Have you read One Crazy Summer yet? If not, go get your copy now! I guarantee you will want to share it with everyone you know. OCS isn’t just for children, either—I found the narrative to be daring, original, and compelling. This week I’ll be presenting a three-part interview with our featured author, Rita Williams-Garcia. Enjoy!
1. In OCS, you give three young black girls the chance to be witnesses and participants during a pivotal moment in US history. Why choose these particular protagonists to star in a story about such traumatic and dramatic events (being abandoned by their mother & the Black Power Movement)?
Pick a cause. Any cause. You’ll find children who know what it is to live with disappointment and heartbreak. If your parents are wedded to a cause, you learn to live with this intermediary between you and your parents—even as you’re right there, witnessing, hearing, and being active. I think of the children of Emory Douglass (artist of the Movement), David Hilliard (Black Panther Chief of Staff), Assata Shakur, Afeni Shakur, Fred Hampton, and the list goes on. The children of these Black Panthers were conscious of the Movement, and its aims. Many attended the Oakland Community School (directed by Ericka Huggins), Liberation Schools, and Black Panther-run after school programs. These children saw their parents being harassed, surveilled, arrested, beaten, and shot. Children also visited incarcerated parents. I think of Assata Shakur who’d given birth while incarcerated and later escaped, having to flee the country, when I think of a child deprived of her mother and her own precious childhood.
Telling a story involving the Black Panthers through the eyes of a child seems completely logical and natural to me. The Black Panther initiatives directly served children in the community. I leaned upon David Hilliard’s The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service as both resource and inspiration with its photographs and articles that included children exercising, eating free breakfasts, performing plays, reciting poetry, selling newspapers, receiving free medical care, and visiting their politically imprisoned parents. Society already has its set image and understanding of the Black Panthers based on sensational events and coverage. What we don’t have is the perspective of a child who would have eaten the breakfasts, worn the free shoes, learned their history, performed poetry at rallies, etc. I don’t try to erase the dangerous or violent element associated with the Panthers, but my responsibility is to show what a child in the community would have seen. A somewhat aware Delphine makes the executive decision to shield her sisters from potential harm by removing them from The People’s Center. Her mother quickly reminds her that no one has pointed a gun at her, shot at her, or put a gun in her hand.
It was important to me to bring normalcy of family and family dynamics to this story, and to not just talk about politics and treat the Black Panthers as figures. They were and are people, while the children who participated in the various programs were everyday kids who did homework, played four square, and watched television. And if you were the eldest child, you were responsible for your younger siblings. The responsible eldest child was a fixture in families. Within OCS, there are a lot of fixtures and familiars. The best way to really see these familiars is to shake things up a bit, starting with Delphine. She is a respectful child of her times, certainly not carefree, bound by tradition and her Timex watch. This extremely responsible and respectful character must work around other characters who function differently or in opposition. Enter sisters Vonetta and Fern with their own birth order roles and traits—largely endowments from Cecile. Next, drop all three on an island with the parent who abdicates as much responsibility as she can, and isn’t the least repentant. By the same token, that parent isn’t to be questioned or disrespected. Our Delphine is now set on a tightrope of obedience, annoyance, exhaustion, and anger. Now think about the state of the American Negro in the Sixties, trying to make it in the larger society. Eventually, that Negro will say, “Enough!” The Negro, Delphine, The Panthers, Cecile, Society; it’s all the same thing. The oppressed, the powerful, and the inevitable. Who better to tell this story, about struggle for identity, connection and self, than the least powerful among them?
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this wonderful interview with Rita Williams-Garcia…