Names and Presumption

by; Shelagh Neeley, Audrey Minton, Molly Brown,Hailey Cullen, and Kevin Reed

In our English 203 class, we recently viewed the film Lilies of the Field. The film follows a black man, Homer Smith, who is driving through rural Arizona when he comes across a small farm where nuns are working. There are five nuns in total; Sister Gertrude, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Agnes, Sister Albertine, and head nun, Mother Maria. He stops and asks them for water to fill his car. Once he does so,  Mother Maria abruptly asks him to fix the roof of their home and Homer hesitantly agrees. When he finishes the roof, Mother Maria insists he stays the night. She claims that God sent Homer to the nuns to build them a chapel. Instead of leaving, Homer agrees. During this process, the nuns offer hospitality, and show Smith their care for the community in which they reside. These women exhibit a saintly nature with their initiative to build the community a chapel. The names Sister Gertrude, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Agnes, and Sister Albertine reflect the same kind nature as their character suggests.  The only nun that is rude and aloof to Smith is Mother Maria. The name Maria means “bitter”, which is an amusing parallel to Mother Maria’s bitter nature. 

 In the novel, I am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett, the main character,  Not Sidney, experiences similar events to those of the real Sidney Poitier’s characters in his films. Not Sidney encounters nuns in the book who are based off the nuns from Lilies of the Field. Their names are changed to Mother Irenaeus, Sister Origen, Sister Eusebius, Sister Firmilian, and Sister Chrysotom. Although these characters may share some similarities, they are not the same. The nuns from the novel appear greedy and selfish while asking Not Sidney, “do you have our money?” (Everett 197).  Mother Irenaeus even concerted with Thornton Scrunchy, a swindler, to get Not Sidney’s money. “Sister Irenaeus and the man were shoving bills back into what I recognized as my satchel” (Everett 228). A nun is generally thought of as pure and god-like, however, the nuns in I Am Not Sidney Poitier certainly do not fit that description. The nuns’ characters in the novel are rude, and in Mother Irenaeus’ case, criminal.

 Looking into the origins of the names chosen for these nuns, we see that Everett chose saintly or saint-like names. Irenaeus was a Greek bishop who was most known for widening the Christian community. “Origen of Alexandria, one of the greatest Christian theologians, is famous for composing the seminal work of Christian Neoplatonism, his treatise, On First Principles.”(Moore 2019). Eusebius’ writings related most to Christianity. He was an influential bishop, he was not a saint. “Firmilian Saint Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, one of the greatest prelates of his time. He urged Dionysius of Alexandria to attend the council of Antioch, held to repudiate Novatianism.”(2005) John Chrysostom, “the great preacher”, wrote sermons. 

In Lilies of the Field, the nuns’ names typically reflect the personalities of the women, in contrast to I am not Sidney Poitier, where the saintly names are the antithesis of the womens’ character. It seems that Everett deliberately chose names that misrepresent the characters.

We believe that Everett changed the names of the nuns to say something about how names can sometimes be misleading, and therefore aren’t truly representative of their subjects. This can also be seen in the novel through the character, Not Sidney. The story of the novel is rooted in the concept of identity and its relation to name. The struggle that Not Sidney faces being named “Not Sidney Poitier” is the main source of growth and conflict within the novel. Not Sidney searches for identity outside of the presumption that his name brings. Upon introduction most people have an expectation of Not Sidney based on his name. “‘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’” (Everett 13). As the novel progresses however, Not Sidney begins to care less and less about the presumption his name may bring. At the end of the novel, Not Sidney doesn’t bother to correct people who call him by the wrong name. “She said, ‘I just love you, Mr. Poitier.’ I didn’t know why. I asked her name. She said it was Evelyn. I wrote: For Evelyn, All the best, Not Sidney Poitier” (Everett 232). Not Sidney understands that his name does not change who he is, so he simply lets it go. This lesson can be traced to his experiences while driving across the south. At one point while driving Not Sidney comes across a gas station where he is introduced to a man called Rabbit Toe. “ ‘Are you Rabbit Toe?’ I asked. ‘That’s what they call me.’ ‘It’s not your name?’ ‘That’s what they call me,’ he repeated. ‘Why do they call you that?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know.’” (Everett 169). This is one of many interactions Not Sidney experiences on the road that shape his perspective of name and identity. 

 So, if Everett is trying to make the point that names don’t actually represent what they’re supposed to, why should that matter to the reader? It offers an alternative point of view to the traditional idea that names identify people perfectly. Names that are assigned to represent internal characteristics can sometimes lead to unfair labeling. Labels trap people into a certain identity that they may not wish for themselves. This produces negative stereotypes that are hard to see past. For example, when someone thinks of a criminal, they think of someone who has done something bad or illegal. However, this may not always be the case. Someone could be falsely accused of committing a crime or has been arrested based off of unjust discrimination. Also, the use of saintly names within the novel offers a false representation for the type of people the nuns should be. One of our goals as students is to gain a more thoughtful approach to how we view those around us. It is easy to categorize a person and in a sense dehumanize them by making them a “criminal” or a “saint”. If we are more hesitant to label people, we can gain a stronger understanding of others.. 

