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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Re-Presentations of the Black Subject

‘As real as the unreal’: Identity and Iconography in the Fiction of Percival Everett

Jennifer M. Wilks


In his memoir Dreams from My Father (2004), U.S. President Barack Obama chronicles his search for identity after the death of his father, ‘a figure he [knew] more as a myth than as a man’. This paper will explore how author Percival Everett confronts and wrestles with raced and gendered cultural icons, particularly representations of African American manhood, from the mid- to late-20th century. In his 2001 novel Erasure, Everett uses the philosophical/artistic practice of sous rature to challenge inflexible notions of black identity dating back to the Richard Wright classic Native Son and recurring in contemporary fiction classified as ‘street’ or ‘urban’ literature. Negation becomes Everett’s tool of choice in his 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, in which the title character, through the simple act of introducing himself, repeatedly denies any relation to his somewhat namesake and doppelganger, African American cinema icon Sidney Poitier. I argue that Everett’s fictional project does not reject race identification so much as it expands (via the partial obscuring and subsequent layering of narratives in Erasure) and explodes (via the absurd vignettes of I Am Not Sidney Poitier) previously restrictive understandings of blackness in general and black masculinity in particular. In work that heralds Kenneth W. Warren’s critical meditation What Was African American Literature?, Everett blurs the lines between real and imagined, waking and dream, in order to offer a retrospective critique of African American culture that also suggests innovative, provocative ways for rethinking questions of race and identity.

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1Whether deployed affirmatively or negatively, the idea of demonstrating racial authenticity by ‘keeping it real’ ultimately functions, as Zadie Smith argues, as ‘a sort of prison cell’, and fails to reflect the diversity of people of African descent (142). Smith’s contention resonates with Percival Everett’s fictional interrogations of raced and gendered cultural icons from the mid- to late-20th century. In his novel Erasure (2001), Everett uses the practice of sous rature to challenge inflexible notions of black identity dating back to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and recurring in contemporary fiction classified as ‘street’ or ‘urban’ literature. Everett builds upon this work in the later I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), in which the title character, through the simple act of introducing himself, repeatedly denies any relation to his almost namesake and doppelgänger, American cinema icon Sidney Poitier. Everett’s fictional project does not reject race identification so much as it expands and explodes previously restrictive understandings of blackness. Heralding Kenneth W. Warren’s critical meditation in What Was African American Literature?, Everett blurs the lines between real and unreal, authentic and fake, waking and dream, in order to offer provocative critiques of how race operates in American society.

2Warren opens What Was African American Literature? with the observation that

African American literature was a post-emancipation phenomenon that gained its coherence as an undertaking in the social world defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation, which ensued after the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction.
(Warren 2011: 1)

3He goes on to argue, ‘with the legal demise of Jim Crow, the coherence of African American literature has been correspondingly, if sometimes imperceptibly, eroded as well’ (Warren 2011: 2). Between these claims and the prominence of the past tense in Warren’s title, one might presume that he is adopting a critical stance not unlike that taken by George Samuel Schuyler in his 1926 essay ‘The Negro-Art Hokum’, in which Schuyler posits that the category of ‘Negro art’ does not exist. Rather than dismiss the idea of African American literature altogether, however, Warren combines Schuyler’s skepticism with the racially conscious yet expansive view found toward the conclusion of ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, Langston Hughes’ rebuttal to Schuyler. In an oft-cited passage, Hughes declares, ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame’ (Hughes 2001: 43–44). I emphasize the word ‘individual’ here because, in addition to asserting that the historical conditions that produced a coherent African American literature, ‘by and large, no longer obtain’, Warren also describes what African American literature is in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement: ‘a representational and rhetorical strategy’ (Warren 2011: 9). This conception allows for the range of genres, identifications, and subjects found in late-20th- and early 21st-century literature by Americans of African descent (a range, one might argue, that has always been present in the field), and it links back to the temporal element of Warren’s thesis. If African American literature was ‘prospective’, looking ahead for the full realization of black civic and cultural potential, African American literature of the post-1965 period is ‘retrospective’, looking back and drawing from the past in a varied yet sustained manner (Warren 2011: 42, 43).

