The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves. (1.5)
Delphine realizes that how she acts isn't just a reflection on her or her folks; she represents all African American people. That's a lot of pressure for an eleven year old (or anyone, really). Ugh.
A large white woman came and stood before us, clapping her hands like we were on display at the Bronx Zoo. (3.13)
Nobody wants to be treated like an animal. This is exactly how Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern feel when people stop to take their picture in the middle of the airport to take their picture. What these people are really saying is that it's weird for African American people to act like humans. No wonder it bugs Delphine so much—it's super offensive and racist.
I found us a place in line behind Puerto Ricans who didn't look Puerto Rican but who spoke Spanish. Then I remembered our study of the fifty states. They were probably Mexicans. (10.5)
Hmm… is it just us or does Delphine stereotype people based on race, too? Here she explains what people in front of her in line look like. Sure, she doesn't mean anything bad by it, but she still makes snap judgments based on race.
"Li'l Sis, are you a white girl or a black girl?"
Fern said, "I'm a colored girl." (10.16-17)
Delphine explains to us that there's a big difference between saying black and colored. The girls don't care very much which word is used, but everyone at the Center gasps when they hear the word colored. Even though Fern is black, there are still rules and expectations about how she should self-identify.
Vonetta had gone over Miss Patty Cake with the black Magic Marker, leaving pink lips and pink rouge circles peeking out on a once-white face. (14.59)
Fern is ticked when she sees her beloved doll covered in marker from head to toe. It's not just because Vonetta destroyed her stuff, though, it's because Fern didn't have a problem with the doll being white. Even though Crazy Kelvin thought it was a huge problem, Fern just didn't see what the big deal was. To her, a doll isn't about race.
I wanted to ask him how it felt to have slanted eyes, hair like pine needles, and coppery-colored skin. Which one was he more: Chinese or colored? (17.7)
We're pretty sure this isn't the best question to ask Hirohito. After all, why does it matter? Just because he's mixed race doesn't mean anything. Besides, it goes against everything Delphine has told us about how she feels about race. She's treated differently because she's black, but then judges Hirohito because he's not black enough.
The Mike Douglas Show wasn't the only place to find colored people on television. Each week, Jet magazine pointed out all the shows with colored people. My sisters and I became expert colored counters. We had it down to a science. (18.12)
This game of counting black people on TV shows that there are very few black people represented on TV and in the media at this time. In fact, there are so few people that you can count them.
It hadn't occurred to me that Cecile didn't own a hot comb or curling iron, even though that fact was a big and thick as her unpressed braids. She'd said, "Naughty? Your hair ain't naughty. It ain't misbehaving. It's doing what God meant it to do." (24.2)
Cecile sets the girls straight when they think their hair is "misbehaving" simply because it's a little hard to tame, explaining that this is how it's supposed to be. This exchange makes Delphine realize how much she expects everyone to look like white people. Even if they have black skin, she still thinks they should have straight hair.
These people didn't look like any white people I had ever seen. Even their skin was paler, their hair more white than yellow. (25.23)
We can tell that Delphine is still figuring out this whole race thing. Why? She's still learning how to talk about race. Part of her journey is understanding why it's okay to talk about race in certain situations (like at the Center) and not cool in other scenarios (like asking Hirohito about his race).
"I birthed a black nation. From my womb black creation. (30.22)
The girls might edit Cecile's poem, but they make an important change. They change it from talking about the experience of being a mom to being black. Adding in that word ("black") and reciting it at the rally gets everyone thinking about how black people don't have equal power or rights.
The snappy Negro lady had been nice enough to smile but hadn't returned the look that Big Ma expected—and Big Ma had expected the look Negro people silently pass each other. She'd expected this stranger to say, as if she were a neighbor, "They're as good as my own. I'll make sure they don't misbehave or be an embarrassment to the Negro race." (1.23)
Big Ma automatically assumes that the other black lady on the plane is her ally. This is partly about race, but it's more about the sense of kinship she expects from people who have something in common with her. Delphine knows her grandma would be crushed if the lady didn't see this whole community-of-friends thing the same way, so she doesn't mention it when the woman just forgets about them.
