Read I Am Not Sidney Poitier Online

Authors: Percival Everett

I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2 page)

She taught me about Marx and Lenin and Castro and the ills of American democracy and the fall of the Roman empire and about how the British lost their empire because they were likely as not to stand around in sheer amazement upon recognizing that they were not loved by their colonized peoples. She taught me that America preached freedom yet would not allow anyone to be different. She usually told me all of this while stuffing her face with big greasy sandwiches from Hardee’s and greasier chicken from Popeyes. Wiping her mouth the while and sighing, she was likely to say, “This is why I’m big boned,” and then she would let out her rather endearing snorting and loud laugh.

“Multinational and defense corporations, those greedy bastards, they are the real powers of this country,” she said. “The mass media and the oil, they’re the movers, the facilitators. Politicians are just tools used to make us think we have some choice and a little power.”

I was rubbing my shoulder under the coarse white fabric of my karate dogi. A bigger boy had roughed me up the day before, and I was awaiting the as-usual, one-day-too-late visit from my martial arts instructor.

“Ted is in the media,” I said.

“My point exactly.” She looked around the room as if to be sure no one was listening. “He’s precisely the kind of pestilential, poisonous, pernicious parasite I’m talking about.” She often gave in to some inexplicable and strange, but I thought quaint, alliterative urge.

“I like him.”

“You’re a child.”

“He likes you,” I said.

This threw her off. “Why do you say that?”

“He said so.”


“I don’t know.”

“What exactly did he say?”

“He said, ‘You know, Nu’ott, I like that big-boned teacher of yours.’ ” I affected my best, but not very good southern accent. I was confused by how much Betty enjoyed hearing this. “Do you like him, too?” I asked.

“Of course not, Not. That man is the devil. You be careful around that white man. And around whitey in general.”

“Why do you say he’s the devil?” I asked.

“Young brother, young brother, you have no idea. Money be green, we be black, and the devil be white. That’s all we know and all we need to know. Trust me, your big-boned sister.”

“I just don’t see why him being white makes him the devil. My mother liked him. My mother was smarter than you. I like him. And he likes you.”

“Stop saying that.” She reached into her bag for some hard candy and unwrapped it. She stared at me while she put it in her mouth. “Why do you insist on repeating that he likes me.”

“I said it only twice,” I said.

“That, Not, is called repetition. I’m amazed. Really, you would think that after all I have tried so untiringly, diligently and untiringly to teach you, you would know that.”

“You said ‘untiringly’ twice.”

“I did not.”

“Are you saying that ‘you did not’ or that ‘you did, Not’? ” I asked.

“I did not say untiringly twice, Not.”

I didn’t press the matter, but felt mightily puzzled by her behavior.

“Besides,” she said, “you must have misheard him.” She rearranged her big bones in her seat. “What expressly, explicitly, exactly did he say?”

“He said, hating to repeat myself, ‘Nu’ott, you know, I like that big-boned teacher of yours.’ ”

She bit into her candy. I think it was butterscotch. “And why does he say your name like that?”

“I don’t really know,” I said. And I didn’t. I imagined that he considered Not to be an actual name and couldn’t believe it would be simply the single syllable it was. So, it came out
, the same way god became
for the evangelist on the street in downtown Decatur.

One sunny day Turner and I were sitting in the garden between our parts of the mansion and he was rattling off figures and theories about television, not caring whether I understood or not. I in fact enjoyed our one-sided chats and viewed them as important and essential to my education.

“Now, it’s true that we don’t have significant market share at the moment,” he said, “but good old country persistence will win out. It does every time. This is a simple war of attrition, and if we resolutely stick the course we’ll gain a foothold and, well, that will be that. But you can’t show the news and
The Three Stooges
all the time.” He looked at me. “And aw hell, son, who can afford to make brand-new crappy shows, and who wants to? Especially with so many crappy shows just sitting in cans waiting to be aired again? I’ll let the networks waste their money on making the new trash. I’ll take their stale old crappy shows and air them again and again until they sit in people’s heads like jingles.”


“I need a new pair of Weejuns. And I want to apologize again about this abstruse arrangement. Boy that’s a lot of
’s in one sentence. I know it must seem strange to you. Hell, it’s strange to me, this situation of ours, I mean.”

“I’m okay.”

“You ever see that kidney-sick little boy who can’t grow on that
Diff’rent Strokes
show? Well, I think that’s just obscene, Not. Not him, but that picture, that model of the black child being raised by some great white father. I’m not that arrogant. You think I’m arrogant like that, Nu’ott?”

I just looked at him.

“Maybe I am, a little bit. Arrogant, I mean. Lord, I can’t help it. I’m an American.”

“So am I,” I said.