4In the 2012 Modern Language Association roundtable on Warren’s book, responses range from Adam Bradley’s proposition that African American writers have always pursued ‘the free range of aesthetic movement’ that Warren associates with post-Jim Crow literature to Sharon P. Holland’s assertion that, however expanded the legal and political context in which African American literature is now produced, the gender dynamics of the field are all too familiar (Holland 2011: 571). Holland argues, ‘Black literature cares not for the black female body as much as it cares deeply for the preservation of its iconographic wholeness—a unity completed in the embodied presence of a signifying maleness through which the call-and-response to black community can be absorbed and understood by a wider body politic’ (Holland 2011: 584). Still other critics contend that, as noted by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, Jim Crow has ended in one form (segregation) only to emerge in another (incarceration). What reading this discussion alongside Warren’s work reveals is that questions of literary form, representation, and history are as pertinent for contemporary authors as they were for their predecessors and that black masculinity remains a central lens through which these issues are examined. In embracing the temporal play of Warren’s title, Percival Everett deconstructs rather than reifies the ‘signifying maleness’ critiqued by Holland as he parses the interplay between representation and legacy, iconography and inheritance.

5Such exploration abounds in Everett’s work and particularly in Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, whose publication dates effectively bookend the first decade of the 21st century. The novels not only explore how current notions of ‘African Americanness’ impact the lives of their protagonists but also engage the interrelationship between past and present iterations of racial and gender identities. The stereotypes that Everett’s Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison and Not Sidney Poitier confront relate as much to classic literature and film as they do to the popular culture that surrounds them, and both characters face misconceptions as they struggle to define themselves. The weight of iconic African American manhood proves difficult for Everett’s protagonists to bear whether the icon in question is doomed, as in the case of Wright’s Bigger Thomas; suspended, as in the predicament of Ellison’s Invisible Man; or celebrated, as in the career of movie star Sidney Poitier. In short, Everett contemplates what blackness and black manhood have meant in order to consider how the categories are understood and misunderstood in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

6One might also link Warren and Everett in that the questions central to their respective critical and creative projects recall Jacques Derrida’s notion of writing ‘sous rature’, or ‘under erasure’, Warren implicitly and Everett explicitly. In her ‘Translator’s Preface’ to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains the practice as follows: ‘This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible)’ (Spivak 1997: xiv). According to Spivak, through its deployment of erasure and other concepts, Of Grammatology expands the idea of ‘writing’ from mere ‘graphic notation on tangible material’ to ‘an entire structure of investigation’ (Spivak 1997: lxix). Derrida himself first uses erasure when outlining the simultaneous presence and inadequacy of the signified:

The formal essence of the signified is presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phonè is the privilege of presence. [...] One cannot get around that response, except by challenging the very form of the question and beginning to think that the sign is that ill-named thing, the only one, that escapes the instituting question of philosophy: ‘what is...?’
(Derrida 1997: 18–19)

7By investigating conceptions of identity in American literary history and in American society writ large, Warren and Everett move readers to consider why the signified ‘race’ and signifiers ‘African American’ and ‘black’ have persisted in critical and cultural imaginations even as they have repeatedly proven to be inadequate.

8If Warren crosses out and retains the category ‘African American literature’ syntactically through his use of the past tense, the protagonist of Everett’s Erasure calls African American identity into question by alternately ignoring and emphasizing race. The character introduces himself with a description that includes his profession, familial relationships, and hobbies but withholds any direct mention of blackness:

My name is Thelonious Ellison. And I am a writer of fiction. This admission pains me only at the thought of my story being found and read, as I have always been severely put off by any story which had as its main character a writer. So, I will claim to be something else, if not instead, then in addition, and that shall be a son, a brother, a fisherman, an art lover, a woodworker. [...] I am Thelonious Ellison. Call me Monk.
(Everett 2001: 1)

9Through the invocation of the trailblazing pianist/composer Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) and novelist Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) via the protagonist’s name and nickname, however, Everett posits Monk’s racial identity as a Derridean trace, as that which ‘presents itself as the mark of an anterior presence, origin, master’ (Spivak 1997: xv). The paragraph’s closing intertextuality reinforces the idea that race plays a persistent yet tenuous role in Monk’s life. Everett draws upon mainstream (read: white) American culture with his allusion to the opening line of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale: Melville’s ‘Call me Ishmael’ becomes Everett’s ‘Call me Monk’, his itinerant 19th-century white sailor, a peripatetic 21st-century black writer (Melville 1998: 1). Through this juxtaposition, Everett indicates how race, although not the primary means through which Monk self-identifies, nonetheless remains an omnipresent force in the character’s life, one that prompts his own geographic and existential wanderings.