Instead of going to the first cab in the line, Cecile ducked her head and searched every other cab. (3.41)
Cecile is looking for a cab driver with a black beret. That's how she'll know that he's a Black Panther, a.k.a. one of her buddies. Delphine doesn't really understand this… yet.
Then each of them firing off:
"My time. My materials. My printing press."
"Me. My. No. No." (7.14-22)
It turns out Cecile isn't interested in helping out the Black Power movement with her printing press. Sure, she'll make a donation, and she'll write poetry and support the black berets all day long. But there are some things she's not willing to part with, and one of those things is her printing press.
"Like Huey said, 'We should all carry the weight, and those who have extreme abilities will have to carry extremely heavy loads.'" (7.28)
We're not talking about weight lifting here; we're talking about the idea that everyone in a community has to support each other. Some contribute by counting newspapers or coloring in signs, while others host a rally. As long as each person does his or her part, the community can thrive.
I felt silly and wrong calling a grown person Brother So-and-So or Sister Such-and-Such, but thanks to Cecile, we now had brothers and sisters we had never before laid eyes on. (11.2)
There are many things about the Center that makes Delphine squeamish—she's not used to talking about race or identity in the way people do at the Center. This doesn't stop her from trying, though. She realizes that if she wants to be a part of the community, she'll have to act like them.
Sister Mukumbu announced, "Today we're going to be like the earth, spinning around and affecting many. Today we're going to think about our part in the revolution" (11.22).
Check out that phrase, "our part in the revolution." Sister Mukumbu teaches the kids about how a community works. You can't get progress alone. If everyone works together, change might actually happen. If that's not friendship taken to an epic level, we don't know what is.
Sister Mukumbu was right there and ended it before into anything to stop. She reminded us we had greater causes to fight for than to fight with each other (14.30).
Let's face it: Kids bicker and argue from time to time (or all the time), so it's only natural that the kids at the Center pull each other's hair and don't want to share with each other, too. Sister Mukumbu is always on hand, ready with a reminder that no one can be selfish in a community. Sometimes friendships are formed based on shared interests, but at the Center, they're formed based on shared goals.
Sister Mukumbu said, "We look out for each other. The rally is one way of looking out for all of our sisters. All of our brothers. Unity, Sister Delphine. We have to stand united." (20.54)
Sister Mukumbu is full of wisdom about sticking together. Even though Delphine doesn't want to go to the rally because she fears it might be dangerous, she's warned about the benefit to the community. The group being united is more important than anything else.
Mrs. Woods said, "We know the same things. We have to stick together." (27.28)
Again we see acts of friendship playing out within the Black Panther community. Hirohito's mom puts the girls up while Cecile is in jail because that's what the members of this community do for each other—they help out.
I had been keeping a list of the east-west no sayers and put Safeway at the very top of it. My sisters, Cecile, and I would eat egg rolls, white rice, bean pies, and fried fish before we spent another penny in the stores of the no sayers. (28.21)
Even though Delphine has been buying groceries at Safeway every day for the past month, the owner won't help her out. Sure, the guy is willing to take Delphine's cash, but when it comes to returning the favor, he doesn't want to get involved.
Now, I had to see the bridge. How many times would I be this high up and have a sight as spectacular as the Golden Gate Bridge right underneath me? (2.19)
Delphine's reaction to her flight cements her as a young gal, even if she is responsible for her sisters. Delphine is stoked. And yet a touch of maturity oozes in, too, as she considers this flight a rare opportunity.
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)
Of course now that she's matured to the ripe old age of eleven, Delphine knows better. The contrast here between what she thought back then (when she was six) and what she thinks now shows us just how much Delphine has been forced to grow up because of her mom leaving.
Vonetta and Fern raced down the hall, pushing to be first. Cecile yelled after them, but they were too excited to hear her. (4.25)
Again and again, Delphine characterizes her sisters as really young, telling us that they goof off and bicker all the time. While these are totally normal things that siblings do together when growing up, in commenting on her sisters' behavior, we sense that Delphine is somehow above it herself.
Vonetta smiled, welcoming their interest in us. She was scouting out new friends to be with the next twenty-eight days. I let her lag a step or two behind to wink and smile at them. You can't stop Vonetta from chasing after friends. (5.40)
Delphine thinks it's silly to make new friends for such a short stay. In her mind, she has bigger things to worry about that don't include chasing people on the playground or giggling at silly games for kids. She's so much older and wiser than Vonetta, you know.