Works Cited:

“Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 13 July 2005,,%20bp.%20of%20Caesarea.

Editors, Family. “Maria – Girl Name: Meaning and Origin.” Babble,

Franciscan Media. “Saint John Chrysostom.” Franciscan Media, 13 Sept. 2019, “Who Was Saint Irenaeus of Lyons?”, 7 Dec. 2016,

Moore, Edward. “Origen of Alexandria.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Nelson, Ryan. “Who Was Eusebius?” OverviewBible, 17 Aug. 2018,

‘A Rich Man’s World’

Collaborated by: Leila Sassouni, Amanda Neri, Anthony Guttilla, Julia Yakowyna, and Lauren Silverman

Sidney Poitier’s 1963 film Lilies of the Field, draws on the relationship between five nuns and the main protagonist, Homer Smith, played by Sidney Poitier. While driving through an isolated town in Arizona, Smith comes across a small house, inhabited by nuns from Germany. These nuns are impoverished, yet express a deep faith in God. Specifically, they pray for God to send them someone to build them a chapel, and when Smith shows up, they claim that God sent him. They eventually convince Smith to build them a chapel. Everett’s goal in changing the names of the characters from the movie to the novel show the impact that names and money have on power dynamics. 

Everett juxtaposes the mundane names of the nuns in Lilies of the Field by changing them to those of saints of the Catholic Church in his novel. The nuns in the film have typical German names such as Maria, Agnes, or Gertrude.While these names can refer to other Christian saints, the saints they refer to are patron saints, and have far less of an impact on their religion than others. This being said, each of the saints chosen by Everett was a recognized Christian author, historian, or scholar, all academics except for Irenaeus, who was known for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities (Britannica). Each of these men were academics or trusted leaders during a time when women were excluded from holding the same title, or participating in the same field. 

Additionally, the nuns are not the most powerful people in the town. While Smith builds the chapel for the nuns, he realizes that he needs more materials in order to complete the building process. However, the nuns’ power is denied because they have no money in the bank in order to financially support the chapel-project process. Since Smith is building the chapel for the nuns, he essentially loses his own power, because he is constantly bossed around by Mother Maria who tries to exert more power than what she actually has. In order to also put Smith on their level, the nuns give him a new last name, Schmidt. While this may be a more convenient or more German sounding name for the women to pronounce, they basically call him a ‘worker’, undermining his power.

In Percival Everett’s novel I am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney encounters five nuns as he drives through Alabama, just like in Lilies of the Field. The situation he is put in mirrors the situation of the protagonist Homer Smith from the film. In both the film and the novel, Homer Smith, and his parallel of Not Sidney, is coerced into helping these women. However, instead of building the chapel himself, like Smith did, Not Sidney urges the women to find an architect who could build the chapel, with his money. 

While the nuns in the film appear to care less about their own money and power, the novel illustrates the opposite; the nuns care more about money because it gives them more power. In the novel, Not Sidney offers the money to build a church for the nuns who otherwise do not have the financial stability to support this project. He tells the nuns that he lacks the skills and knowledge to build a chapel, but that he has the money to finance the project. By telling them this, he shows that he is a man with the power to make their goal achievable, placing himself in a position of power above the nuns. 

Everett changing the nuns names’ to those names of male saints is supposed to give them all the illusion of having more power in the novel; however, the nuns ultimately appear to have less power. An instance where Everett gives the nuns less power occurs when Not Sidney is sitting in a diner while in Alabama. The diner owner tells Not Sidney, “‘Those poor sisters,’ she said. ‘They come here from Montana or someplace because somebody left some land to their church’” (Everett, 182). Later, one of the customers, who hears Not Sidney discussing the idea of the nuns wanting to build a church, criticizes them as he says “‘Those crazies?’ he said. ‘Gonna build themselves a church. Out of what, is what I want to know,’” (184). By writing the nuns in as delusional and crazy, it shows the irony of giving these nuns powerful names.

The name changes are significant from the film to the novel to demonstrate the impact of an individual’s identity. Changing the nuns’ names from common names to names of powerful Saints offers a power shift. Throughout the novel, we are able to see Not Sidney finding power over people through his money. While Not Sidney has his interview with Gladys Feet, he recognizes for the first time in the novel the extent of his advantage in life, “I realized that my scads of money gave me a considerable amount of power. A seemingly simple notion, but one that I had either been too stupid to acknowledge or too stubborn to accept” (83). He realizes that money brings power, which leads him to understand his potential for obtaining more power. Even later, when Sister Ireneus tries to steal 50,000 dollars from him, he illustrates his personal advantage as he still gives them the money for the chapel. 

This entire sequence juxtaposing the film Lilies of the Field and the novel I am Not Sidney Poitier sums up one of the major themes of the novel in this way, as it is a condensed portion of the book that can represent the whole. Being financially stable demonstrates the way that both the chapel project and people’s lives depend so heavily on money. By comparing nuns in the novel versus the nuns in the film, there is a clear difference in power dynamics between both of the sets of nuns. This power dynamic is caused simply because of the change of names, and also the way Everett transforms them.