2014 has been a crazy, hard summer around the globe. Here at home, we’ve been riveted to the struggle unfolding in Ferguson. Like the movie Groundhog Day, the U.S. seems trapped in a time loop, doomed to repeat events in a climate of unresolved racial fear, frustration, distrust, and anger.
For many of us, this summer has been a call to intensify our work to dismantle the racism which permeates our homes, communities, nation. It’s hard to uproot racism from our psyches and institutions, but alarmingly easy for our lives to be distorted by assumptions of either dominance or submission. Anti-racism activist-educator Jane Elliott showed us this during her blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment in a 3rd grade classroom in 1968 and in similar exercises with adults around the globe. (See links below.)
Do you remember the summer of 1968?
I recently read two young adult (YA) novels by Rita Williams-Garcia. They brought back the events of 1968 — shooting deaths of MLK, Bobby Kennedy, and teenaged Bobby Hutton, who became a martyr to the cause of “black power.” It was a summer of unrest, as protests intensified against the war in Vietnam and the Black Panthers organized to address ongoing police brutality in their communities.
One Crazy Summer
Whether you remember the events of 1968 or have only read about them in history books, it’s worth taking a new look through the eyes of 11-year-old Delphine in One Crazy Summer. She travels with her sisters Vonetta and Fern, from Brooklyn to Oakland, to spend a month with Cecile, the mother who abandoned them five years earlier. Cecile’s a real character — harsh, aloof, hostile, complicated. The girls are pleased to discover she at least lives in a house.
Instead of going to Disneyland or the beach, the girls are thrust into the world of an urban summer camp run by the Black Panthers. Big Ma, their traditional, church-going grandmother, had warned them about radicals, but soon the girls are exposed to a new way of seeing the world.
They also learn that their mother spends all her time in the kitchen, cranking out original poems and Black Panther posters on a printing press. Later in the story, the girls watch as Cecile is arrested and put in the back of a police car. She’s released a few days later in time to see her girls on stage at a Black Panther rally, reciting one of her poems.
There are no miraculous transformations in this book. Misunderstandings and hurts abound, but there is growth, insight, healing, humor, and history in the making.
P.S. Be Eleven
The sequel to One Crazy Summer is P.S. Be Eleven. Now back in Bed-Stuy, the girls weave Black Panther lingo into every interaction (“All power to the people!”) and, simultaneously, get swept up in the Jackson Five craze.
They try to make sense of their Uncle Darnell, who returns from Vietnam physically intact but spiritually and psychologically wounded. His sleep interrupted by screaming nightmares, he turns for solace to drugs.
The girls’ father is in love with a woman who campaigns to make Shirley Chisholm the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Big Ma, heartbroken in a hundred different ways, returns to the South.
The book’s title comes from the wild, homemade postcards that arrive from Cecile. She wants Delphine to ease up on feeling responsible for everything and let herself be a child of eleven (even after she turns twelve).
These books are a great way for kids to learn recent American history through the voice of a precocious preteen, and for white adults to hear from a range of black voices about black experience. A whole, vast and varied community comes to life in Williams-Garcia’s able hands. It’s worth the read, especially after the crazy summer we’ve just had.
To Go Deeper:
“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” by Janee Woods, Quartz, August 17, 2014
“A Class Divided” Frontline
Jane Elliott — Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes (@10 min summary)
“How Do You Identify Racism? The Angry Eye with Jane Elliott” (30 minutes with a college class)
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, HarperCollins/ 2010
P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia, Amistad / 2013
Rita Williams Garcia Talks about One Crazy Summer (@ 7 minutes) at Vermont College of Fine Arts