Welcome back! I hope yesterday’s segment inspired you to grab a copy of One Crazy Summer. If you haven’t finished the book yet, watch out for a spoiler alert at the end of today’s segment. I can really identify with Rita Williams-Garcia‘s thoughts on the impact of “home training”—I grew up in the ’70s, and never would have *dreamed* of contradicting my parents; yet by the time I had become a teen, I had no problem challenging some of my parents’ decisions. I can remember my father looking at me like, “Where did this child come from?” Because in his Caribbean mind, I would *always* be “the child,” regardless of my age. Did you ever challenge your parents? Or were you taught to “honor and obey”?
2. In a way, this is a novel about loyalty and betrayal—and being your authentic self. The girls reject Kelvin’s hypocrisy, but must also confront (accept?) Cecile’s unrepentant rejection of motherhood. Did the girls *need* to be so young in order to preserve their loyalty to their mother? I was struck by how easily they accepted Cecile’s harsh indifference.
I have to laugh a little bit. I’ve written a story set in the past for today’s readers who often express every thought and emotion to their parents and adults. When we write stories set in the past, we strive to be conscious of our current day readers. Yet, I didn’t feel I could write about a childhood from forty years ago without the sensibilities of those times. Not only have civil rights undergone change over the decades, but children’s rights and sensibilities have undergone change as well. For better or worse, children today have a different openness with adults. However, forty years ago, regardless of class, education, and creed, children were more respectful to their parents and adults. While, of course, the levels of tolerance varied among households, it was unusual for a child to question an adult’s actions, feel entitled to an explanation, or to answer in a disrespectful manner. Because Black parents often dealt with discriminatory and racist practices outside of the home, they weren’t about to tolerate a disrespectful mouth that had to be fed. Disrespect could be as benign as tone of voice, facial expression, addressing your parents as though you were their peer. So, even if the girls were disappointed and angry with their mother, those feelings could only be expressed among themselves. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern might not have been thrilled with Cecile but they knew their place as children. More important, they were both curious and afraid of Cecile. They had no power, no money, and not even enough change to call home and plead to their grandmother for their return. They were at Cecile’s mercy. Vonetta and Fern deferred to Delphine, their surrogate mother, who dealt cautiously with Cecile, negotiating everything from a glass of water to the right to a decent meal. And in her way, Delphine taught her sisters to both respect Cecile’s title—because respecting an adult was part of their values—and to not respect her by making the distinction of fact (mother) and the lovingly familiar (Mama, Ma). Hence, they call her Cecile, which works fine for Cecile since she wants no part of mothering.
Crazy Kelvin is another matter. From the time the girls first see him in the phone booth, he’s drawn suspiciously and somewhat comically. In their first actual confrontation, Delphine surmises he’s not “grown” like Cecile, to bring him down a peg, and to give her permission to not afford Kelvin the same respect she would give an adult. Once he attacks Fern’s beloved Miss Patty Cake, it’s open season on Crazy Kelvin and the sisters band together in one voice against him. (They try to band together against Cecile, but more often than not, she holds the power.) **Spoiler alert**: Even with his posturing, Kelvin isn’t to be taken entirely seriously, although his informant role is quite serious. The FBI planted many an infiltrator in the movement to learn information, create dissent, and even carry out assassinations. I wanted to acknowledge that role but I didn’t want to dignify this character, so Kelvin was made a posturing clown.
Between their “crazy mother mountain” and Crazy Kelvin, it is no accident that the least of the three sisters in age has the greatest effect on these two characters.