Hope in the Unseen

By Ron Suskind / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
In 1994, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind stopped by the principal's office in Washington, D.C.'s Frank W. Ballou High School in search of students striving for educational excellence amid discouraging circumstances. There he overheard a young man arguing loudly for a higher grade in a computer science class. "Who," demanded Suskind as soon as the boy had left, "was that?"

That was Cedric Jennings, an ambitious fifteen-year-old, the poor son of a clerical worker and a jailed drug dealer, who desperately wanted to make it not only to college, but to an elite four-year institution. Suskind chronicled Cedric's quest in a pair of articles that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. When Cedric was admitted to Brown's class of 1999, Suskind continued the project as a book centering on Cedric's freshman year. The result is A Hope in the Unseen, published this May by Broadway Books.

Cedric's transition from inner city to Ivy League is predictably daunting. Academically, his self-confidence is shattered. Culturally, this product of an all-black neighborhood and a religious upbringing must learn to decode an alien world whose signposts, from Sylvia Plath to Jerry Garcia, are only dimly familiar.

Cedric must also bridge chasms of race and class to find common ground with people like Rob (not his real name), the roommate with whom he spends much of the year feuding; Zayd, a fellow rap-music aficionado who becomes Cedric's first white friend; and Chiniqua, the only other black freshman in Cedric's unit (and his occasional date).

As our excerpt begins, it is spring, and Cedric is beginning to hit his stride.



What the hell is Rob up to, Cedric wonders as he glances over at his roommate - a vision of preppy casualness in his torn khaki shorts, Marblehead Yacht Club T-shirt, and sandals - hovering near Cedric's CD player like he's looking for something.

"I really like this. I mean, it's growing on me," Rob finally says, snapping his fingers. "Who is it?"

Cedric pushes aside his psychology textbook and looks over, astonished. "You like it?!" he laughs. "No lie?"

"Yeah. So . . . are you gonna tell me who it is or make me guess?"

"It's Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir. The song is called `I'll Fly Away.' "

" 'I'll Fly Away,' " Rob says, nodding meaningfully as he turns to go. "It's, you know, great."

The door slams, and Cedric leans back in his chair, bemused, shaking his freshly shaven head. Rob has actually been borrowing some of Cedric's Cds lately, and Cedric is developing a passing interest in Alanis Morissette, one of Rob's favorites. Crazy.

April, he decides as he cranks Hezekiah a notch, is turning out to be his best month, even if it's only one week old. He's still daydreaming about his Friday night out with Chiniqua. Meanwhile, all's well with Zayd, who beat him last night in Supernintendo - on Cedric's TV, at that. Word is out that the marquee musical act for Spring Weekend in two weeks is the Fugees, so they joyously blasted the group's music in honor of the announcement and talked until late, first in Cedric's room and then in Zayd's. The fact that Zayd got the band's first CD last year, when they were unknown, combined with Cedric's casual aside last winter that he thought the group's curious mix of hip-hop and soul and rock was at best "derivative," gives Zayd bragging rights on having discovered them first. He's crowing over this small victory, something that would have irritated Cedric a few months back. But not so much anymore, Cedric muses, closing psychology for today and stretching some kinks out of his lower back. That Zayd gets straight A's and has pretty fair musical tastes doesn't necessarily say anything about Cedric.

Everything seems to be getting easier. He recalls last semester, when whatever the other kids said or did, the way they acted and addressed him - or, for that matter, ignored him - felt like some form of slight. A judgment on his unworthiness. Cedric's not sure what, specifically, has changed, but actions and words, in the dorm or the cafeteria or the classroom, seem to carry less weight, less personal charge.


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Related Issue
May / June 1998