Black like (white) me

"A Hope in the Unseen" tells the story of an inner-city black kid at Brown -- through the eyes of a white author who tries to channel him.

Published August 24, 1998 7:09PM (EDT)

Few journeys are as confusing, enraging and potentially rewarding as kicking your way out of the airless box that is America's underclass. I know because I have done it. "A Hope in the Unseen" tells the story of how Cedric Jennings, a bright senior at a failing high school in Southeast Washington, D.C., manages through sheer will -- and with a couple of helping hands along the way -- to make it to the Ivy League. One of those helping hands came from the book's author, Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal reporter whose Pulitzer Prize-winning articles on the teen led to the book.

Suskind spent two and a half years observing Cedric's life as it unrolled -- and at times unraveled -- in school, at home, in church, in a disastrous college prep program at MIT and finally at Brown University. His book shows Cedric's mother, Barbara, as a powerful force behind her son's drive to succeed -- a woman who, with few realistic possibilities left for herself, put all her hopes and dreams in him. Cedric's father, Cedric Gilliam, is a drug abuser who is in prison. The book takes the reader along on Cedric Jennings' poignant adventure, and in doing so puts a human face on the affirmative action debate and resolves it: Cedric makes it because he is given the chance he so clearly craves and deserves; the scores of Cedrics left to flounder in troubled schools must also deserve that chance.

Reading "A Hope in the Unseen" was for me a Clintonesque "I feel your pain" experience. Like Cedric Jennings, I grew up in an inner-city ghetto -- in my case a Brooklyn public housing project, rife with drug abuse, violence and despair, in the '70s. Although uneducated, my parents were as determined to send me to college as was Cedric's mother. Fortunate enough to have had a bookish bent, I too was placed in special classes for promising students and suffered the ridicule of my peers.

The loneliness Cedric feels as one of a handful of top students at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School is deftly rendered by Suskind. I felt disheartened to see that so little has changed from the time I set out on the same path as Cedric many years ago. Then, as now, honor students in tough inner-city schools are viewed with suspicion and contempt. The reader witnesses the ordeal of a quiet, studious boy in a school with a 50 percent dropout rate, where gang members, real and wannabe, hold the highest status. It is not surprising that a good student appears to be emulating something foreign to that kind of environment -- something nerdy, something white.

The book opens with Cedric hiding alone in an empty chemistry room in Ballou High School to avoid the mockery that will inevitably follow his being cited for academic achievement at an assembly. "He looks out the window at a gentle hill of overgrown grass, now patched with snow, and lets his mind wander down two floors and due south to the gymnasium, where he imagines his name being called. Not attending was a calculated bet. He'd heard rumors of possible academic awards. Catcalls from the assemblies last spring and fall still burn in his memory." The throat-tightening fear that one feels in one's own neighborhood, a place that should feel like home, comes across all too effectively. The menacing gang members in school and dangerous drug dealers just outside leave Cedric few oases of peace other than home, empty classrooms or church.

I disagree with the book's suggestion that it is easier on a bright schoolgirl to be seen as a "goody" or a "whitey," however. The emotional pain is just as acute and the threat of physical violence for thinking you're "all that" just as real. In fact, reading about Cedric's fear of identity loss if he went to college made me feel as if I were reading my own memoir. My older sister had taunted me for years because of my stellar school record. She insisted I was just a step away from "white," by which she meant corny, unhip and altogether laughable. By the time I reached college age, I was truly afraid college would transform me into that thing of dread, a white girl -- so much so that I confided those fears to my black college advisor, who reassured me that I would remain myself.

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Cedric is accepted to MIT's Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program, a rigorous, six-week minority recruiting program. Eighty-two percent of the MITES who apply to MIT are accepted and Cedric hopes to be one of them, although he is clearly overwhelmed. I was particularly moved listening to a drowning Cedric lie to his hopeful mother about how the program is "getting easier." Disappointing himself would be painful enough, but letting her down would be even worse. After the phone conversation, we find Cedric upstairs, "lying on his bed with the door closed and lights off, waiting for a miracle that will allow him to keep up with the others ... He realizes that there's only so much he can do. It's not his fault that he started miles behind where most of the other kids did and he'll have to run twice their speed to catch them." I thought back to a phone call I made to my mother during my first year in law school. Floundering and depressed, I told her how hard the work was and how the other students, many of them children of lawyers, seemed to know so much already. But when she said I could always come back home to the projects, I assured her that I was holding my own quite well, thank you. I too was much too proud to accept failure. I was my family's crown jewel, the only one of seven kids to graduate from college and even go on to law school. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and represent to the world that my project family, in the broadest sense of the term, could succeed.

A delightful passage describes Cedric's standing as homey-in-residence among the exclusively middle-class black and Hispanic MITES. For Cedric's 17th birthday, a group of MITES give him what they call a "ghetto bag," stuffed with, among other things, condoms, boom-box batteries and a rap CD. Cedric is delighted with his newfound status and "ghetto" becomes his favorite word, "his imprimatur of coolness." Similarly, in college at Vassar, friends would tell me I seemed so tough, so hip. Yet back in Brooklyn, home of the truly tough and hip, I was a New York Times-reading geek. Cedric captures both our experiences as he marvels that "the whole thing ... is simply amazing. In this crowd of assimilated, careerist black and Hispanic kids, it is he, Cedric -- king of the Ballou nerds, bottom of the Southeast D.C. pecking order -- who can claim a particular brand of racial authenticity. Here, by default, he's actually an arbiter of the fashions, tastes, and habits of inner-city life."