“Well said, son. Society, some like to call it the culture these days, shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of pernicious and deleterious rubbish, the Arnold and Webster model. That’s why I’m going to take over television and air that trash every day several times a day instead of only once a week. That way we’ll all become desensitized to its harmful and consumptive effects by sheer overexposure. That’s what I mean by jingles. They’ll become meaningless and innocuous little ditties.” He popped a stick of gum in his mouth and offered one to me. “It’s cinnamon. Have you ever been sailing, Nu’ott? Of course you haven’t. I love sailing, the bright sun on your face, the sea smell, that breeze running through your hair.” He looked at me. “My hair anyway. Yep, I’m going to take you sailing. It’s a shame about that sick dwarfish boy with bum kidneys, never growing and all that.”

I asked if Jane would be coming along with us on the sailing trip. I had an image of her deck-lounging in a bikini stuck deck-lounging in my brain.

“I don’t know,” he said. “She’s mad at me a lot these days. I think I talk too much for her. I’m not the silent cowboy type like her daddy. Don’t you just hate raisins? They’re too sweet, if you ask me. And they look like flies, don’t you think? Flies without wings. And they’re too sweet.”

Weekly I would be driven into town by Claudia as her big hair filled the space behind the wheel of the Volvo station wagon that had been purchased with my money. In town, I was allowed to ride my bicycle while she did the shopping. I was always receiving beatings from boys with whom I sought to play. It would always start the same way.

“What’s your name?” a kid would ask.

“Not Sidney,” I would say.

“Okay, then what is it?”

“I told you. It’s Not Sidney.”

“Ain’t nobody called you Sidney.”

“No, it’s Not Sidney.”

The boy would make a face, then look at his friends and say, “What’s wrong with him?”

And I would say, I always thought in a polite and nonthreatening way, “Nothing’s wrong with me. My name is Not Sidney.”

This would be about the time the first punch found the side of my head. They were understandably and justifiably frustrated and angry with me. They thought that I was being, if not petulant, then wearisome, but I saw myself as merely answering the question honestly.

As I mentioned, I had a martial arts instructor. Claudia hired him after my third thrashing. He was a stocky Korean man named Raymond, a name I found disappointing, and he came by the mansion every Thursday. This was unfortunate because my trips to town were on Wednesdays. Though he was able to observe the damage, debrief me on the tactics used against me, all of his instruction was lost into the air during the following six days, so that by the next Wednesday I was facing either a brand-new attacker or an old one with new tricks.

“Okay, Not Sidney, show me what that bully did.” Raymond said to me. We were standing on the lawn near the pool in our bright white dogis, he with his black belt and I with my white. “How did he come at you?”

“He was bigger than me,” I told him, “and he grabbed me around my neck and punched me on the top of my head with what felt like iron knuckles and then, while I was holding my head and trying to find balance, he punched me viciously twice on the shoulder. I think I have nerve damage.”

“That’s simple to fix,” he said, reassuringly. I thought at first he was referring to the aforementioned nerve damage, but I remembered that he always said that, and after he said it, I was to be either hurt and/or humiliated. “Grab me just the way he grabbed you.” Raymond leaned over and allowed me to place him in a headlock. I didn’t like that position, A, because of the anticipation of whatever demonstration of defensive measure was coming and B, because his hair stank of cigarettes, some kind of coconut-perfumed substance, possibly shampoo but unlikely, and god-knew-what-else. “So, what you do is you reach over his head and put your index and middle fingers into his nostrils like so and yank the bastard’s head back thusly!” He did so, thusly, which was synonymous with roughly or violently, as he always did, thusly, and threw me to the mat with a hollow and sick and sadly familiar thud. I of course landed on my already-bruised and nerve-damaged shoulder. “Simple, right? Do you get it?”


“Now you try it,” he said.

Raymond put me in a snug, and what I found to be meaningful, headlock and said, “Go!”

But I could not reach over his shoulder and certainly not around his misshapened, oversized, and smelly head to come even close to his red and bulbous nose with nostrils ample enough to accommodate a few fingers each had they been able to get there. “I can’t reach,” I said.

“Keep trying,” he said and gave my head a squeeze and a little twist that incidentally must have affected my spine because my shoulder pain lessened. “Close your eyes and visualize your actions, your movements. Picture everything. Imagine you are me.”

I shuddered at the very thought. Still, I couldn’t reach his nose, and now I was finding it extremely difficult to breathe. I tried to say as much, though I’m sure it sounded like mere gurgling to him, and then he let me go by tossing me to the mat. Rather thusly.

“We’ll have to come up with another stop, another strategy altogether.” He paced. “This is the thing, you can’t let him get you in the headlock in the first place. Yeah, that’s the thing.” He studied me for a long scary second, as if to figure out what part of me might make the most noise upon breaking. “Okay, okay, come at me as if you want to put me in a headlock.”

I did, but it must have looked incredibly silly since he was at least a foot and a half taller than me. As instructed, I went at him like the complete fool I was. He stomped my left instep with one of his turned-in monkey-looking feet, hooked that same foot behind my right ankle, and popped me in the chest with the meaty heel of his hand, sending me sprawling onto the mat.

I lay there and he stood over me. He put his fist in his palm and bowed. “Our time is up today, Not Sidney. I will see you next week.”

“Thank you, Raymond.”

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