Delphine starts out totally selfless. And we do mean totally—when we meet her, she's never thought of herself, like, at all. Her mom ran off when she was super young, and she's taken on the responsibility of caring for her younger sisters. That's a lot for an eleven-year-old, and a byproduct of tending to others so much is that when we meet Delphine, she's pretty flat as far as characters go.
Literature is full of kids who are orphaned, prematurely mature, or tragically selfless. So when Delphine says, "That's mainly what I do. Keep Vonetta and Fern in line" (1.5), we feel like we've seen her type before.
One of the byproducts of Delphine's lifetime of all-work-and-no-play ways is that she thinks she's wiser than she is about the ways of the world. Look at how she looks down upon her six-year-old-self's understanding of her mom's disappearance:
When you're six, you picture your mother living on black and gray tar full of potholes, broken glass, skid marks, and blackened gum, all of that overrun by cars, buses, and trucks. […] When you're six, you wonder why your mother would rather live on the street, in a hole in the wall, and sleep on park benches next to winos than live with you. (4.3)
Seems like Delphine thinks her six-year-old-self had a pretty melodramatic understanding of things, right? But now that she's eleven, she totally knows better. This belief leaves her passing judgment about all kinds of things, never even considering the idea that at the ripe old age of eleven there might be more she doesn't know than does. For instance, when the girls first get to Oakland, Delphine says:
I made up my mind about Oakland. There was nothing and no one in all of Oakland to like. (5.68)
Do we even need to point out that pretty much everyone and everything she comes in contact with in Oakland ends up blowing her mind and changing her life? No? Good. And yet here Delphine is, writing an entire city and its occupants off almost immediately.
Never fear, though, Delphine learns the error of her ways. She comes to recognize shades of gray in the world, noticing the good that comes with the bad and the bad that comes with the good. Her time spent with the Black Panthers is instrumental to becoming a more critical thinker:
It wasn't at all the way the television showed militants—that's what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry fist wavers with their mouths wide-open and their rifles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms. (14.3)
Delphine is super wary of the Black Panthers when she first encounters them. As we've seen time and again, she believes she knows all she needs to already, and the Black Panthers are up to no good. She's forced to spend time with them, though, and as she does, she comes to see them as a complex and nuanced organization. As this happens, she starts to truly form her own opinions instead of just regurgitating those fed to her by others.
One of the biggest things Delphine learns, however, isn't about making sense of the world—it's simply how to be an eleven-year-old kid. Thanks to the kids she meets at the Center, Delphine ultimately finds herself challenged to let loose a little and have fun. When she goes for a ride on Hirohito's go-cart and screams at the top of her lungs, we finally see Delphine acting her age:
I screamed. So loud I startled myself. I had never heard myself scream. Screamed from the top of my lungs, from the pit of my heart. Screamed like I was snaking and falling. Screamed and hiccupped and laughed like my sisters. Like I was having the time of my life, flying down that glorious hill. (29.43)
Interestingly, this scene happens when Cecile's been taken away to jail and Delphine and her sisters are staying with Hirohito and his family. After years of having no mother, Cecile—albeit indirectly—facilitates Delphine having fun and playing for once. It's the kind of moment a mother is supposed to help her child have, and in her own non-traditional way, Cecile kind of does help Delphine have this classic childhood experience. Yay.