10The predominance of race as a structural element in U.S. society both fixes Monk to preconceived notions of blackness and sets him adrift when he fails to live up to said ideas. As a result, Monk finds himself jostled between the extremes of being inescapably black or insufficiently so. Monk’s account of his phenotype places him squarely in the former category: ‘I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona, and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race’ (1). Culturally, economically, and socially, however, the character consistently reads as ‘not black enough’ (emphasis in original, 2). ‘ [F] airly athletic’ but ‘no good at basketball’ (1), Monk hails from an upper-middle-class home in Washington, DC and has a penchant for ‘writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists’ (2). Rather than read the character’s resigned attitude toward race as a desire to reject blackness, I trace his position to the vexed topic of racial authenticity. In keeping with Zadie Smith’s argument about the dangers of essentialism, Monk does not wish for ‘African Americanness’ to be the defining element of his identity because, as conventionally understood, the category cannot accommodate the complexities or particularities of his life. His individuality is erased when others judge him based solely on his phenotype, and, likewise, the validity of his experience is dismissed when others find his background incongruent with their understanding of ‘blackness’.

11Lingering, limited notions of race not only exacerbate Monk’s social awkwardness but also threaten his professional life. His aforementioned passion for esoteric topics keeps his books well away from bestseller lists, and a publishing insider advises him to ‘settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life’ (2). Bitterly aware that neither his inability to dance nor his literary taste cancels out the fact of his blackness (to paraphrase Frantz Fanon), Monk rejects the implicit yet no less cruel charge of inauthenticity: ’I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one’ (emphasis in original, 2). The market forces behind the insider’s advice become apparent when Monk visits a bookstore with his sister Lisa; he discovers that his books are shelved in the African American Studies section although ‘the only thing ostensibly African American’ about them ‘ [is his] jacket photograph’ (28). Race is not only predetermining the way in which his books are sold but also, because Monk doubts that ‘ [s]omeone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy’ would search in African American Studies, ‘taking food from [his] table’ (28). His outrage raises the question of whether his books sell poorly because they do not appeal to a broad audience or whether they do so because diverse audiences are unlikely to find them in segregated bookstore sections.

12Everett brings the issues of racial identities and literary legacies together via Monk’s antagonistic relationship with a figure whose work holds place of prominence in the store and in the novel’s cultural zeitgeist: ‘Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of the runaway bestseller, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto’ (28). From its store placement to its author’s promotional tour, the book is celebrated as representative of ‘typical Black life’ (39). What repulses Monk more than the market trends driving Jenkins’ success is the way in which such forces continually limit people of color to circumscribed roles. In a plot that recalls the actual bestseller Push, published by Sapphire in 1996 and adapted into the Oscar-winning film Precious in 2009, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto features an African American protagonist who is an impoverished, unwed teenaged mother who must contend with her mother’s drug addiction and brother’s tragic death. The problem lies not in the fact that Jenkins writes about poor African Americans who live in inner cities, for Monk does not channel the Harlem Renaissance-era critics, W.E.B. Du Bois among them, who balked at depictions of the ‘low-down’ aspects of black lives (Hughes 2001: 41). On the contrary, as critic Brian Yost notes, it is the singularity and narrowness of vision that disturbs Jenkins’ fellow writer: ‘ [her] characters help only to further the existence of a singular experience which is unavoidably—though intentionally—identifiable with an entire community of people, one from which none may escape and one which does not allow for intelligent, thoughtful, or responsible individuals’ (Yost 2008: 1327). Jenkins’ gaze in We’s Lives in Da Ghetto would seem to be retrospective not in the sense of critically revisiting the past but in that of trading on fixed, outdated notions of African American experiences.

13Everett conveys this distinction by indicating the problematic nature of other elements of Jenkins’ rise to fame and fortune. In addition to reviewers’ conclusions that a monolithic, mythical ‘Black America’ is the only site in which an urban underclass can exist, Jenkins’ comments about her fiction suggest a lack of both craft and contemplation. During a televised tête-à-tête with the Oprah-esque Kenya Dunston, Jenkins reveals that she hails from Akron, Ohio, and that she based her novel on a childhood visit with ‘some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days’ (53). In the folksy, affirmative atmosphere of Dunston’s show, there is no space for either weighing the veracity of Jenkins’ depictions or considering her apparently uncritical use of first-person plural pronouns when speaking of ‘our people’ and ‘our stories’ (53). Consequently, the progressive implication that the work of a writer of color is not always already autobiography is undercut by the assertion that one need only spend a few days among underprivileged African Americans to understand their lives. That there is money to be made in such endeavors becomes clear when the topic of selling the book’s film rights arises: “‘Why shouldn’t we get some of that good money, chile,” Ms. Jenkins said’ (emphasis in original, 54). Not only is the middle-class author presuming to speak for working-class African Americans; she is also prepared to profit from her position, legitimate or illegitimate, as cultural spokesperson.

