What I Am(./?)

Back on September 16th my fellow classmate, Ashley Kupiec, wrote regarding the nature of identity in Frenzy “It seems to me that both Everett and Dionysus are really talking about identity and the pesky question of ‘who am I?’ ”. This idea came to my mind as I continued to read our latest novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. The nature of identity is a major concept in the novel, as made clear by the title itself,  through its clear cut “I Am” statement. The “pesky question of ‘who am I?’ ”, as Kupiec states, also becomes a driving source of conflict, comedy, and philosophical growth in the novel. 

Not Sidney’s mother died when he was eleven, leaving him with only rumors and memories to answer that pesky question. “My history was shrouded and diced and soaking wet with hysteria and contradiction.” (Everett 29). He never knew his father, never knew any living family, and never even knew why he was named Not Sidney. The latter of these is particularly interesting. The first step toward understanding one’s identity is understanding one’s name and if not understanding it, then accepting it. For Not Sidney, this was a challenge. In highschool when Not Sidney would introduce himself by name as “Not Sidney” the confusion that followed would ultimately lead him to a beating. Not Sidney would eventually grow and become a man who would not take beatings anymore. However, Not Sidney would find that his name would forever be a source of discomfort in his life. Understandably, he came to hold a grudge against his own name. His identity had become tied with the difficulties he faced in life. For Not Sidney identity and name were directly related. “I accepted, then and there, my place in this world. I was a fighter of windmills. I was a chaser of whales. I was Not Sidney Poitier.” (43).

Despite the fact that Not Sidney found his identity tied directly to his name, his own existence is also directly conditional the existence of another person. Not his mother, his father, or his family, but Sidney Poitier himself. Not Sidney feels that his identity is directly tied to his name because the treatment he received from his name shaped the man he had become. However, the treatment he received existed in part because of the existence of Sidney Poiteir himself. In other words, Not Sidney’s identity is tied to Sidney’s existence. Not only does Not Sidney have a name that is contingent on Sidney, he also looks remarkably like Sidney. This idea of dependent identity is also shown in Frenzy through the character Vlepo. Vlepo asks Dionysus, their God, if they were created by Dionysus. Dionysus responds, “I might say your existence depends on me, but nothing more than that.”(Everett 88). Vlepo’s existence, in a much more literal sense, is dependent on Dionysus. Vlepo can only be themself if Dionysus exists. In a similar way Not Sidney can only be Not Sidney if Sidney Poitier exists. But as Dionysus puts it, “It’s not much of a life though is it?-representing a thing.” (49). Dependency on name is a key to Not Sidney’s understanding of identity, but it is an unhealthy existence.

Not Sidney operated under this mindset for some time, until he made his way into college and met Percival Everett, his college professor. Not Sidney takes Everett’s class on “The Philosophy of Nonsense” and finds that it shakes his notions of name and identity. Upon initially meeting and getting to know Not Sidney, Everett sees Not Sidney as many people do upon their first introduction to him, as Sidney Poitier. Everett expresses this to Not Sidney. “I know, I know, you’re Not Sidney Poitier and also not Sidney Poitier, but in a strange way you are Sidney Poitier as much as you are anyone.” (102). As Everett comes to know Not Sidney’s true identity he has an understanding that Not Sidney doesn’t have, that a name does not determine your identity. Everett can be objective about who Not Sidney is, in a way that Not Sidney cannot understand. It is through this objective understanding that Everett sees who Not Sidney is. “I don’t know. You might decide all of a sudden that you’re Sidney Poitier. You’re not, you know. Though you do look alarmingly like him.”(123). 

Everett undermines Not Sidney’s fragile understanding of his identity, but for better or for worse, we have yet to see. I predict for the better. Understanding who you are is hard to do when you’re dependent on someone else. Everett in a way is freeing Not Sidney from his 18 year identity crisis. 

Now to answer the important question, who cares? Why is identity independence important to us? This idea is crucial for my fellow college students and I. For many of us our identities have been dependent on our family, friends, and loved ones. Many of us are taught what we like and who we are to become. Now we find ourselves in a situation of almost entire independence. We are swimming in a vast ocean of knowledge and opportunity with no anchor. This is our chance to explore new things, and find out what we enjoy. This is our chance to find out who we are, and who we are to become. There are lessons to be learned from Not Sidney’s struggle for independence. Now is the time to begin to answer that “pesky question of ‘who am I?’ ”.  The only thing I can hope to do as of now, and what I would advise my peers to do as well, is “Be yourself. Unless you can think of someone better.” (124).

I am a writer of music. I am a blogger of posts. I am Kevin Reed.