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.


In communications, there is a term called “self-monitoring”. Self-monitoring means that an individual pays more attention to his or her behavior in a situation. For example, if an individual is speaking to her ex-best friend, she may take more notice of how tense she feels during the interaction. However, if she is speaking to her best friend, she will be more mindful of how relaxed and content she feels while in the friend’s presence. Through this process, the individual can choose to change their behavior if they feel the need to better fit in with the social scene (Adler, Rosenfeld, & Proctor, 2018).

This term came to mind because of an exchange in Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier. The conversation occurred between Violet and Not Sidney. Violet is an African American woman who has a lighter skin tone than Not Sidney. She is also the Larkin family’s housekeeper. At the time where they are conversing, Violet is in the kitchen preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the family. Not Sidney questions her about her opinion of skin color, commenting, “Most of the people in this house seem a bit crazy. You might be one of them. So, here it is. Do you have a problem with my skin color?” (Everett 154).

Not Sidney says “Violet, you and I are pretty much the same color”. To which she responds, “No, we’re not’ she snapped. ‘I’m milk chocolate and you’re dark cocoa, dark as Satan’” (Everett 155).

While a guest in their home, Not Sidney feels targeted as a considerably darker African American man and finds his darker skin tone often the topic of conversation. Even while they are both African American, Violet makes Not Sidney aware of the physical differences between their complexions.

After this conversation with Violet, Not Sidney finds himself looking at the complexion of a few of the arriving Thanksgiving guests. He begins to categorize each of the guests. Categorization “is the act of sorting and organizing things according to group, class, or, as you might expect, category”, which plays well into Not Sidney Poitier’s sudden categorization of skin colors (Vocabulary). He begins to categorize himself and the guests by the darkness or lightness of their complexion. This is an example of both categorization and self-monitoring since he is aware of his behavior in distinguishing between the guests’ skin tones.

Not Sidney says, “I nodded to each one in turn and was sickened that I had been so influenced by my experience in this household that I caught myself gauging the skin tones of the guests. Large Reverend Golightly was the color of coffee with a generous helping of cream. Slightly more cream had been added to Mrs. Golightly” (Everett 155).

Both his interaction with Violet as well as his sudden behavior are ironic since he is typically an individual who is classified on the basis of being African American.

Irony, according to Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray’s The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is “a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality… A discrepancy may exist between what someone says and what he or she actually means, between what someone expects to happen and what really happens, or between what appears to be true and what actually is true” (217).

This occurrence is especially ironic for two reasons. The first, as mentioned, is that typically he is the one who is classified by his skin color. In so many of his encounters, Not Sidney is belittled or is judged by the color of his skin. For instance, earlier in the novel when he and a man named Patrice, a prisoner, are escaping a bus full of prisoners, Not Sidney and Patrice converse about why each of them got arrested in the first place.

Patrice, a Caucasian man, explains that he stole a car and drove the car into his girlfriend’s living room because she was cheating on him. Then, he asks why Not Sidney was arrested.

“Apparently it’s illegal to be black in Peckerwood County,” Not Sidney says. To which Patrice responds, “If it ain’t, it oughta be” (Everett 55).  

Especially in this example, Not Sidney’s arrest exemplifies that he faces obstacles because of the color of his skin. He, as an African American man, is categorized by that under the law and is therefore punished solely because of his skin color.

Additionally, it is ironic since Not Sidney is now the one who is mindful of his categorization of African American people on the basis of the light or darkness of their complexion. When he first meets the Larkins, an African American family, he observes their light skin, which is already one observation. Then, while he is in the kitchen with Violet, he comments on her skin tone. And last, when he is meeting the guests who have come for a Thanksgiving meal, he internally describes and compares each of their complexions to each other before actually conversing with any of them.

As written in my most recent blog post, The Prevalence of Racism, racism is still an issue in society. In applying each of these terms, self-monitoring, categorization, and irony, Everett implies that often times, people of different skin colors and/or ethnicities often perceive others in that sense. Without having had engaged in a real discussion with Violet, Not Sidney could sense that there was an existing issue already because his skin tone was darker than hers, which led him to categorize himself and others. Without having met the guests, Not Sidney used a self-monitoring process to become aware of his mental process in categorizing the guests by their complexions. Without having actually done anything, Not Sidney knew he was arrested quite simply because of his color.