- Hypervisible Man: Techno-Performativity and Televisual Blackness in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier
In interviews and in his writing, Percival Everett has been notoriously evasive about the role of race and African American identity in his fiction. For instance, in a typical exchange from a 2005 interview, Jim Kincaid asked Everett, “What, for you, is race?” Everett responded, “It’s when two or more people, dogs, horses or cars try to get to a distant point as fast as they can.” Kincaid later asked Everett whether he is “in some way a black writer” (378); Everett gave a similarly playful but perhaps more telling answer: “I am a black writer the way you are a white professor or that man over there is a fat banker. You might point me out as a black writer when trying to betray me to the KKK or the Bush administration. If I get lost and you’re trying to tell the police what I look like, you will say, ‘He’s devastatingly handsome, tall and black’” (379). While of course Everett is in part merely engaging in some verbal parrying with Kincaid here, this statement reveals something about the way that race and racial identification are treated in Everett’s fiction. For Everett, blackness is primarily a visual descriptor, one that is much more likely to tell us something significant about the person doing the describing than the person being described.
Proceeding from this point, many critics who have discussed Everett’s fiction claim that its project is defiantly to carve out space (in a uniquely curmudgeonly style) for African American writers whose writing does not fit neatly into stereotyped and popularly circulated versions of the authentic black experience. For instance, about Erasure (2001), Everett’s scathing takedown of the publishing industry’s treatment of black culture, Margaret Russett writes that “Everett unhinges ‘black’ subject matter from a lingering stereotype of ‘black’ style, while challenging the assumption that a single or consensual African-American Experience exists to be represented” (360). Brian Yost similarly argues that rather than depicting any sort of unitary form of blackness, Everett “re-evaluates expression at the individual level, offering instead a human identity composed of a non-reducible array of significant experiences and influences” (1325). A defiant individualism in Everett’s work puts him in the context of a postmodernist black [End Page 135] literary aesthetic, described by Rolland Murray in his particularly insightful essay on the aesthetics of Paul Beatty and Darius James, which stages “the undoing of communal belonging as a potentially generative occasion” (215).
This focus on an eclectic individualism over rote identification with a communal, authentic black identity certainly is an important element in Everett’s fiction. However, in critical writing on Everett, an overemphasis on his radical individualism results in the overlooking of a streak of pragmatic collectivism with regard to racial identity. We can see this in Everett’s answer to Kincaid’s question of whether he is a black writer: “You might point me out as a black writer when trying to betray me to the KKK or the Bush administration.” While Everett recognizes the fundamentally simulative, unreal nature of race, he also recognizes that historically, racial identity as visual and cultural signifier has had and continues to have real, material significance, a significance that, as he points out with his somewhat facetious references to the Ku Klux Klan and the George W. Bush administration (2001–09), has often had life-or-death consequences for black people in the US. So Everett’s fiction in part advocates for a radical individualism and pushes back against external constraints placed on black artists while also recognizing the necessity for black subjects to work within what Samuel R. Delany has called a “socio-visual system” (393).1 Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009) is perhaps his most explicit elaboration to date of this paradox at the heart of postmodern black American identity as lived experience, whereby the individual and the communal can only be bridged by a performance of identity within and against mass-mediated and often stereotypical popular iconographies of blackness.
My focus on...