I am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I must remember in future not to read the introductions to a book by another author. It can ruin the fun and puzzlement when you are told everything you need to know before you read the book. It can also highlight things that you might not have noticed and therefore, to some extent, reduced other things. I had no idea that Sidney Poitier films were used in this book but given a twist and would have enjoyed it just as much without this knowledge. Unfortuntely, once I knew that films were involved I had to look them up with a summary so that I could relate what I was reading to the film. Intertexuality is alway an issue with Everett.

Not Sidney is named by his crazy mother who dies when he is 11. Sidney goes to live with Ted Turner and his wife Jane Fonda and their daughter Wanda Fonda. The chapters thereafter describe a series of incidents and events which Poitier finds himself involved in, from escaping from an overturned jail van attached to a white racist, to visiting his girlfriend’s family and finding out that he is too black for them and then when they find out he has money it doesn’t matter, to finally finding himself dead – or someone who looks like him at the morgue. His final act is to become Sidney Poitier and receive an award surrounded by women.

This is a parody, a humorous text that sets out to imitate but subverts film by twisting the stories in an exaggerated way. In fact, I think there may be parodies within parodies when Everett introduces not himself but a character named Percival Everett as a Professor of Nonsense at a university that Not Sidney buys his way into. We even get the character Everett commenting on the feedback from his novel Erasure. I haven’t read this one but I have read Dr No and like that, there is a lot of play on the negative – is he Not Sidney or is he not Sidney? Without Sidney, Not Sidney wouldn’t exist. He would be an absence that negates everything he is supposed to represent. Fiction and reality blur in this book.

I think this book is about searching for identity through a quest. Each chapter finds Not Sidney in another adventure where he tries on different identities. Is he a rich man who donates to good causes, does he belong in jail, is he boyfriend material? Is he a student? In the end, he is none of these although his life has been eventful. Quests usually have wise elders who help guide the protaganist through and over the obstacles and in this case it is Ted Turner and Professor Everett although both speak nonsense in their own way. This is considerable progress from childhood where he never had a friend and was always being beaten up.

In all of the events and as a character the focus is on what we do or don’t expect from a character who is Black. This is a book that tells us that Black people do not have to write literature that is seen as ‘Black’. They can just write literature which anyone can enjoy, and they do not have to stick to the character tropes of Black men. They can be sportsmen, prisoners, very wealthy, donate to good causes or they can be anything else that anyone else can be. Not Sidney tries on all of these tropes and finds that they are Not him.

Other books by Everett are The Trees, Dr No and So Much Blue

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