My Name and My Identity

Leah Harper, Emma Griffin, Hannah Philgence, Emma Pozak, Amanda Hibbard 

I am Not Sidney Poitier, written by Percival Everett, is a novel that serves the purpose of putting a comedic twist on films starring 1960s actor Sidney Poitier. These films include Lilies of the Field, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones. This novel unravels the story of the character Not Sidney, a boy who looks strikingly similar to Sidney Poitier and is continuously compared to the actor. Before his mother died, she named him the unfortunate name of Not Sidney. This name connects him further to the actor he wishes not to be associated with as he deals with the power imbalance of being a rich black man. 

While reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier, we connected the novel back to the film Lilies of the Field and noticed both the similarities and the differences. In the film, we are introduced to nuns from Germany who seek to build a new chapel, as their current church is in a parking lot. Our main character’s name is Homer Smith, a baptist traveling the world. As he stops at the desert where the nuns’ Mother Maria, Sister Gertrude, Sister Agnes, and Sister Albertine are located he asks for water. The nuns end up roping him into helping them build up their new chapel. Homer, the independent man he is, decides to help but expects payment in return for his services. Mother Maria refuses, forcing Homer to try and leave. But, his kindness and care for the nuns push him to continue working and further build their connection. I Am Not Sidney Poiter references this movie heavily, however, Percival Everett changes the nuns’ names. The names in the book are Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Firmillian, and Chrysostom. These are very catholic names in origin and are not commonly recognized in the U.S. Not only do we see these name changes, but we also do not see the relationship develop between Not Sidney and the nuns as we did with Homer and the nuns. Homer taught the nuns English to try to connect with them better, as well as help them connect with others. He taught them new religious songs to sing instead of the traditional catholic music the nuns would normally perform. Homer taught the Nuns how to live and experience life in a way they seemed to never have before, but this connection is lost in I am Not Sidney Poiter. The nuns’ names seem to be extremely religious names to actually characterize them as nuns, but the actual character development that we see in the movie is lost in the novel. The personalities of the nuns in the book are lost, and the character that we expected does not define what we were given in the book. This later foreshadows the end of the book when Not Sidney defines himself as his own person and the character he was put out to be. 

In our course epigraphs, we are introduced to the quote “ I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” written by Percival Everett in I am Not Sidney Poiter. If you haven’t read the book yet, it wouldn’t make sense as it does after dissecting this literature so deeply. We think a proper synonym for this is “CHARACTERS DO NOT DEFINE A PERSON”. Not Sidney throughout the story acts the way everyone else thinks he should. He is ashamed of his name, he is ashamed of the character other people made him to be. It isn’t until the end when he accepts who he is, he accepts his name and breaks away from other people’s definition of who Not Sidney is. 

“I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” is not the only quote in I am Not Sidney Poitier that reflects heavily on the theme that Not Sidney is his own person, and should be seen as who he makes himself out to be rather than the character others see him as. 

“And be yourself”

“Who else would I be?” 

“I don’t know. You might decide all of a sudden that you’re Sidney Poitier. You’re not, you know. Though you do look alarmingly like him. Tell me, whom do I look like?” 

This quote is a scene between Not Sidney and Professor Percival Everett, as author Percival Everett had inserted himself into his own novel. This quote feels as though Professor Percival Everett is trying to help Not Sidney see that each and every one of us could be compared to a movie star, however that doesn’t make us that movie star! We are still our own people, time and time again. We can look and act like anyone in the world but that does not change the fact that we are individuals with different thoughts and feelings from everyone else.  The character does not define a person, is something that is relatable throughout this course and throughout our experiences at Geneseo. We all came in with set characters and we all experienced life at its own pace. Being first-year students, we all had our “characters” defined by our past high school experiences. Geneseo allows us for the first time to redefine ourselves and allows for a fresh start. At the beginning of our course, we had an in-depth discussion about what literature we experienced in the past and we took part in the frenzy mini collab. We discussed how classes in our past defined our characters today as well as how our “characters” have changed since college. To relate this idea to this class, we are graded solely on our effort and “character” rather than on how smart we are or how well we can regurgitate the professor’s ideas back to them. All of the students in this class use all of their different experiences, whether that be our majors, races, or how long we’ve been in college to come to the realization there is no right way to learn or interpret something. This ties into the point Everett is trying to make with the class on nonsense.  The class on Nunsense is also up to the students’ interpretations of their coursework. The students in Everett’s class are looking to their teacher for guidance, but the class is about what they think, not about getting the right answer. This is very similar to the way Professor McCoy structured the class, it is not about the right answer. It is about thinking for yourself.