Delphine Gaither is flying with her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, from New York to Oakland, California. The children are going to see their mother, Cecile, who had abandoned them many years earlier. Big Ma, their father's mother, objects to the trip, calling Oakland "a boiling pot of trouble cooking" that summer of 1968, but Pa has been firm, asserting that the children "need to know [their mother], and she needs to know them."
At eleven years old, Delphine has always had to "see after [her] sisters," who are nine and seven. She takes her responsibilities seriously and makes sure that Vonetta and Fern behave decorously on the trip, so as not to be "an embarrassment to the Negro race." Although the girls are understandably apprehensive about meeting their mother, they are very excited about going to Oakland. Oakland is in California, which to them means Hollywood and Disneyland.
When the children arrive at their destination, nobody rushes over to claim them. Delphine looks around the terminal and sees a tall woman standing to the side, apparently trying to decide whether to come forward or not. Delphine remembers enough to know that the woman is their mother, and when the stewardess takes the children over, the woman impassively admits that they belong to her. She then strides away, abruptly ordering the girls to follow her. It is clear that Cecile is not happy about their intrusion into her life.
Cecile takes the children to a green stucco house in a poor neighborhood. She curtly tells them that there is a daybed in the back room, which "should be enough" for them. When Vonetta and Fern excitedly ask about a television and Disneyland, she laughs incredulously and declares:
I didn't send for you. Didn't want you in the first place. Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had the chance.
When the little ones complain that they are hungry that evening, Cecile demands the money the girls' father has sent with Delphine. Delphine protests that the money is for Disneyland, but Cecile responds that if they want to eat while they are in California, she had better hand the money over. Delphine takes out the two hundred dollars she has carefully guarded, and Cecile pockets it for safekeeping. She then gives Delphine a ten dollar bill and sends the girls out to get Chinese takeout around the corner. When the children return with the food, Cecile spreads a cheap tablecloth on the floor in the front room for all of them to dine on. Her kitchen is off limits, used for things other than cooking and eating.
That evening, three men with Afros come to the house, asking Cecile, whom they call "Inzilla," to make them some flyers. Cecile is reluctant to help them, arguing that paper and ink are not free, but she eventually relents, saying, "All right...but you gotta take my kids."
In the morning, Cecile sends the girls out alone to the "People's Center" for breakfast. She tells them that the Center will be easy to find, as it will be filled with "black folks in black clothes rapping revolution," and adds that they should stay out until sundown. Big Ma has always said that Cecile had left her family because she had not been allowed to give her youngest the "made-up" name she wanted. The girls now believe Big Ma had been speaking the truth, because Cecile refuses to say Fern's name, calling her "Little Girl" instead.
The People's Center is run by the Black Panthers, and Delphine is surprised to find that not all those served there are black. After breakfast, about a dozen children, including the Gaithers, stay for a summer camp run by Sister Mukumbu, a kind, welcoming woman wearing a bright African dress. Everyone at the Center addresses each other as "Brother" or "Sister," and the walls inside are adorned with pictures of Malcolm X, Mohamed Ali, and some others whom the Gaither sisters do not recognize. Delphine understands that the purpose of the Black Panther summer camp is to teach revolution, and that the heroes here are men with names like Che Guevara and Huey Newton, not Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln as they are at her school back home.
Vonetta, who is always seeking attention, immediately tries to ingratiate herself with a group of three sisters at the camp wearing "cool go-go boots and happening dresses." Fern, meanwhile, is made the object of derision by a loud and virulently militant worker, Crazy Kelvin, when she refers to herself as "colored" instead of "black." Crazy Kelvin, who wears a t-shirt reading "OFF THE PIG," then confronts Fern because she is carrying Miss Patty Cake, her precious baby doll with blue eyes and blond hair. When Kelvin announces that Fern needs a little "reeducation," Vonetta and Delphine join together to defend their little sister.
That evening, Cecile has Chinese takeout for the children again. Delphine asks why the Panthers call her "Inzilla," and Cecile says that her name is "Nzila," which in Yoruba means "the path." Cecile explains that the name is "a poet's name" and is representative of her "new self." Delphine has a vague memory of her mother scribbling poems on the walls and any other available surface in their house in New York. Here in Oakland, Cecile is a poet, and the kitchen is her workplace.
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to the People's Center every day because Cecile does not want them underfoot. As she becomes familiar with the daily routine, Delphine reflects that the Black Panthers are not at all as the television and newspapers portray them. The media represents the Panthers only as "angry fist wavers...their rifles ready for shooting." The humanitarian side of the Panthers—distributing meals to poor children and teaching them in classrooms—is not shown.
One day, Vonetta's "cool" new friends harass Fern about Miss Patty Cake. This time, Vonetta does not stick up for her sister, and that night, she takes a permanent marker and defaces Fern's doll, crudely coloring the face and limbs black. Delphine attempts to fix what Vonetta has done, but the damage is irreversible, and she eventually hides the doll away in defeat. Oddly, Fern, who has never been without Miss Patty Cake, does not ask for her again.
That night, Fern has a terrible stomach ache, and Delphine concludes that her sisters cannot handle their steady diet of Chinese takeout. The next day, she asks Cecile for dinner money early and goes to the store to buy "real food." When she brings the groceries home and confronts her mother about using the kitchen,...
(The entire section is 2759 words.)