This little bit of glory makes it all the more painful to witness Cedric crash and burn: His academic skills are not up to par, nor is his conduct, which elicits complaints. A girl complains that Cedric has been "touchy-feely" with her. Teachers and student tutors comment that he seems "volatile and depressed," his midterm grades are bad. He's eventually told he's not "MIT material" and returns to Ballou, crushed. But Cedric's single-minded resolve returns and he enrolls in the school's college prep class. A science teacher tells Cedric about a Ballou High athlete who got into Brown a decade ago and, like an ivy-seeking missile, Cedric zeroes in on the prestigious school. He applies early so that he'll have time to target another school if he's rejected -- and gets admitted. There he struggles initially, but slowly gets his footing, helped financially by a benefactor who'd read about him in the Wall Street Journal.

This leads me to wonder what effect an omnipresent, note-taking reporter had on Cedric's life. Is he admitted to Brown, despite a 910 SAT score that "puts him nearly 400 points shy" of the average score of 1290, because he's being tailed by a prominent journalist who's writing a book -- about him? And how plausible is Suskind's insistence that Cedric was able "to proceed unfettered, to succeed or fail, as would any other freshman" because the professors at Brown didn't know which student he was following around, this despite Suskind's highly publicized articles and television appearances?

This is further complicated by the book's narrative voice, which is a blend of Jennings' and Suskind's. The blur is so distracting that I found myself questioning where Cedric ends and Ron begins. Would a black teenage boy from the ghetto describe a crack dealer's hair as "mottled from being outside all day" (an image I have yet to be able to visualize) or is that the language of a white reporter who simply doesn't know from knots, naps and peas? In an interesting passage, Cedric visits Justice Clarence Thomas, who has read about the student in the Wall Street Journal and seeks him out. In the guise of mentor, Thomas toots his own horn for hours, rails against affirmative action and advises Cedric to take "real" classes instead of "Afro-American studies stuff." Yet one might ask whose voice is describing the interior of the U.S. Supreme Court as "shades of white ... like it must be in heaven," Thomas' grim perspective as a "dark vision" and Washington's Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue as a "gritty circus." And is it really Cedric's internal voice saying that his high school peers are denizens of a "shadowy corner of America," whom befriending, like "doing drugs ... puts you on a path to ruin"?

It is troubling that Cedric's quest seems limited to ditching his old life as quickly and completely as possible, along with everyone in it. It is isolating to be different, whether the bad student in a good school or the good student in a bad one. Yet Cedric seemed to keep himself apart even from the other honor students at Ballou. And it's natural to yearn for something "other," even an unseen other, if the world around you appears bleak and frightening. But Suskind describes, and seems to celebrate, a young black man consumed by one ambition, "to do well and leave everyone behind." Cedric is "on a mission to get out of here, to be the one who makes it," to "get out of this hole." He "hates" the black kids at Ballou or at least what they "represent," yet he also initially hates the middle-class blacks in the MIT program because they are the enemy -- his competition.

Once at Brown, he shuns other blacks in favor of white males because he has spent his "whole life with blacks." Although he does, to his credit, make the gesture of returning to Ballou at the end of his freshman year for Alumni Day, he lies to his teachers about having a 4.0 grade-point average, gives a halfhearted speech that he barely believes in and leaves after noticing a blood stain on the floor, "knowing only that there's no need to ever come back to this place." But boy, is he happy to get back to Brown and away from his old 'hood, where people who probably never set foot on a college campus ask him "off-target, generally uninformed questions about his new life in Providence." Cedric, I ask you, how could it be otherwise? Have a little mercy! In the book's epilogue we find Cedric "killing time at his clerical job in the Brown admissions office," savoring the "ease" of his new life. He remembers his old world with all its worry and stress, but cheerily concludes that its absence is "one he can easily live with." Cedric Jennings has indeed left it all behind, but sadly, he may have also left a little too much of himself along the way.

"A Hope in the Unseen" isn't the first time a white person has attempted to crawl inside the skin of someone black to tell the story of what that feels like. It was done somewhat embarrassingly in the 1960s in books such as "Black Like Me," in which the white author donned blackface and strolled briefly through the "Negro's" world. In the 1990s, films such as "Hoop Dreams" succeeded because they recognized a simple truth -- that in any medium, the most compelling voice a person has is his or her own. Perhaps one day Cedric Jennings will write his own memoir.

In an author's note, Suskind refers to the principal people in the book as "characters" whose "portraits" are elucidated with "internal voice passages, crucial to understanding [their] points of view." He describes the thoughts and feelings of his characters not from his point of view but from his imagining of their own. Thus, we have an invisible narrator -- a virtual Cedric -- telling us what Cedric is saying "over and over in his head," as well as what he thinks, wonders, figures, imagines and muses. Suskind also recounts what Cedric's mother feels, wonders and thinks, as well as the cogitations of various high schoolers, church-goers and college students. Understandably, he goes to great lengths to persuade us that he, a self-described "white middle-class guy with a mortgage and kids," has authentically captured America through the eyes of a black teenager from a drug- and violence-plagued inner-city neighborhood who is riddled with all manner of fear, confusion and anger culled over a lifetime. Suskind seeks to bring the reader into this mind, to be the "white guy [who] can get it." Unfortunately, that's the problem with the book. The voice we are told we're hearing is Cedric's -- not that of Ron, the white guy who has gotten it. Certainly, a writer of one race can write the biography of a person of a different race. But the sleight of hand Suskind attempts is far trickier -- to write that person's memoir, which is essentially an act of autobiography. Empathy is one thing, and Suskind has plenty. But channeling, if you will, is quite another. Suskind may be unseen but you definitely know he's there.

By Janet Mcdonald

Janet McDonald is the author of "Project Girl," a memoir tracing her troubled path as a high-IQ student from the projects to a successful law career. It will be published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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