Vonetta and Fern were soon under the spell of Peter and Wendy flying like fairies. (8.8)
We love ourselves some Peter Pan, but Delphine thinks it's a book just for kids and she's too mature for it. At every stage, Delphine separates herself from her younger siblings. She knows how much time they need in the bath, reminds them to brush their teeth, cooks them dinner, and even reads them a bedtime story. It's like she's a mom already at the tender age of eleven.
Before Cecile got to me I said, "They don't ask kids nothing. No one listens to kids." (12.38)
Gulp. Cecile's right about one thing: No one really cares what kids have to say because they automatically assume kids don't know what they're talking about. It's one of the most unfair aspects of being a kid for Delphine. Everyone expects her to act like an adult, but no one treats her like one.
"Scrub like you're a gal from a one-cow town near Pratville, Alabama," she'd tell me while Vonetta and Fern ran around and played. "Can't have you dreaming out of your head and writing on the walls. That'll only read to ruin." (15.1)
Notice how Vonetta and Fern get to play while Delphine does all the chores? We get that she's the older sister, but we think it's a lot of responsibility for one young kid. It's no wonder she doesn't know how to have fun and relax—she's expected to pull more weight and act more mature than her siblings all the time.
I'd never made a mess in my life. Not even for the fun of it. (16.30)
Well isn't Delphine just a parent's dream? Hey, we get that it's annoying to clean up after spills and messes, but that's just part of being a kid. Delphine needs to take a chill pill. It's as though she's allergic to anything that kids do. Maybe she's trying so hard to prove she's responsible that she's forgotten what it's like to be a kid.
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)
Yippee. Delphine finally lets her hair down and acts her age. And you know what? It's fun to be eleven. You get to fly down a hill on a go-kart and scream until your throat is sore. Delphine gets to let lose for once and we couldn't be happier for her.
"Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can." (32.42)
Of everything Cecile says in the book, this is the thing we agree with the most. Sometimes Delphine needs to relax. She's only a kid and she should act like it, at least sometimes. We hate to be the voice of reason, but we'd also like to point out that this life advice is a little unfair coming from Cecile. The reason Delphine always acts responsibly is because no one else does. Someone has to take care of Cecile's kids…
I can't say I blamed Big Ma for feeling the way she did. I certainly didn't forgive Cecile. (1.14)
Cecile abandoned the girls when they were little, and for what reason? Because she couldn't name Fern. Or perhaps to be part of a movement in California. Or maybe it's to write her precious poetry. To Delphine, it doesn't really matter the reason—there isn't one good enough in her mind to ditch your kids.
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)
When the girls are debating what to call Cecile, Delphine explains that they should use her name or "mother" when explaining who she is to people. In Delphine's mind, Cecile is her mother since she gave birth to her, but she's not anything more cuddly and nurturing than that.
Was she ashamed she had three girls she'd left behind and had to explain? Who are these girls? Yours? Why don't they live with you? Don't ask no pity from us. We were asked the same questions in Brooklyn. (3.51)
Things go from bad to worse when the girls actually reunite with their mom. Delphine doesn't expect Cecile to bust out the welcome wagon or smother them with hugs and kisses, but she thinks she deserves to be acknowledged and treated fairly at the minimum. Instead it's almost like their mom is embarrassed to even be seen with them.
"I didn't send for you. Didn't want you in the first place. Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had the chance." (4.21)
Oh, snap. Cecile isn't warm and fuzzy to the girls (or anybody for that matter). Just in case they had any doubts about her feelings toward them, she makes it crystal clear: She doesn't want them or care about spending time with them. Hearing that makes Delphine feel abandoned all over again.
As many times as Big Ma said it, I never fully believed it. That no one, not even Cecile, needed to have their way so badly or was so selfish. That she could leave Pa, Vonetta, Fern, and me over something as small and silly as a name. That Cecile left because Pa wouldn't let her pick out Fern's name. (8.34)
We feel for Delphine when she discovers that Big Ma was right about Cecile—sort of. All along, Delphine had been hoping her mom had a good reason for leaving the girls. It turns out, she didn't. Sure, she went to find herself and express her true self through her poetry, but that just isn't good enough for Delphine.
