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Talk about some mama drama—Delphine's greatest conflict is her relationship with her mother, whom she calls simply "Cecile" most of the time. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy term of endearment.
When Delphine and her sisters are debating what to call Cecile, Delphine explains that they should generally just call her by her name, though they can call her "mother" when explaining who she is to other people. In Delphine's mind, Cecile is her mother—you know, since she gave birth to her—but she isn't anything more than that. "Mother" is a technical term, not an indication of an ongoing relationship between them. Check out the way Delphine understands the difference between various maternal terms:
"Mommy gets up to give you a glass of water in the middle of the night. Mom invited your friends inside when it's raining. Mama burns your ears with a hot comb to make your hair look pretty for class picture day. Ma is sore and worn out from wringing your wet clothes and hanging them to dry; Ma needs peace and quiet at the end of the day. We don't have one of those. We have a statement of fact." (3.6)
Cecile hasn't done any of these things. Instead she left when Delphine was young, heading to Oakland and joining the Black Panthers and becoming a poet. So it definitely isn't all sunshine and rainbows with this mother-daughter bond.
Importantly, Cecile doesn't really do much to change her daughters' understanding of her as a parent when they stay with her. She's put out by their presence, refusing to cook for them and sending them off to camp all day. Does it improve a bit by the time the girls board their plane home? Sure—but no one's calling Cecile "Mommy" anytime soon. And if her relationship improves with her daughters, we're inclined to give her kids as much credit for it as Cecile. They're the ones who decide to accept her as she is, after all.
To be fair, Cecile didn't just do any old thing with herself once she arrived in Oakland—her poetry is really important to her. So important, in fact, that she changes her name to do it. (For more on the importance of names in the book, head on over to "Characterization.") Cecile explains this to the girls:
"My name is Nzila. Nzila is a poet's name. My poems blow the dust off surfaces to make clear and true paths. Nzila." (12.10)
This name change is a way for Cecile to connect with her new identity. As Nzila, she is a revolutionary poet; as Cecile, she's a woman who up and left her kids one day, disappearing across the country. Thing is, no matter what she calls herself, to Delphine and Vonetta and Fern, she's still Cecile. They still see her as the woman who hasn't really managed to be their mother.
In the end, Delphine still resents Cecile, and Cecile is still offering up little more than scraps to her daughter. For instance, when Delphine asks Cecile why she left, all Cecile offers is:
"Did I leave because of a name? You'd have to be grown first before I explained. If I told you now, it would just be words." (32.42)
Um, okay. Seems like words are at least part of what Delphine needs, especially when it comes to trying to wrap her head around the fact that Cecile bounced. So while we want to see the good in Cecile, we're left searching for answers along with Delphine. We know Delphine stays in contact with Cecile after she and her sister return home since there's mention of them writing to each other. Based on how little Cecile changes over their summer visit, though, we're thinking this is more because Delphine accepts Cecile for who she is than because Cecile suddenly decides to be a full-on mom.
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