14Monk’s reactions to his newfound nemesis become the means through which Everett develops a retrospective turn more attuned to that described by Warren. Monk’s reasons for disliking Jenkins so intensely recall James Baldwin’s withering evaluation of Richard Wright in his essay ‘Many Thousands Gone’ (1951). Baldwin argues that Native Son (1940), a bestseller in its day, follows the prevailing trend of presenting the African American as a ‘cipher’ rather than a fully developed human being; in his reading, ‘Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people—in this respect, perhaps, he is most American—and his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth’ (Baldwin 1984: 34–35). Similarly, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto enrages Monk because he believes that it does not depict urban African American lives honestly but instead perpetuates negative stereotypes: ‘ [T] his book was a real slap in the face. It was like strolling through an antique mall, feeling good, liking the sunny day and then turning the corner to find a display of watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings and a pyramid of Mammy cookie jars’ (29). Later in the novel, the sight of Jenkins’ novel precipitates the end of Monk’s fledgling relationship with love interest Marilyn. When she dismisses the novel as ‘ [l]ightweight stuff, but [...] fun’, Monk responds with the pointed question,”’Have you ever known anybody who talks like they do in that book?”’ (188). The ensuing breakup can be partially attributed to Monk’s history of failed relationships, but Everett indicates that, while the character’s lack of romantic prowess is important, it is not as significant as Marilyn’s casual attitude toward Jenkins’ work. Monk can no longer respect a woman who, although accomplished and intelligent, refuses to think carefully about work being presented as ‘African American literature’.

15 My Pafology, the parodic novella that Everett embeds within Erasure, further develops the theme of vexed literary inheritances. When Jenkins’ near omnipresence produces a persistent psychosomatic pain, Monk churns out My Pafology to exorcise his literary demon. For the work that disgusts him and scares his agent, Monk adopts the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, an allusion to the legend of Stagger Lee, the African American folk hero immortalized in song as ‘the baddest nigger that ever lived’ (Brown 2003: 208). The choice is tragicomic in that (1) no one comments on Monk’s folkloric joke and (2) the bookish, introspective Monk seems to be the polar opposite of his alter ego’s namesake. Indeed, derision is the prevailing emotion in the primary scenes in which Monk participates in or faces physical altercation. Everett sets the first confrontation at an academic conference, where Monk’s paper drives a fellow attendee to throw his keys and shout, ‘You bastard!’ (17). The scene derives its ridiculousness from the fact that the stakes (differing positions on poststructuralism) are minimal and the weapon (keys) relatively harmless. While the second episode, a diner encounter in which Monk defends two gay French men, involves higher stakes (the rejection of homophobia), wry humor again prevails. The men whom he volunteers to protect are ‘huge, six-eight and better’, and clearly capable of physically defending themselves (47). Nonetheless, Monk’s interlocutors fail to appreciate his pointed citation of African American folklore: from his dumbfounded agent to his fascinated editor to the indomitable Kenya Dunston, who lands the author of My Pafology as a guest, no one comments on the similarity between ‘Stagg R. Leigh’ and ‘Stagger Lee’.

16Monk’s creation and embodiment of Stagg also conjures two towering figures in (African) American literary history—Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Ellison’s Invisible Man, cultural referents that go similarly unnoticed by the lay and professional readers in Erasure. For all the attention that Monk/Stagg’s ‘awful little book’ attracts, there is no mention of the fact that its plot comes straight from Wright’s Native Son (137). Like Bigger Thomas, My Pafology’s Van Go Jenkins accepts a job with the wealthy Dalton family, endures a voyeuristic excursion to his working-class neighborhood with his employer’s daughter and her boyfriend, and faces the consequences of assaulting the daughter. Monk/Stagg updates Wright’s mid-century narrative by setting My Pafology in Los Angeles, making the Daltons African American, and filtering Van Go’s flight and capture through the lens of late 20th-century cultural touchstones: the character appears on a talk show reminiscent of television programs such as Jenny Jones and Maury Povich, and a televised car chase à la O.J. Simpson precedes Van Go’s arrest. Yet these references, historical and contemporary, elude everyone, including Monk’s colleagues on the Book Award selection committee. Native Son is simultaneously present and absent, invoked in Monk’s attempt to ask what constitutes African American literature and ignored in Stagg’s readers’ desire to consume stereotypical ‘blackness’. The other Book Award committee members not only fail to critique My Pafology as derivative of Wright or even Jenkins; they go so far as to describe the work as ‘the truest novel [they’ve] ever read’ (261). The literary and historical legacies that infuse Monk’s literary prank and, whether acknowledged or not, inform Jenkins’ work, prove to be both inescapable and underappreciated.