"Who you gonna tell? Cecile? She don't care about a blue teacup. Big Ma? Papa? They're miles and miles away, and we don't have enough dimes. Who you gonna tell?" (14.48)
The girls realize that Cecile doesn't care about what they get up to during the day—as long as they stay out of her way, Cecile is happy. The funny thing is, the girls are actually visiting to spend time with their mom. Go figure, right?
Each and every one of us knew the feeling of having no mother clapping for us in the audience. (22.31)
It wasn't just sad for Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern when their mom left—they feel hurt all over again each time they should have a mom to turn to, but don't. It's a major bummer.
Don't cry. Stay Quiet. Want nothing (23.3).
Thinking back to when Cecile was around, Delphine realizes that the abandonment started long before Cecile actually left. Her mom never really wanted her to make a fuss or do anything annoying. It dawns on Delphine that she never had a mom who took care of her or let her be a kid. Ugh.
Maybe I was too young to really take hold of it all, but for what seemed like the first time ever all I could think about was my own self. What I lost. What I missed. […] Even after telling me all of this, I was still mad. Maybe I'd been mad all along but didn't have time to just be it. Mad. (32.35)
When Cecile tries to explain why she left, Delphine just gets angry. She's usually level headed and calm, but she can't let this slide. After all, she doesn't want to give her mom a pass for hurting her all those years by skipping town. Delphine thinks it might be one of those things that makes more sense when she's older and wiser, but we're not so sure it will.
It was a strange, wonderful feeling. To discover eyes upon you when you expected no one to notice you at all. (33.28)
In a rare caring moment from Cecile, Delphine watches her mom wait around until they are on the plane to go home. Notice how much she likes her mom's eyes on her, watching to make sure she's okay. It's as if that's what she's been waiting for this entire time: her mom to care about her and stick around long enough to show it.
Big Ma turned her nose up at the college girls with Afros in favor of the Negro lady in the square sunglasses and snappy suit toting the equally snappy oval bag. (1.23)
This is interesting, right? Instead of prejudice from one racial group to another, here we see Big Ma holding prejudice against other black women. What do you think her beef is with these ladies?
He looked like a fugitive from justice. I could spot one when I saw one. I love a good crime story, especially The F.B.I. (5.53)
This is the first peak at Crazy Kelvin. Sure, he turns out to be a double-crosser, but it makes you wonder: Is Delphine noticing something sinister and profound in his character, or is she swayed by the fact that most black people in crime shows back in the day were fugitives or criminals? Over to you, Shmoopers.
While I was sitting with my sisters, I made up my mind about Oakland. There was nothing and no one in all of Oakland to like. (5.68)
Delphine judges books by their cover all the time. We get that California isn't full of Disney characters and smiles like she thought it'd be, but she hardly gives it a chance. It's clear she's just prejudiced against it because of her negative feelings toward her mom.
The same stewardess who let the large white woman gawk at us and press money into Fern's hand wasn't so quick to hand us over to the woman I said was our mother. (3.30)
At every turn, Delphine points out the prejudice she faces. It's not that the flight attendant says anything racist; it's that she's skeptical about Cecile because of the way she looks. Delphine notices when other people use prejudice to make snap judgments but isn't so quick to notice when she's guilty of the same exact thing.
Vonetta and Fern eyed the wooden sticks and formulated ideas about turning them into hairpins, play-fight swords, and pickup sticks. (6.18)
Who knew you could do so many things with chopsticks? The girls aren't used to seeing—let alone eating with—chopsticks, so they think up their own fun games to play with them instead. Their mouths practically hit the floor when Cecile actually uses the chopsticks for (gasp) eating.
She had picked out three girls who looked alike enough to be sisters, each one as thick as my sisters and I were lanky. They wore white boots and daisy dresses with flared sleeves. They might as well have been going to a go-go, not to a free breakfast. (10.2)
While this initially seems like harmless childhood judgment, there's something insidious about Delphine's readiness to judge this girls. She forms an unfavorable impression based on these girls' appearance alone. It's not until pages later that she even learns their names (a.k.a. starts to get to know them for who they are as people).
