Reading Like a Writer: I Am Not Sidney Poitier and a Joke That is Not
Percival Everett's I Am Not Sidney Poitier is about Not Sidney Poitier, a black boy (later a man) who loses his mother but finds Ted Turner, has plenty of money and plenty of wit, but still comes head to head, which he refuses to lower, with racist America.
Not insignificant among Not Sidney's troubles is his unconventional name. He's ridiculed, bullied, and misunderstood because of it. Throughout the novel, we hear the refrain: "What's your name?" "It's Not Sidney." "Oh, so what is it?"
There might be phrasing that avoids this confusion, but Not Sidney almost never varies his wording. It's a joke, of course. A joke on Not Sidney that he transforms into a joke on everyone else. Through repetition it becomes something more than a joke, something subversive but hard to grasp.
I think we can learn more about this joke by studying one of the few times Not Sidney deviates from his script.
Not Sidney has been arrested for being black and sent to a work camp. He has the chance to escape, but he's chained to a white prisoner who he's temporarily calling "Peckerwood" (after the location).
"What your name, boy?" Peckerwood asked.
"What? That sound like some kinda girl's name."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Patrice," he said. He spat on the ground between his feet.
I said nothing.
When Not Sidney first says "Poitier," offering his last name instead of his first, it's a small revelation to me. He can, it seems, avoid the usual torment.
I wonder, briefly, why he hasn't tried this method earlier. Is it obstinacy? Not Sidney frequently says true things that he knows will get him in trouble, trouble he's smart enough to avoid.
However, with the next line I suspect it's not stubbornness but resignation and a sort of integrity in the face of it.
Because he can't avoid the torment. His last name is ridiculed, too. (I don't happen to think there's anything wrong with having a "girl's name," regardless of gender. But, of course, Patrice intends it as an insult, and Not Sidney understands his intent.)
But then, maybe, Not Sidney has some luck after all—the person ridiculing him has an actual "girl's name." So the joke has turned. What starts as Patrice ridiculing Not Sidney has turned into the world mocking Patrice.
Is Not Sidney vindicated? He won't tell. His refusal to react is both frustrating and stunning. How should the reader feel about this exchange? And what if the reader misses the joke entirely? To drop this moment in the novel with no explanation is a gutsy move.
However, the absence of explanation may allow the conversation to work on the reader in a profound way. We become as much affected by what is not present as what is.
The exchange is especially meaningful because it happens against our expectations of the "I am Not Sidney" joke. Through repetition and the name's effect on Not Sidney, Everett has carefully planted that conversation in the reader's mind. So when Not Sidney deliberately avoids it, we feel the tension of the avoidance. The "I am Not Sidney" joke has at least as much weight as the "Patrice" joke, even in its absence. The ghost of it is ever present.
And let's not forget—we're not getting the Not Sidney joke. So, really, we're getting the not Not Sidney joke, which is the Sidney joke. It sounds silly, but in a book like this, it's definitely in play.
So what is in this "Sidney" joke? Well, the remark Patrice makes to Not Sidney is derisive of women and implicitly homophobic. But there's also the fact of Patrice interpreting "Poitier" as a "girl's name" in the first place. It's poking fun at a rural Georgian for his ignorance—a derogatory stereotype.
I won't claim those other offenses don't intersect with race. But even with multiple layers of offensiveness, it's not the blatant racism that we anticipate from these circumstances and from Patrice, who is unambiguously racist in other moments.
Expecting overt racism that doesn't appear is similar to expecting the "I am Not Sidney" joke. Because we're thinking of it, it's there even when it's not. So we feel how inescapable it really is.
Here's what Everett does, here and elsewhere. He builds tension, waits, exploits it, and runs away. Maybe he looks back, maybe he thinks: Did they get it? Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe it's not the point.
Instead, I believe the point is that it's there whether we notice it or not. And that is one hell of a metaphor for everything else happening in this book and in this world.
This column is supposed to be about technique—not just gushing over passages I admire. The technique that makes this passage work, however, is mostly elsewhere. It's in all the times that Not Sidney has had that other conversation, all the times he's introduced himself as "Not Sidney." It's also in everything we know about him as a character and everything we know about the world in which he lives.
If you build these things carefully, and if you have the confidence, you can create a moment like this—with meaning and resonance and no explanation. You can drop it and run away and let the ghost of the previously planted information do its work.
Allison Wyss is teaching Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction next month at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.