One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Major themes and events in One Crazy Summer


One Crazy Summer explores themes of family, identity, and activism. The story follows three sisters who visit their estranged mother in Oakland, California, during the summer of 1968. They learn about their mother's involvement with the Black Panther Party and gain a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage and social justice. Key events include their participation in a Black Panther summer camp and their evolving relationship with their mother.

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What are the major themes of One Crazy Summer?

One Crazy Summer focuses largely on themes of reluctant motherhood and Black power. Cecile/Nzila is a poet and Black Panther and is clearly more invested in these roles than in being a mother. She cares about her children at certain levels but is frustrated by the expectation that her life revolve around caring for them and the fact that they were sent to her for the summer without her asking for them. She wants her days to mostly be free to work as a poet and values the education the Black Panther summer programs can give to her daughters, so she sends her kids to their summer programs most days.

Her daughters give us three slightly different windows into how outsiders make sense of the Black Panthers. They are initially wary based on media portrayals that make them think the Panthers will be irrationally violent, and the reclamation of African heritage taken on by many Panthers (and other Afro-centric individuals) is framed as laughable to them. Over time, they come to appreciate this heritage and the importance of the work done by the Panthers. Even while giving this portrayal, the book avoids over-romanticizing the Panthers, also showing dynamics of sexism and coercion that Nzila pushes back against.

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What is the basic story in One Crazy Summer?

Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer depicts the story of how the lives of three sisters, Delphine, Fern, and Vonetta, changed over the course of one summer while visiting their estranged mother, Cecile. The story takes place in Oakland, California in the 1960s, a time and place where racial tensions were at an all-time high. While Delphine, Fern, and Vonetta flew out to Oakland with the intention of spending the summer with Cecile, she instead sends the girls to Black Panther summer camp every day. In this camp, they learn various things pertaining to their racial background, including how to behave when the authorities are around.

Adding to the historical theme of the book, Cecile writes poetry under the pen name Nzila. In her poems, Cecile advocates for the idea of black power. She is eventually jailed for the propagation of black power through her poetry. Essentially, the book explores not only the complex relationship between a woman who doesn't want to be a mother and her estranged daughters, but also the complex racial history surrounding the events of the story.

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What are five major events in One Crazy Summer?

This novel has many smaller events that break down into different segments, but there are several overarching events that shadow the rest of them.

The first major event that happens is when the girls fly to Oakland to visit their mother for the summer. They meet her and realize that she is not kind or warm like they expected, and also that life in Oakland is much different than what they're used to.

The arrival of the Black Panthers is another significant event in the novel. They pressure Cecile into making flyers for them and, in exchange, take the girls to their summer camp.

The girls learn about their rights and what is owed them by society. They begin to use these principles to stand up for their rights and freedoms when they're out in the community later—finally learning to stand up for themselves.

After that, Cecile is eventually arrested for publishing her poetry. Her poetry has strong sentiments of Black Power, and after her arrest, the girls learn to respect her more—cleaning up the destruction caused by the raid and eventually reading one of her poems at a reading.

A final major event is the recitation of the poem, which Cecile is released just in time to see. It is a significant bonding moment for the girls and their mother.

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What are five major events in One Crazy Summer?

The first big event in One Crazy Summer is when Delphine, Fern, and Novetta meet their mother, Cecile. They are surprised that she isn't very warm or motherly, and the interaction, after two chapters of build-up, is a disappointment for both readers and the girls.

Another big event is when the Black Panthers show up and pressure Cecile into printing flyers for them in exchange for taking the girls in at their summer camp. This changes the path of the girls' summer significantly.

The girls learn about their rights at the Black Panther summer camp, and then they use them in their day-to-day lives, which is a big event because it demonstrates concrete changes in the ways they've learned to move through the world.

Eventually Delphine gets Cecile to relent on one of her rules and let Delphine cook in the kitchen. This is a major event because it represents a shift of trust and power in the relationship between mother and daughter.

A final major event is when Cecile goes to jail for her poetry, and then is released just in time to see the girls reading one of her poems onstage. This is a major bonding moment, and after Cecile is released from jail, she opens up significantly about her side of the story regarding why she left. This allows her relationship with Delphine to heal some.

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What are five major events in One Crazy Summer?

You will be able to come up with more than five and what I have featured here are simply what I feel are the most important events in the book.

1.  The girls fly out to Oakland: This sets the stage for everything that follows. From the moment the girls land in Oakland and Cecile is apathetic about their arrival,  Delphine embraces the reality of the world her mother has created for herself and for them in Oakland. 

2.  The girls spend majority of their days at the People's Center: I think that spending the amount of time they do at the People's Center has a transformative effect on Delphine and her sisters.  Delphine ends up understanding that the Panthers are more than "angry fist wavers...their rifles ready for shooting."  She and her sisters embrace the Panther teachings, evidenced in the way Delphine stand up for the three of them on the trip to San Francisco.  She does not simply respond to skeptical people's looks with "Yes, Sir."  Instead, when confronted with intolerance, the Black Panther teachings come "pouring out" and she assertively states, "We are citizens and we demand respect."  The time spent at the People's Center changes the girls.

3.  Cecile gets arrested: When their mother is taken in, the girls clean up the mess police made in the house and stumble upon learning more about their mother.  In reading the poem, "I Birthed A Nation," the girls gain insight into their mother and see her more than the one-dimensional revolutionary image she has been projecting. Their decision to read the poem at the rally speaks to the depth of the emerging connection between mother and daughters.

4.  Delphine talks back to her mother: When responding to a scolding from Cecile, Delphine talks back: "I'm only eleven years old, but I do the best I can....I don't just up and leave!"  This event triggers a reflective dialogue in which Cecile speaks to Delphine about the conditions in her life. She does not go into everything but tells her eldest daughter, "Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can." Delphine understands more about her mother, and is an important development.

5.  "A hug from their mother": When Cecile drops them off at the airport, she waits and watches them instead of turning away. Her gaze involves much, as there is care, affection, melancholy, and a fusion between past, present, and future. As the girls notice her waiting, they rush back to her to get a hug from her. The hug is an important event because it symbolizes the start of a relationship between the three daughters.

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