17This apparent conundrum—that which cannot be escaped is also that which cannot be acknowledged—returns one to the erasure evoked by Everett’s title and practiced within his novel, and it is to questions of impossibility and deletion that I now turn to conclude this admittedly brief reading of Erasure. In one of the fantastic interludes found throughout the novel’s framing narrative, artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) explains the creation of his 1953 piece Erased de Koonig Drawing to colleague Willem de Koonig (1904-1997):

  • 1 ‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Collection Online, Guggenheim Museum, web, 15 June 2013, (...)

Rauschenberg: Well, it took me forty erasers, but I did it.
de Kooning: Did what?
Rauschenberg: Erased it. The picture you drew for me.
de Kooning: You erased my picture?
Rauschenberg: Yes.
de Kooning: Where is it?
Rauschenberg: Your drawing is gone. What remains is my erasing and the paper which was mine to begin with.1

18As Rauschenberg has erased de Kooning’s drawing, so Monk has erased We’s Lives in Da Ghetto in an attempt to protest its success. The latter’s erasure backfires because the ‘ill-[formed] thing’ that is Jenkins’ novel escapes his critical acumen (Derrida 1997: 19). Rather than challenging the racist ideologies that limit African Americans to certain preconceived roles, Monk appears to erase—and trap—himself. When Stagg R. Leigh wins the Book Award, it is unclear if Monk walks to the podium as himself or as his parodic, ridiculous, and monstrous creation; in a hallucinatory haze, Monk recounts,

The faces of my life, of my past, of my world became as real as the unreal Harnet and the corporations and their wives and they were all talking to me, saying lines from novels that I loved, but when I tried to repeat them to myself, I faltered, unable to recall them. Then there was a small boy, perhaps me as a boy, and he held up a mirror so that I could see my face and it was the face of Stagg Leigh.

  • 2 Ellison’s protagonist adopts a disguise that prompts others to believe he is Rinehart, a Harlem eva (...)

19The conflation of Monk’s real and fantastic worlds suggests that his earlier concern about managing his alter ego is well founded: as with Ellison’s Invisible Man, Monk is not only mistaken for someone else but also poised to ‘disappear, like down a hole’ (162).2 Everett leaves the question of which self, real or unreal, prevails by concluding the novel with the Isaac Newton pronouncement ‘hypotheses non fingo’, or ‘I feign [frame] no hypotheses’ (265). Monk, like the Invisible Man, is suspended between worlds, between the real lives behind racial stereotypes and that which Ellison calls ‘the beautiful absurdity of [...] American identit[ies]’ (559).

20In the 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Everett shifts his focus from literary outcasts who linger, however elliptically, in the cultural imagination to celebrated icons whose presence proves to be just as troublesome. As the novel’s title suggests, celebrated actor Sidney Poitier and his name are the signified and signifier that are continually uttered and erased throughout Everett’s story. The protagonist is a young African American man whose given name is ‘Not Sidney’ and whose family name is ‘Poitier’. The appellation transforms the act of (self) introduction from a mere matter of revelation into a complex negotiation of frustration as Not Sidney repeatedly finds himself correcting or reassuring confused interlocutors. An early exchange with his college roommate captures his dilemma:

Morris laughed when I told him my name. ‘What kind of stupid-ass name is
Not?’ he said.
‘My name is Not Sidney’.
‘Excuse me, Not Sidney. I’ll say you’re not Sidney’.
[...] He had said what probably everyone else meant to say but couldn’t come up with, or wouldn’t. He had pointed out to me that not only was I Not Sidney Poitier, but also that I was not Sidney Poitier [...].
(Everett 2009: 92)

