Written by Rita Williams-Garcia
It is hard to believe that it was only fifty-five or so years ago when the United States was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. When I learned about it in school growing up, it always seemed like it was such a distant thing in the past. In thinking of the actual timeline of it, it really puts things into perspective. It was not that long ago that our society was extremely racist and needed to go about radical change. I think I sometimes forget that there are people still around today that were impacted by the Civil Rights Movement. People who are my colleagues, friends, and neighbors may have either been directly affected or have parents and grandparents who were.
Rita Williams-Garcia, author of One Crazy Summer, was one who was around and well aware of the events going on around her during the latter portion of the Civil Rights Movement even though she was a young child. In an interview seen on Uma Krishnaswami’s blog, Rita briefly discusses her life during the late 1960s. She mentioned how she kept a diary beginning in 1968 and went back to read it when coming up with the ideas for One Crazy Summer. Interestingly, she had mention of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the arrests of James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan. She also mentioned how two of her cousins were Black Panthers and one even highjacked a plane.
Williams-Garcia talks about how she did not want to necessarily write about specific memories that she had, but more about the overall feeling during that time period. Through Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern we learn that children were involved as much as many adults were with the movement. We also learn a little bit about the Black Panthers, which was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
When Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern’s mother Cecile abandoned them in Brooklyn just after Fern was born, they were told it was because she was not allowed to name Fern what she wanted to name her. The girls never knew much about their mother, other than that Big Ma did not think highly of her. When their father sends them to Oakland, California in the summer of 1968 to visit their mother, the girls finally get a glimpse into their past and into who their mother really is.
Through the language of the text, we learn how strong and mature Delphine is. From the very beginning on page 14, Delphine describes the term, “Mother.”
“Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother…Cecile Johnson—mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner—is our mother. A statement of fact…Mommy gets up to give you a glass of water in the middle of the night. Mom invites your friends inside when it’s raining. Mama burns your ears with the hot comb to make your hair look pretty for class picture day. Ma is sore and worn out from wringing your wet clothes and hanging them to dry; Ma needs peace and quiet at the end of the day. We don’t have one of those. We have a statement of fact.”
Even though she is eleven years old, Delphine assumes the role of mother and takes care of her sisters. She shows her strength when she decides the girls are no longer going to eat take-out and she stands up to Cecile by insisting on cooking in the kitchen.
Williams-Garcia put snippets of fact throughout her powerful story that make it more believable and put us into the setting of the times. For example, the Black Panthers do have a Free Breakfast Program, which was set up to feed the inner city youth every morning before school. The Black Panthers also began in Oakland during this time period and many important Black Panther activists were named and discussed. I tried to find out more about educating the youth, but was mostly unsuccessful. I did find out that the Black Panthers did set up the Intercommunal Youth Program in 1971 in order to educate many African American children who were deemed, “uneducable” by the system. I wonder if summer camps did exist where children went to be educated about the Black Panthers after being served breakfast.
The theme of abandonment occurs not only in this story, but also in Moon Over Manifest, and Turtle In Paradise, both historical fiction novels set during the Great Depression. The difference; however, with the abandonment in One Crazy Summer, is that the girls get to meet their “long-lost” mother—knowing it is their mother. It is sad to read the disconnect Cecile has with her children. She will not even call Fern by her name—just, “Little Girl.” She sends the girls to get take-out for dinner everyday and will not allow them into the kitchen. At first, I thought the girls would have been better off never meeting their mother. At least in their hearts, they could think that she maybe cared about them.
I was surprised to see the changes in Cecile as the end of the story neared. I am not sure I expected her to become the character that she did. Garcia-Williams showed the progression of her character over time as she turned into more of a mother. It started slow, by letting Delphine into the kitchen to cook home-cooked meals and getting the girls a radio so they’d have something to do. By the end of the story, after Cecile’s arrest, she opens up to Delphine about her past and tells Delphine that Fern’s name was to be Afua. As the girls board the plane to return home, we are not sure what will become of them and their relationship with Cecile. Will they ever see each other again?
“We broke off from the line and ran over to hug our mother and let her hug us...We weren’t about to leave Oakland without getting what we’d come for. It only took Fern to know we needed a hug from our mother.”
Perhaps that is the hope that we as readers need to know. Everything will be okay with Cecile and the girls. Things will hopefully only get better in the future.