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)
Before Delphine has ever met a Black Panther, she's decided the entire group is dangerous. Yep, this is partly because of the news, but it's also because she lets her prejudices get the better of her. She doesn't realize that all kinds of people are involved in the moment. Sure, some are violent, but many are peaceful and educated and invested in community building.
I started to think, this place is all right. […] Then I heard Crazy Kelvin say, "That's the least the racist dogs can do," and just like that, he spoiled what I thought I knew. (14.4)
Crazy Kelvin shows off prejudice at its worst. Not only is he the most vocal about how untrustworthy and deceitful he thinks the cops are, he's also a flake who goes back on his own word, perhaps revealing some prejudice against his own community. Not cool, Kelvin; not cool.
I didn't like having my ignorance shoved at me, especially by the likes of Eunice Ankton. But there I was. Not knowing a half-Chinese face from a half-Japanese one. I wasn't about to get a better look, so I'd know the difference. (17.23)
Okay, so no one likes finding out they are ignorant. It's easy to make snap-decisions about someone because of stereotypes about their social group or race, but it's a lot harder to acknowledge that you don't know all that much about them. On the list for Delphine? Oakland, Chinese people, Black Panthers, hippies… the list goes on.
It wasn't right to stare at them like they were an exhibit, but we couldn't help it. We didn't see many hippies in Brooklyn, not where we lived; and there was a whole tribe of them before us. (25.1)
Just when we thought Delphine was maturing a little bit, we're reminded that the girl is eleven. Time and again, we're shown how prejudiced and naïve she is, not as a way of making her seem mean or evil, but to remind us that she's just a kid. She's learning still, and it's a process.
Big Ma—that's Pa's mother—still says Cassius Clay, Pa says Muhammad Ali or just Ali. (1.8)
Muhammad Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to reflect his newfound beliefs. Pa recognizes this and calls Ali by his new tag. Big Ma, on the other hand, calls him by his original name. To her, that's Muhammad Ali's real identity.
However things are stamped in Big Ma's mind is how they will be, now and forever. (1.13)
It doesn't matter how much people change or how much time passes; things are remembered a certain way in Big Ma's head. She shows us that it's tough to change someone's identity once they are thought of a certain way around town.
I had already seen three people in dark clothes with Afros. (6.25)
Delphine thinks the way people dress shows off their identity. Is she totally incorrect about this? Or is there some truth? Where is the line between using appearances to glean clues about someone's identity and using appearances to make snap judgments? Over to you, Shmoopers.
"I'm not Little Girl. I'm Fern." (8.16)
You go, girl. Or should we say, Fern? Even though she's just a little kid, Fern calls it like she sees it. She knows there's a big deal over her name so she makes a point of telling Cecile how she'd like to be identified. Fern wants to be acknowledged, and when her mom calls her "little girl," she's refusing a part of Fern's identity.
It's hard to believe the last time they'd seen each other, Fern had been a loaf of bread in Cecile's arms. That was how Uncle Darnell told it to me. Some pieces of it I even remember. (8.19)
Now and again we get glimpses of how people grow up and change. Some of this is inevitable (like with Fern changing from a baby to a young girl), but other things aren't so set in stone. Like, say, Cecile not knowing much about her kids' lives, for example. Identity is in flux, it seems.
"Just find a black beret. Any black beret will do. Make sure you tell them I gave to the cause." (9.16)
Instead of calling the people at the Center by their names, or even directly acknowledging who they are (Black Panthers), Cecile blends them all together; they're all the same to her. One way to think of this is as collective identity instead of individual. It doesn't matter if it's Kelvin or some random guy that Delphine gives the cash to, so long as they are a part of the movement.
"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)
Keep telling yourself that, Nzila. It's as though Cecile is working over time to make sure that everyone—including the kids she abandoned—think of her as a revolutionary poet with influence. To Delphine, she's still Cecile. Delphine and her sister don't really care how much Cecile wants to change who she is; she can't for them.
