One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

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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...

(This entire section contains 2870 words.)

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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, Cecile grudgingly lets her in after ranting about the mess her daughter will undoubtedly make. As Delphine toils diligently to make a home-cooked meal for them all, Cecile observes:

We're trying to break yokes. You're trying to make one for yourself....It wouldn't kill you to be selfish, Delphine.

Delphine sort of understands what Cecile is saying, but the fact remains that someone must look out for Fern and Vonetta while they are in California.

At the Center, the children learn about their rights as citizens and how to protect these rights when dealing with the police. Sister Mukumbu speaks with a reasonable attitude about the "establishment" and emphasizes to the children that they must stand up for themselves in a dignified way. Crazy Kelvin, however, calls the police "racist pig[s]" and points out that the father of Hirohito Woods, an older student of mixed race, was arrested because he had "dared to speak the truth to the people." Delphine remembers once when Pa had been accosted by a state policeman while they were driving to Alabama to visit family. The policeman had been threatening and demeaning, and had called Pa a derogatory name. Pa later brushed off the incident as just more of the "same old same old."

The People's Center begins preparing for a rally to free Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, and to promote the naming of a nearby park for Little Bobby Hutton. When Delphine learns how seventeen-year-old Bobby had been shot down by the police, she becomes angry but also afraid, because she feels that she is shirking her responsibilities and "marching her sisters into [that] boiling pot of trouble cooking in Oakland." Delphine announces that she, Vonetta, and Fern will not be attending the rally, but her decision is quickly overridden. The children will be performing at the rally, and Delphine knows that nothing will keep Vonetta from a chance to be center stage. Also, Cecile has no intention of letting the girls stay home from summer camp during preparations for the event.

On their third Saturday in Oakland, Delphine, determined that she and her sisters should at least see something other than "Black Panthers, police cars, and poor black people" during their trip to California, plans a trip to San Francisco. When she asks for money for the excursion, Cecile surprisingly gives it to them without complaint, other than warning the girls not to get arrested, because she will not come to the police station to fetch them if they do. Delphine knows that this is as close to a "Be safe and have a good time" as they are going to get from their mother.

As the sisters ride the bus out of Oakland and approach the bridge to San Francisco, Fern, who is looking out the window, suddenly squeals with delight and chants, "I saw something." Although Delphine and Vonetta demand to know what she has seen, Fern will not tell; it is clear she enjoys having a delicious little secret.

The girls have a wonderful time in San Francisco. They see a group of real hippies, have lunch in Chinatown, and ride a cable car down a ridiculously steep hill. When they go into a store to get some souvenirs, however, the proprietor is rude and watches them with suspicion. Delphine, who knows that Big Ma would have wanted her to say "Please, sir," to prove that they are "as civilized as everyone else," finds that all the "Black Panther stuff" she has been learning comes "pouring out" instead. She tells the man plainly, and with dignity, "We are citizens and we demand respect."

When the girls get back to Oakland, they are looking forward to telling their mother about their day. As they approach the green stucco house, however, they see Cecile and two Panthers being led away in handcuffs by the police.

After the police cars are gone, the girls go into the house. In the kitchen, everything is trashed. Cecile's beloved printing press lies broken on the floor, with the tiny letters scattered everywhere. The next morning, Delphine and her sisters try their best to restore order, cleaning up the spilled ink and sorting through the pieces of type. As they work, they discover a poem Cecile has written titled "I Birthed a Nation." When Vonetta suggests that it is about them, the sisters agree to recite the poem together at the rally.

Word of the arrests spreads, and Hirohito Woods and his mother come to take the Gaither girls in. For the first time in her life, Delphine finds that she has no responsibilities. Mrs. Woods takes care of everything and insists that the children go outside and play. Hirohito makes Delphine take a ride on his go-cart, and as she careens down the hill, she screams with abandon. Delphine has never before truly experienced what it is like to be a child.

Delphine reflects that if Cecile had been arrested earlier in their visit, she would have immediately called Pa to arrange for herself and her sisters to go home. Now, however, she feels that they cannot leave, because they still need to get to know their mother. Sister Mukumbu tells Delphine that the police had really just wanted the two men who were with Cecile, and that they had taken Cecile too because she had helped them by making flyers.

Over a thousand people are present at the rally. When it is their turn to perform, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern step proudly up on stage, and Vonetta announces that they will recite a poem written by "our Mother Nzila, the black poet." When they are finished, Delphine and Vonetta leave the stage to the enthusiastic applause of the audience, but Fern stays behind. When the crowd quiets down, Fern introduces herself:

My mother calls me Little Girl, but this is a poem by Fern Gaither, not Little Girl.

Fern then proceeds to recite a piece she has made up about Crazy Kelvin, who says, "Off the pig," but whom she has seen fraternizing with a policeman from the bus on the way to San Francisco. The crowd goes wild when Fern finishes recounting how Kelvin had been patted on the back "like he was the policeman's dog." Crazy Kelvin, his betrayal exposed, looks frantically for an avenue of escape as angry Panthers approach. Fortunately for him, the police are there to make sure he gets away safely.

In the confusion, Delphine spots Cecile in the crowd; their mother has seen and heard everything. The children run to her as organizers swarm around and ask Cecile if she has anything to say about her "unjust arrest." Cecile responds tiredly:

Y'all heard my daughters...they said it all for me.

The girls excitedly fill their mother in on everything that has happened over the past few days. When they ask about her arrest and being a "freedom fighter," Cecile just shrugs and says that she has been fighting for freedom all her life. Somehow, Delphine understands that Cecile is not talking about the revolution; she is talking about "just her" and the poems that mean so much to her. Later, Cecile scolds Delphine for not calling Pa when she had been arrested. Delphine, furious at being berated, shouts:

I'm only eleven years old, but I do the best I can....I don't just up and leave!

Fully expecting to be slapped for her impertinence, Delphine is surprised when Cecile quietly tells her to sit, then begins to talk about her life. Cecile's mother, who had been her sole guardian, had been killed when Cecile was eleven, the same age as Delphine is now. Cecile had been taken in by an aunt, but had been put out on the street at sixteen when her aunt had remarried and no longer wanted her around. Struggling to survive on her own, Cecile had found comfort in the poems of Homer and Langston Hughes, which she would read at libraries. One night, sick and hungry, Cecilie had been sleeping on a park bench when she had been picked up by the girls' father. Pa had been good to her, and Delphine had been born one year later, then Vonetta, then Fern, whose name she still will not say. This "last one" had come early on the kitchen floor, with only four-year-old Delphine to help with the delivery. Delphine has no memory of the event. Cecile then says that though Delphine's life is admittedly hard, it is good—"better than what [Cecile] could have given [her]."

Cecile tells Delphine that she had wanted to give her youngest child the African name Afua, but that Pa and Big Ma would not let her. She knows that they have always told the girls that she had left them because of a name, but there had been more to it than that. Cecile tells Delphine that she will not explain her reasons for leaving now, because Delphine will not be able to understand until she is grown. She then says to her daughter:

Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can.

On their last morning in California, Cecile wakes the children and for the first time calls Fern by name. Newly emboldened by her mother's confidences, Delphine tells Fern her name is really Afua, and though Cecile complains that she had not wanted Fern to know, Delphine senses that she is not really angry. At the airport, when the boarding announcement comes on, Cecile tells the girls curtly, "Go on." As they stand in line, Delphine is surprised that Cecile has not walked away, but is waiting there, watching them. Suddenly, Fern bolts from the line, followed closely by Vonetta and Delphine. Running to Cecile, they throw their arms around her, finally getting what they had come to California for—"a hug from [their] mother."