21Everett further complicates matters by indicating that Not Sidney cannot in fact deny having a connection to his namesake. His single mother dies without revealing his father’s identity, and, by the time the orphaned Not Sidney reaches young adulthood, his appearance prompts a number of people to observe that he ‘look[s] like that Sidney Poitier’ (125). This resemblance introduces a third interpretive possibility, one that exists between separation and sameness and that resonates with the earlier discussion of literary iconography in Erasure: what if Everett’s character, in spite and because of his name, is the cultural (if not biological) heir of the real-world Sidney Poitier? What if Not Sidney’s story can only be understood if filtered through the career of the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role? Is being measured against a positive stereotype (the exemplary African American) any less limiting than being assessed via a negative one (the ‘bad’ Negro)?

  • 3 Indeed, one of the most popular American television comedies of the late-twentieth century was base (...)

22 I Am Not Sidney Poitier poses these questions both implicitly, through the extraordinary circumstances of Not Sidney’s upbringing, and explicitly, through the fantastic adventures upon which the character embarks in his search for self. His mother’s premature death leaves Not Sidney in the custody of media mogul Ted Turner, who steps in to care for the orphan because of Portia Poitier’s ‘substantial investment’ in the company that would become Turner Broadcasting System (8). Not Sidney’s comfortable if awkward childhood recalls the sociopolitical contours of Sidney Poitier’s career; while Poitier’s talent brought him fame and wealth, it could not erase the racial barriers still prevalent in Hollywood. As historian Aram Goudsouzian writes, ‘Poitier expressed everything that blacks could be: noble, intelligent, proud. He also expressed everything that blacks could not be: resentful of racism, sexually charged, justified of eye-for-an-eye violence’ (emphasis in original, 380). Similarly, Not Sidney is raised under Turner’s tutelage but not in his home. Although Not Sidney is ‘extremely wealthy as a result of [his] mother’s business acumen’, neither he nor Turner can discount the problematic dynamics—clichéd at best, paternalistic at worst—of ‘the scenario of the do-gooding white man taking in the poor little black child’ (8).3 Much like many of Sidney Poitier’s characters, Not Sidney is living an American Dream that is incomplete because it does not bring full, unconditional integration.

23Race also impedes Not Sidney’s access to Turner’s brand of iconic white American manhood. It is the inaccurate, insistent signified that lingers in Not Sidney’s life as it does in Monk’s. Consequently, contrary to the yacht-sailing, cigar-smoking, game-hunting lifestyle of his guardian, Not Sidney’s coming-of-age experiences mirror the plots of Poitier films, which provide the waking and dream backdrops for key stages in Not Sidney’s maturation: his departure from his adopted home in Atlanta, his pursuit of higher education at the renowned historically black men’s college Morehouse, and his eventual return to his birthplace in Los Angeles. Initially, Everett weaves these scenes into the narrative quite seamlessly; for example, it is only several pages into the account of Not Sidney’s arrest in rural Georgia that the citation of the interracial prison-break classic The Defiant Ones (1958) becomes apparent. When the bus on which Not Sidney is being transported crashes, his white ‘shackle mate’ insists that they try to escape: ‘And so we ran. Without looking back. Without looking at each other. We roughly yanked each other this way and that, not thinking about destination or even direction, moving only to put distance between the wreckage, the guards, the cops, and ourselves’ (52, 53). Everett splices an element of A Patch of Blue (1965)—a young woman blinded by her mother and unaware that Not Sidney is black—into the episode for good measure (72). As the novel progresses, Everett increasingly reveals the seams of his narrative grafts in order to expose how black identities in general and black masculinity in particular have been over-determined by media and literary icons. Not Sidney is unable to lead an uninterrupted, fully autonomous life because race, however different its 21st-century variants may be from the 20th-century iterations battled by Sidney Poitier, remains a contending force in American social relations.

  • 4 Although I do not have space to explore the connection in this essay, it is worth noting that U.S. (...)

