Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen is a moving novel that illustrates the passage of a young man high school through his first year as a freshman at Brown University. What makes the storyline most interesting is that the protagonist, Cedric Lavar Jennings, hails from a particularly unique background. His father is a drug addict who spends half his time in prison and the other half of his time on parole working any job he can find. As a result, Gilliam plays little to no role as a parental figure save the few times Cedric interacts with him in prison. Cedric’s mother Barbra, on the contrary, is an incredible human being.
Words fail to express exactly how much Barbra has sacrificed for her son Cedric. “She’s been killing herself, her lifeblood channeled thorough scriptural pieties and long-shot hopes for Cedric’s future, leaving new own urges untended and volatile” (42). In this sense, Cedric is virtually brought up entirely by his mother and her values quickly ingrain themselves in Cedric. The first part of the novel chronicles Cedric’s final years at Frank W. Ballou Senior High; a high school in southeast Washington DC frequented by inner-city children whose last concern is academics.
The portrait given of the school is pretty bleak, with multiple daily reports of violence. Crab/bucket syndrome: “when one crab tries to climb from the bucket, the others pull it down” (17). Amidst this background at Ballou, Cedric not only manages to maintain his high academic standards but also succeeds in passing under the radar of violence. Cedric holds true to his ambitions of attending an Ivy-League university and is rewarded for his hard work the summer of his junior year by virtue of a letter of acceptance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MITES program.
MITES is a program established for minority students who display significant promise. Successful completion of such a program is paramount for Cedric because a healthy percentage of students who participate in the MITES program and who demonstrate potential are subsequently asked back to MIT for four full years of college. The MIT program proves to be quite the experience for Cedric, who quickly finds himself far behind other minority students for the first time in his life.
He is suddenly immersed in a world of competitive minorities, a world he has never seen before, and the entire process is rather overwhelming culture shock. “up in Cambridge, meeting black kids who were so much different than him left him confused about what being black means” (100) ANOMIE. Needless to say, in his meeting with Professor Leon Trilling at the end of the program, Cedric is told that his performance during the summer does not qualify him for a spot into the fall class at MIT. Although difficult for Cedric to stomach, the news is nothing unexpected.
Cedric spend the entire summer in a constant struggle to compete with others in the program. Undaunted, Cedric continues his crusade at Ballou, keeping his head down and focused at the finish line for his senior year. Cedric, now past the prospect of enrollment in MIT, decides to apply to Brown University as a last resort. Cedric, unable to cope with the idea of going to a mediocre college after his years of sacrifice and hard work, feels that Brown is his final out. Cedric’s prayers are answered and he receives a letter of acceptance to Brown University.
The remainder of the novel describes Cedric’s experience at Brown, which in many ways parallels what he had at MIT. Cedric once again finds it difficult to compete in any class besides Calculus and realizes that most of his peers can even afford to party on the weekends and sustain their superior academic performance. Even the African American students at Brown seem much more intelligent than he is, with almost everyone hailing from a fully-functional family with money. The storyline Suskind paints of Brown is vivid in its depiction of freshman year interactions (all awkwardness included).
Amidst the backdrop of freshman year, Cedric finds it difficult to partake in the festivities of normal college freshman (drinking) and as a result keeps mostly to himself. Cedric opts to take each of his first semester classes as pass/fail to hedge against his uncertainty of academic performance. Pass/Fail “to encourage students to take intellectual risks, to try some classes in unfamiliar disciplines they might otherwise avoid for fear of a bad grade” (173). Cedric walks away from his fall semester passing all of his classes and even whishing he had taken some for a letter grade.
In a valiant effort, Cedric decides to take five spring classes, one more than the recommended four, each for a letter grade. Although Cedric ultimately drops one class and elects to take two of the remaining four as pass/fail, he walks away from the semester with two passes, an A and a B. The general theme seen throughout the novel is upwards social mobility and the sacrifices necessary to achieve such movement. To illustrate, consider how Barbra sacrificed most of her life to perform a very active role in Cedric’s upbringing.
In many ways, Cedric’s success is primarily attributed to the efforts undertaken by his mother. In some ways, it appears that the results of upwards social mobility are primarily realized a generation later. This is to say that the fruits of hard work performed by one generation are not fully enjoyed until a second generation afterwards. In many ways, Barbra does not receive much feedback for her toiling until Cedric experiences the set doors that are now open to him after his Brown education. Cedric’s entire journey is in many ways a means towards an end.
