One Crazy Summer
Amistad, an imprint of
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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.