24Not Sidney’s brief enrollment at Morehouse College reinforces the absurd, restrictive consequences of iconography. In that vein, Everett uses the convocation scene to satirize uncritical venerations of the ‘successful’, black, middle-class masculinity that Sidney Poitier came to embody. An administrator inadvertently mocks the myth of the ‘Morehouse Man’, like Poitier held up as a positive role model, through the artless repetition that peppers his opening remarks: ‘” Men, special men, men of our race, men of our future, our future men, our future, manly men, men men, Morehouse men, we gather here today to celebrate a mission”’ (95). His comments are followed by those of a fictional Bill Cosby, who delivers an address reminiscent of the real Cosby’s speech at a 2004 NAACP event.4 As at the actual commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision desegregating U.S. schools, Everett’s ‘Cosby’ chastises young black men and the black working class through references to urban fashion, single parenthood, and dessert. His admonition echoes college president Dr. Bledsoe’s lecture to Invisible Man: “‘What has happened to you young Negroes? I thought you had caught on to how things are done”’ (Ellison 1995: 142). Unlike his real counterpart and Ellison’s character, the fictional Cosby acknowledges the frailty of his moral superiority: ‘” I sell Pudding Pops for the white man. I don’t know why I’m saying that, but I am. I make myself sick, but the white man is not to blame”’ (96). As ‘Cosby’ continues, he punctuates his delivery with random exclamations of ‘Pound cake’ and ‘Pudding Pops! ’ (97), ultimately rendering his speech as nonsensical as that of the administrator before him. It is only fitting, then, that the most memorable part of Not Sidney’s academic experience at Morehouse is ‘an upper-division English course titled the Philosophy of Nonsense taught by some guy named Percival Everett’ (87). For the model black masculinity represented by Sidney Poitier and preached by Everett’s characters and Ellison’s Dr. Bledsoe is, ultimately, no more forgiving than the troubled manhood incarnated in Bigger Thomas and Invisible Man.

  • 5 Sidney Poitier received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ 2001 Honorary Award for life (...)

25Given Everett’s ongoing project of interrogating restrictive notions— positive and negative—of African American identity, it is appropriate that Not Sidney and Monk’s respective journeys conclude in similar fashions. Whereas Monk finds himself trapped between his rapidly retreating actual identity and his popularly acclaimed alter ego at the Book Award Ceremony, Not Sidney returns to Los Angeles only to be mistaken for Sidney Poitier, ushered to an event resembling the Oscars, and presented with the ‘award for Most Dignified Figure in American Culture’ (234).5 Although Monk does not offer an explanation for his predicament, Not Sidney ventures a hypothesis in his acceptance speech, which indicts the audience and, by extension, society, for his over-determined identity: ‘” It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself”’ (234). In his brilliant examinations of literary erasure and cultural iconography, Percival Everett suggests that the most constructive way to approach issues of race and identity is not only to rephrase Warren’s foundational question (What was African American literature?) in the present tense but also to recast it in the negative rather than positive form. In other words, it is less useful to ask what African American literature or identity is than it is to discern what it is not: reductive, uniform, or in any way lacking the depth and diversity that characterize all human lives.


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. ‘Many Thousands Gone’, in Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984; 24–45.

Bradley, Adam. ‘Our Mayan Prophecy’. MLA Roundtable: Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium. African American Review 44: 4 (2011): 570–573.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1976. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage International, 1995.

Everett, Percival. Erasure. 2001. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2011.

Everett, Percival. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Holland, Sharon P. ‘Leaving WAS Behind’. MLA Roundtable: Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium. African American Review 44: 4 (2011): 582–584.

Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1926), in Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001; 40–44.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.

Smith, Zadie. ‘Speaking in Tongues’, in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. New York: Penguin, 2009; 132–148.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997; ix-lxxxvii.

Warren, Kenneth W. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1993.

Yost, Brian. ‘THE CHANGING SAME: The Evolution of Racial Self-Definition and Commercialization’. Callaloo 31: 4 (2008): 1314–1334. Web. Project Muse. Accessed on 6 August 2013.


1 ‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Collection Online, Guggenheim Museum, web, 15 June 2013, ‘Willem de Kooning’, Collection Online, Guggenheim Museum, web, 15 June 2013,

2 Ellison’s protagonist adopts a disguise that prompts others to believe he is Rinehart, a Harlem evangelist/gangster; Monk dons one for his public appearances as Stagg.

3 Indeed, one of the most popular American television comedies of the late-twentieth century was based on this very premise. Diff’rent Strokes (1978-1985) followed what happened when the wealthy, white Phillip Drummond adopted Arnold and Willis Jackson, two black boys whose deceased mother had worked as his housekeeper.

4 Although I do not have space to explore the connection in this essay, it is worth noting that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College in May 2013 and that he also drew fire for critiquing African Americans too harshly.

5 Sidney Poitier received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ 2001 Honorary Award for lifetime achievement.


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