fulfills the role more of an acquaintance or an older friend rather than of a father. Due to this, Not Sidney’s emotional side stays undeveloped.

In addition to his living situation, Not Sidney’s arrest later in the novel depicts the idea of control. While he could have not been arrested and instead continued to Los Angeles on his trip, he gets arrested for his skin color and for the attitude he supposedly gives. This then became a turn of events in his life, where suddenly a cop’s authority over him dictates preceding events for him, such as being sentenced to work at a farm for a year.

“The troubling truth took the form of a flashing blue bubble atop a black-and-white county sheriff’s patrol car,” Not Sidney describes. He then questions the reason why he has been arrested. The cop then chuckles and says, “Well, fer one thang, sassin’ an officer of the law, which around her is the same as resistin’ arrest. Now, there’s speedin’ and failure to stop immediately when I turned on my light. And then there’s bein’ [African American]” (Everett 48).

At this moment, Not Sidney is both stopped and arrested both literally and figuratively. Literally, because he has handcuffs placed on him. Figuratively, because he was on his way to Los Angeles to escape the bitterness of Atlanta since he had just been sexually assaulted by his teacher and is judged in his county because of his skin color. This getaway trip for Not Sidney was his mechanism to go and connect with his inner self and reflect on the individual he is and/or would like to become. Instead, because of his arrest, he now has to be held as a prisoner and listen to patrol officers who arrest him for nonsensical reasons.

Both his mother’s death and post-living situation as well as his later arrest are two examples that demonstrate the control Not Sidney has been under and how this control has led him to be more apathetic rather than empathetic.