The end is upwards social mobility. Although the overarching theme is upwards social mobility, there are plenty of additional core themes that are readily apparent. These are deviance, education, and religion. In many ways it can be said that Cedric is a deviant at Ballou. Cedric, with his academic drive, is undoubtedly viewed as an an outcast amidst the backdrop students with little no incentive to study. At Ballou, it is almost as if his peers are expected to walk into a word of drug-dealing and violence. There is simply zero incentive to study.
This is unfortunate because there are many students, like Philip Atkins, who possess significant potential yet choose not to stand out like Cedric and to instead conform to the common stereotypes of black males. “Distinctiveness can be dangerous, so it’s best to develop an aptitude for not being noticed” (2-3). Cedric’s academic standards are different than those of any other black man and only mirrored in isolated instances by a few select girls. Because Cedric stands far from the typical African American stereotype, he has few friends in school.
At assemblies held to honor the select few students who got all A’s, the entire student body shuns Cedric for his academic performance and label him, ironically, as an uppity individual who displays similar pride as a Caucasian. (negative sanction/stigma) This is highly degrading and Cedric skips the ceremony altogether, afraid to accept the financial cash award for straight-A’s in front of the rest of the school. It is logical to imply that within the confines of Ballou High, deviance is a dangerous trait to harbor. In some ways, it can even get you killed.
Cedric is a deviant from the structures that society almost demands he follow. Even at Brown, where everyone is just as smart as Cedric, if not more so, Cedric is a deviant. In order to keep up with everyone, Cedric cannot afford to waste time going out over the weekends and socializing as normal college students would. Cedric once again finds himself a deviant at an academic institution. Here, where the stereotypes are not hustling and being a thug, a male in Cedric’s position is almost expected to party on the weekends, smoke weed and drink alcohol.
These avenues are not at all appealing to Cedric, whose father is in jail because of drug addictions and whose mother is an active member of the church. Cedric successfully steers clear of these temptations and is thus a deviant amidst an entire population of college students indulging themselves. Overall, the theme of deviance in this novel is shown to transfer to the deviant character plenty of wear and tear. This is to say that it takes a lot to be a deviant. Being a deviant entails going against the grain which can be a particularly difficult process to continue living with.
The second core theme is education as a primary means to social mobility. In the novel, education is an important precursor to social mobility as it is said to open many doors in the future. The idea of an education is important in that it serves as a distinguishing factor. It stratifies individuals and labels them. Gatekeeping is “determining which people will enter what occupations is another function of education” (504). “No one’s going to hire a drug dealer and armed robber who has spend nearly half his life locked up” (56).
A conflict theorist would say that education is an institution that is unable to be perfectly fair to all (LATENT FUNCTION). All public schools, like the one Cedric attends in DC, are funded according to their standardized testing scores. Since minorities tend to cluster together in inner cities, most of the students who attend public schools in bad neighborhoods are very poor and not generally driven to succeed. Intern, due to their low drive and academic abilities, these schools are unable to secure proper and necessary federal funding to improve their offerings.
The poor schools thus become poorer and more substandard while other schools, mostly those with students who come from more wealthy families, are granted more funding, only further exacerbating the problem. “Once they arrive, affirmative action kids are generally left so sink or swim academically…Not surprisingly, dropout rates among minorities, particularly those of lower income, tend to be higher than the rest” (191). Education is presented as a process throughout the book.
It may not be primarily about memorizing calculus theorems, but rather the entire sequence of socialization that college entails that properly constitutes an “education. ” In this sense, an education is more about dealing with problems and setbacks in the most efficient manner. “Education is a group’s formal system of teaching knowledge, values, and skills” (498). Also use the term hidden curriculum, or “the attitudes and the unwritten rules of behavior that schools teach in addition to the formal curriculum” (507).
Credential societys use things like diplomas as a sort of filter to determine who is eligible for one job and who isn’t. These skills can be applied to life, as Cedric later discovers. Almost everything in education implies overcoming obstacles and the same can be said for social mobility. The ascent up the social ladder is laden with challenges and meeting people who are formidable competitors. Yet the skills a proper education teaches of how to overcome such difficulties are invaluable in the process of social mobility.