A name is important. It isn't something you drop in the litter basket or on the ground. Your name is how people know you. The very mention of your name makes a picture spring to mind, whether it's a picture of clashing fists or a mighty mountain that can't be knocked down. Your name is who you are and how you're known even when you do something great or something dumb. (13.2)
For Delphine, a name isn't just a word on her birth certificate or what people call her—it helps everyone learn something about who she is. It's part of her. Since Delphine thinks of a name is equivalent to a person's identity, we get why she's so upset about her mom changing hers from Cecile to Nzila.
Her name might have changed. She might have been living on the other side of the country. But Cecile was plain old Cecile. Just crazier and scarier than I remembered. (20.43)
Delphine wishes that people could change. Based on what she's seen of Cecile, though, they can't (or don't). She was hoping her mom would be different, but it seems maternal instinct isn't really in her blood. It's a bummer for Delphine, but it says a lot about how identity is cemented in this story.
I said, "That's not your real name. The one she gave you. […] Your name is Afua." (33.9-13)
Here, Delphine explains to Fern, er, Afua, what her real name is and why it matters. To Fern, it's a weird name that people will make fun of. Hey, you don't have to tell us. Do you know what people said on the playground about the name Shmoop?
"My poems aren't about that. Fame-seeking poems. They's the people's art," although yesterday she didn't want to have anything to do with "the people." (12.24)
It's clear that art is important to Cecile. Part of what drives her to write poetry, though, is also about access to and representation in art. Her poetry is for and about the people in the streets fighting for equality instead of the kind that belongs tucked away in quiet libraries.
Although no one thinks I can, I remember a time when smoke filled the house. Not coughing smoke but smoke from a woman's smooth-voiced singing, with piano, bass, and drums. All together these sounds made smoke. (13.4)
Music filling the air, words cluttering the walls—Delphine remembers her mom being around through the art that she produced. It's not until later that she realizes there's something weird about a grown woman writing on the walls. Art is a part of Cecile, more so than her family even.
When Brenda and the Tabulations sang "Dry Your Eyes," my sisters and I imagined they sang about a mother who had to leave her children. […] So I sang the la-la-la part with Fern, making a nice wall around us, to keep that laughing Ankton girl on the outside. (14.20)
The girls sing as a way of expressing themselves. Did you notice how they interpret the songs so that it's about their current situation? Instead of just singing a song, they think about its meaning and apply it to their lives. Suddenly every song is about a mom leaving her kids, just like Cecile did with them.
Maybe she thought the Panthers were coming back to bother her for more ink and paper (16.3)
We don't get to hear the full conversation between the Black Panthers and Cecile since Delphine is eavesdropping through the door. From what we do hear, we can tell that they want the printing press more than anything else. Words and art help encourage people to take action to support the movement.
"Television is a liar and a story" (18.14)
Cecile thinks about this art form (TV) as deceitful since it sugarcoats everything. Instead of calling out truths, like in poems, TV shows a white-washed, happy-go-lucky family. That stuff ain't real.
She would recite poetry to calm us down and get ready to learn more science or history. Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Countee Cullen, and William Blake—all fine poets whom we should know, she'd say. (22.6)
We love the idea of reciting poems to calm yourself down, and poetry has gotten us through some tough times, too. It's interesting that poems are used for a variety of purposes in the book. Some call out wrong-doing, others relax people, and some poems are about fighting for the cause.
Why had the police arrested Cecile? She wrote "Send us back to Africa" poems and "Movable Type" poems. She didn't write "off the Pig" poems and "Kill Whitey" poems, that is, if writing poems were a crime. (26.19)
It's shocking to Delphine that her mom would be arrested over some words. This, more than anything else, proves the power behind art in the book. The police are worried about the impact Delphine's poems have on people around her since they point out injustices.
The scuffed and dirty papers went in one pile. The rally flyers went in another. The sheets of poetry with Cecile's poet name, Nzila, printed on the bottom went in another. (27.4)
Remember how bent out of shape Cecile got about her kitchen? That's why this scene where the police mess up all of her neat piles hurts so much. It's not just that they are making a mess. They are disrespecting her art, destroying her spirit, and taking away her freedom to express herself.
And that thing, the third thing was, a poet had been born. It wasn't Longfellow, Cecile had written, but it was a running start. (30.36)
When Fern recites a poem at the rally, a poet is born. Coming from Cecile, that's a big deal. Delphine realizes the power of poetry throughout the book, which makes her come to terms with the importance of writing down ideas and using poetry as an art form and way to connect people.
