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..
“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, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wace/biodict.html?term=Firmilianus%20(1),%20bp.%20of%20Caesarea.
Editors, Family. “Maria – Girl Name: Meaning and Origin.” Babble, https://www.babble.com/baby-names/baby-girl-names/meaning-of-maria/.
Franciscan Media. “Saint John Chrysostom.” Franciscan Media, 13 Sept. 2019, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-john-chrysostom/.
GotQuestions.org. “Who Was Saint Irenaeus of Lyons?” GotQuestions.org, 7 Dec. 2016, https://www.gotquestions.org/Irenaeus-of-Lyons.html.
Moore, Edward. “Origen of Alexandria.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/origen-of-alexandria/.
Nelson, Ryan. “Who Was Eusebius?” OverviewBible, 17 Aug. 2018, https://overviewbible.com/eusebius/.