Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, "Was my father handsome?"
She replied, "Some might say yes."
"Was he smart?" I asked.
She stared at the television. "Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman's chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?"
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died. (pp. 84-85)
I've quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named "Not Sidney Poitier" although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.
However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a quest story—a search for identity, or one's true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people's perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people's projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, and locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:
Upon accepting the award, he explains that he came back here to try to connect to something that he lost—his whole self. He acknowledges that all these people pelting him with adulation seem to know him better than he knows himself. He feels the weight of these projections in the metaphor of the trophy they've handed him.
". . . [A]s I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone [his mother's unmarked gravestone]. It should be what mine will say: I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY." (234)
He has discovered what Buddhists call "emptiness." When you peel away all the layers of what you may think defines you, you will discover that you are none of those things. So what are you left with? Emptiness. Ultimately, this and death are things we will all have to contend with if we want to know ourselves.
As I type this, I'm reading my sixteenth Percival Everett book. The first fifteen, and especially I Am Not Sidney Poitier, have inspired me enough to steal from him occasionally. A few months ago I finally saw the man in-body at a panel discussion about literature's role in empathy held at New York City's Helix Center (see video of the panel). When I asked him to sign my copy of his magnificent novel Erasure, I told him that my head exploded when I first discovered his work, and his eyes danced. His eyes danced, but as he signed my book, there was a stillness about him. He doesn't move around a lot, or at least he sat quietly during the panel discussion—but his energy never stops dancing. I was not surprised. It was that energy as much as the writing that initially exploded my gray matter.
If you want a possible explosion, read I Am Not Sidney Poitier. I'm almost jealous of my own first experience reading this funny, wild romp with substance whose roiling humor and spontaneously brilliant life energy make the pain both bearable and entertaining.