At night I talked to myself to stay awake. I said the poems of Homer and Langston Hughes. I liked the words. They comforted me. Their rhymes. Their beats. They made a place for me. They kept me strong." (32.24)
Again we see the calming properties of poetry. Cecile uses it to keep her mind sharp and her spirit alive, and in this way, it restores her. She no longer has to focus on being pent up but instead recites famous poems. Art invigorates Cecile.
A flash of memory told me Cecile wasn't one for kissing and hugging. I had a lot of those memories clicking before me like projector slides in the dark. Lots of pictures, smells, and sounds flashing in and out. (1.26)
In an instant, memories of Cecile come flooding back to Delphine. Suddenly, she remembers how her mom was before she left. It doesn't all make sense, exactly, but it helps prepare Delphine for what to expect from mommy dearest when they meet in Oakland for the first time in years.
Still, flashes of memory popped before me. Flashes of Cecile writing on the walls, and on boxes… Flashes of paint smells… Papa painting over her pencil marks...Flashes of loud...Papa and Cecile. Angry talking. (4.12)
From her memories, we might not be able to tell what happened, but we know the emotion of it. Delphine remembers anger, sadness, happiness—all stuff that gives you the feels. Her memories are more about the impact of what took place, rather than the details of what was going down.
Papa didn't keep any picture of Cecile, but I had a sense of her. Fuzzy flashes of her always came and went. But I knew she was big, and tall, and Hershey colored like me. I knew I at least had that right. (3.27)
Check out how Delphine describes the process of remembering someone. The only thing she's confident about when it comes to her mother is her size and color—Cecile's more like an outline than a full person in Delphine's memory.
She said, "It's Yoruba for 'the path'" […] She quickly told me it was a people. A nation. In the land of our ancestors. (12.12-13)
Cecile wants to remember the past with her new name. To Delphine, it's a little contrived and forced. Not to Cecile, though; her ancestor's struggles impact the way she thinks about the movement now. In remembering her heritage with her new name, Cecile shows the world what took place in her past.
REMEMBER LI'L BOBBY. (14.10)
We can tell that just the act of remembering someone can be beneficial. It doesn't help Bobby to be remembered after he's gone—it's more about the people who are left behind. They try to honor the injustice of what happened to Bobby by engaging in political struggle as a way of making sure it doesn't happen again.
There was something about being here with her in the kitchen. And I knew what it was. I had a flash. A flash of us. Quiet and in the kitchen. Pencil tapping and her voice chanting. I blinked that flash away. I didn't have time to be pulled into a daydream. (16.46)
Hanging around her mom and spending time with her in the sacred kitchen reminds Delphine of what it was like growing up. She recalls being with her folks in the kitchen, though she stops herself from remembering more. We're thinking this is so she can be fully checked-in to this present moment with her mom. Consider it making a new memory instead of drifting into an old one.
I had been scared once. Truly scared for Papa. It happened two summers ago. (19.16)
Recalling what happened when her father was stopped by the police isn't like Delphine's other memories. It doesn't take place in flashes or spurts, and instead it's one, fluid narrative. Maybe that's because it was so scary at the time that Delphine remembers every second of it.
I wondered if she missed Miss Patty Cake at all. How she loved, loved, loved Miss Patty Cake long before she could walk. She teethed on Miss Patty Cake's arms and legs, ate her hair when she didn't know better, squeezed her, slept with her, fed her, and sang to her. Seven years of loving Miss Patty Cake and now not one mention of her. (24.23)
As Delphine thinks back on the huge role Miss Patty Cake has played in Fern's life, she wonders whether Fern remembers all the good times with her little doll. What do you think is up with this?
Why couldn't I remember seeing Fern being born? Telling my mother not to cry. Wiping Fern off with the dishtowel. Where were those flashes of memory? (32.33)
You'd think you'd remember something as life altering as watching your little sister being born, but Delphine doesn't. Maybe this is because she connects Fern's birth with their mom leaving, which was scary and sad for her. Memory is a weird thing. It doesn't always make sense or act logically, you know.