In some sense, education teaches how to best deal with competition and successful management of competition is a precursor for social mobility. In this manner, the two go hand-in-hand. The third core theme is religion and its functionalist impact on human life. The building blocks of capitalism are not economical but religious: Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic “financial success was the blessing that indicated that God was on their side” (13). Throughout the novel, the implied connection is that religion creates intense group ties that help individuals wade through the minefield of life PRIMARY GROUP.
As part of her upbringing, Barbra introduces Cedric to Scripture Church and Pastor Long at an early age. The church community quickly becomes a major portion of Cedric’s life. From his early years, Cedric makes the church a major part of his life. In some ways, the ritual of going to church and the community present at the church are a strong point upon which Cedric draws the courage to keep going while being such a deviant at Ballou. The church helps Cedric build up his defenses for the weathering process that being a deviant entails.
For Cedric, the church community is just what he needs. Religion teaches Cedric the lifelong skill of listening to others and respecting those above him. “Scripture Cathedral offered Cedric and Barbara neat designations of good and evil and strict rules forbidding even common activities, like watching movies or dressing provocatively” (36). It is important to note that religion is important to lay the foundation upon which most of Cedric’s traits later built upon yet Cedric’s tie to religion slowly changes as he travels through his freshman year at Brown.
Here, he is able to incorporate what he learned from Church with daily functioning. Now far from the church, Cedric does not seek another church and distances himself from the word of God. Even so, when he returns to DC, Cedric still attends church but not with the same intensity. About the student body at Brown: “very few of them arrived by simply putting their trust in God and praying everything would work out. Took a lot more than that” (274). However, even without religion playing such an active role in his life, Cedric still continues on a reputable path towards upwards social mobility.
It is interesting that when the circumstances were right, religion was Cedric’s savior yet it appears that once he regained his footing and his confidence, he slowly drifts from religion but does so without hurting his overall goals. Religion, therefore, is functional in establishing a good foundation for future success, yet it appears to be yet another aspect of successful life whose relative importance or emphasis is prone to change over time. The novel demonstrates that an integral component of Cedric’s success were the values he was taught by the church.
“She knows that Bishop’s message is no longer sinking in as deeply as it once did. But it’s already in Cedric – the Holy Spirit, the Word – and it will guide him wherever he goes” (111). In this sense, it can be said that the church was an integral aspect for Cedric’s success and his ultimate social mobility. The church taught Cedric to be humble, decent, and aware of whom he is in relation to others. Many of these values translate to his successful competition with the other Brown undergraduates. “All he has to do, ultimately, is join this crowd academically” (335).
Emile Durkheim and Social Integration: “the degree to which people are tied to their social group” (12). Achieved status. Overall, I really enjoyed the novel. I felt it was a very thorough and accurate portrayal of Cedric (the real man) and explored his inner thoughts and feelings in a complicated and very moving manner. I felt almost as if the descriptions were those of Cedric alone and not simply the reproduced words of the author. I read the afterword written by the author about his process of writing the novel and of ensuring all the descriptions of Cedric’s feelings were accurate according to Cedric himself.
It is therefore no surprise to me that these descriptions seem so authentic. Looking-glass self, as explained by W. E. B. DuBois…the black man does not have a true conscience but rather a double-consciousness – “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (327). Charles Horton Cooley The Looking Glass Self “We imagine how we appear to those around us…we interpret other’s reactions…we develop a self-concept” (68-69).
It is difficult to say whether or not I agree or disagree with the author because in very few places are the author’s feelings ever evidenced. The novel is more or less a portrayal of things as Cedric saw them, with no insight into the author’s true point of view. If anything, it can be said that the author holds Cedric in high esteem and values the sacrifices and hard work Cedric put into his academic career. For this much I certainly agree. I feel Cedric’s journey is undoubtedly praiseworthy and certainly one in a million. There are many people who doubt programs like affirmative action even work.
“a program filled with self-assured middle- or upper-middle-class black and Hispanic kids – leaders of tomorrow, all – many of whom are here for little more than resume padding” (91). Here, it is possible to see how affirmative act falls short in its original intentions. However, this novel is a true demonstration that they DO in fact work for some people who make the most out of the unique opportunity it presents them. Sure, these students will face a much more steep learning curve than others will, but I maintain that having to deal with a steep learning curve is much better than not having a learning curve in the first place.
Courtney from Study Moose
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