2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Interview by Eisa Ulen

Eisa Ulen: You’ve said that you wrote One Crazy Summer for the children of the Black Power Movement. What, exactly, compelled you to write a novel for the daughters and sons of The Revolution?

Rita Williams-Garcia: If you say “Black Panther Movement,” I can guarantee, the first thought or image will never be of children whose parents and family members were involved, or of the children who were served by the Movement in schools and programs. We don’t first think of the leaders, ministers, rank and file members as parents, teachers, or older siblings. But in every community served by the Black Panthers, there were children. I wanted One Crazy Summer to introduce and show The Movement through the eyes of a child. I was very much moved by photographs of pregnant Black Panthers. Kids on bikes selling newspapers. Kids being tested for Sickle Cell anemia (I was one), courtesy of the Black Panthers. The photograph of David Hilliard’s sons visiting their imprisoned father was also very inspiring. I can’t help but think of the daughter of Asata Shakur, separated from her mother. I think of the late son of Afeni Shakur who respected his mother’s commitment but was also at bitter odds with it. There is nothing quite like the gains but particularly the sacrifices made by these children that go unsung. If you were a child of The Revolution, at some point you knew what it was to live with a broken heart. One Crazy Summer is only an introduction; there are so many stories of the children of The Revolution that should be told.

EU: Some of us who are the daughters and sons of activists have been writing about the mid-20th century change our parents brought. Among them are Attica Locke, Eisa Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myself. Do you think of One Crazy Summer as a narrative in conversation with this other work?

RWG: Although my novel is addressed to children, I have to admit, it was my hope that those who attended the Liberation Schools, and grew up in Black Panther households, would find the truth in some of the experiences related. This is a movement rarely mentioned during Black History Month studies and celebrations, yet we still reap its benefits. I hope One Crazy Summer will help to spark interest in this period as seen through the eyes of its youngest witnesses, and that we would have more of an account from them directly.

EU: The mother in your YA novel abandons her children for several reasons. One reason is her need to write poetry. Instead of dedicating her Oakland kitchen to the domestic arts that are traditionally associated with motherhood, she uses it as a creative space, a place for literary art. What space in your home did you dedicate to writing while you raised your two daughters? How have you balanced your work as a mother with your work as a writer?

RWG: Ha, ha, ha. I wrote my novels on the F Train on my subway commute to my then job. I also wrote on my lunch hour. It’s only until now that I’ve quit my job, my daughters are college graduates and out on their own, that I wake up in the morning and write sitting cross legged on the edge of my bed still in my pjs. I have a routine, a time dedicated to my writing, and then editing and research. There’s no writing without commitment. But back while I was trying to do everything (work, write, school), my ex-husband kicked in as “Super Dad.” The marriage didn’t hold, but the co-parenting is forever. It means everything to me now, to have space, time and the rights to my own mind, and to also know that the kids are all right. My oldest is an editor at The Advocate, and my youngest is looking forward to entering the Navy while earning a doctorate in psychology.

EU: In the chapter “Coloring and La-La,” your female protagonist, Delphine, begins to realize that the Black Panther Party “wasn’t at all the way the television showed militants,” as she experiences the organization’s free breakfasts, summer school, and other community empowerment work. Crazy Kelvin nearly obscures Delphine’s new vision of The Panthers when he calls a group of “young white guys who delivered the bread and orange juice… racist dogs.” Crazy Kelvin, however, turns out to be working for the police – not The People. Do you think real life individuals like Crazy Kelvin who worked for COINTELPRO are the ones most to blame for tarnishing the image of radical 1960s organizations?

RWG: If you asked me that twenty years ago I would have said, “I know they’re to blame, along with the racists feds they worked for.” The truth is, the idea of power within any organization is seductive. Add man and you have a power struggle. The Movement became less and less about The People and more about those vying for power. Internal strife, followed by a loss of focus, and the influx of drugs helped to destroy The Movement from within. But yes. It was the aim of the FBI, the CIA and local law enforcement to shut down The Movement any way they could. Infiltration was fairly commonplace. Because I was depicting The Movement fairly early, I chose to stay “on message” with its original aims and not delve into internal conflicts. Even though The COINTELPRO wouldn’t have been known by Cecile in 1968, it was important to supply this term and its aims to the young reader, because its existence is a truth in the destruction of the Movement.

EU: Jabari Asim’s collection of short stories, A Taste of Honey, also revisits this era of radical change from the point of view of the children who witnessed it all. One important theme in both your books is Love. Do you think Love is the most revolutionary act of all?

RWG: You know, Nikki Giovanni said it best in her poem, “Revolutionary Woman.” The most revolutionary thing we can do for each other is to be and to love. To not kill off our original selves. Asim has it right; In A Taste of Honey I recognize the people, the textures, the simple wants of a child, and it all comes down to love within the family. Think about it. If fathers loved and claimed their children, and were present in their lives, half of our community ills simply wouldn’t be. The street wouldn’t have any claim on our children. But that would demand that mothers loved themselves and chose their partners well. That would demand that both parents make a place for a child to be a child, instead of taking from them their precious childhood. I’m not even talking about love and the larger world. I’m talking about here and now. Close. That’s still within our power.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com, TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.