Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey From the Inner City to the Ivy League

Overview

In 1995, Wall Street Journal writer Ron Suskind won a Pulitzer Prize for his two-part series about Cedric Jennings, an intelligent student trapped in a high-crime, inner-city school, and Jennings's struggle to succeed out of that world.

As it turned out, those high school years were only half the story. Once out of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood and in his freshman year at Brown University, Jennings had to fight once again to keep up, ...

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Overview

In 1995, Wall Street Journal writer Ron Suskind won a Pulitzer Prize for his two-part series about Cedric Jennings, an intelligent student trapped in a high-crime, inner-city school, and Jennings's struggle to succeed out of that world.

As it turned out, those high school years were only half the story. Once out of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood and in his freshman year at Brown University, Jennings had to fight once again to keep up, understand, and be understood in a mostly white world he knew little of.

Suskind kept in close contact with Jennings after the initial stories and the result is A Hope in the Unseen , a thorough biography of Jennings's drive and rise out of the inner city into the Ivy League and the renewed struggle he faced there.

Though it took an almost preternatural level of ambition to escape the inner city, Jennings didn't do it alone. His mother, Barbara, was a constant motivator and supporter, as were his minister and his chemistry teacher.

This excerpt, from almost the middle of the book, shows Jennings on his first day of college, moving into his dorm room and watching his mother drive away.

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
YA-Cedric Jennings is the illegitimate son of an off-and-on drug dealer/ex-con and a hardworking, badly paid mother; it is her single-minded vision to have the boy escape the mean ghetto streets unscathed. Cedric has listened to her and is, as the book opens, an A student at a run-down, dispirited Washington, DC, high school, where he treads a thin line between being tagged a nerd and being beaten by gang leaders. Suskind, a Wall Street Journal reporter, follows the African-American youth through his last two years of high school and freshman year at Brown University. Inspirational sermons at a Pentecostal church, guidance from his mother, a love of black music and singing, and a refuge in the logic of math combine with the young man's determination and faith in the future to keep him focused on his goal of a topflight college education. Despite many low moments and setbacks, Jennings's story is one of triumph within both cultures, black and white, which together and separately put tremendous obstacles in his path out of the inner city. It is a privilege and an inspiration for readers to accompany Cedric on part of his long, difficult journey to maturity. His journey continues at this moment, since he is now a senior at Brown this fall. YAs of any background will be introduced to new worlds here.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Suskind, a journalist, tells the story of one African-American youth's rise from poverty-stricken Anacostia, in southeast Washington D.C., to the ivied halls of Brown University. In 1995, Suskind won a Pulitzer Prize for two articles he wrote for the Wall Street Journal on Cedric Jennings, an African-American student at one of the poorest schools in the capital, whose studiousness and ambition earn him a place in MIT's summer program for minority youth. Suskind's book expands on that story, extending it to Cedric's admission to Brown University and first year there, weaving interviews with Cedric, his family, teachers, and friends into a narrative that shows the challenges facing a ghetto youth bent on academic achievement. Paradoxically, both the inner-city code of youthful male behavior and the teachings of the Pentecostal church Cedric attends with his mother conspire to discourage intellectual distinction. The drama of the story is in the mediations Cedric learns to make between the inherited and the chosen, yet 'unseen,' parts of his life. Suskind plays to the sense of closure and, in this case, a happy ending the very format of a book (unlike a newspaper article) encourages, but cannot really achieve here, since Cedric's life in college, and beyond, is still in process. By the end of the book, the young man has forgiven his high school nemeses, been reconciled with his absent father, and found social acceptance at Brown. Left hanging is the question of the ultimate success of Cedric's quest, which he is still only beginning. One senses the existence of conflicts unresolved and questions unanswered. This engaging success story leaves behind a troubling aftertaste ofpersonal and social wounds that appear to have been too artfully healed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767901253
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/1998
  • Pages: 372
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Suskind is a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal.  In 1995, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for a two-part series about the high-school years of Cedric Jennings.  Suskind and his family live in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

The next morning blooms into a radiant, cloudless day, as it ought to be. Freshmen arrive for orientation, ferried by a grand procession of proud parents.

Barbara, tired from the drive, gets a late start and, before long, the day feels harried. It's nearly noon by the time they get to College Hill, a steep slope on top of which Brown sits like a cloud city above the gritty ethnic enclaves, legendary Italian restaurants, and aging factories of Providence. "I wanted to get this all done early. Now look," she says, sitting in the van near the Brown student union as Cedric, looking at a checklist in his orientation packet, slips out to go get his temporary student ID. "Don't be all day, Lavar," she calls after him, all business, "I gotta get back home."

Cedric has drawn a desirable dorm, Andrews Hall. It's a three-story brick horseshoe on the quieter Pembroke side of campus that was renovated over the summer and now boasts fresh carpeting and new paint. From the Andrews parking lot, they unload the van swiftly, with Cedric helping on this end. While Barbara glances tersely at other parents--mostly white, of course--unloading Lexuses and Range Rovers and Volvo wagons, she notices that Cedric seems to be increasingly relaxed--smiling at some of the other incoming freshmen and offering unsolicited greetings.

"These dorms are nice," Barbara notes over her shoulder to Cedric, who is dragging a trunk full of linens behind her across the second-floor hallway carpet. Remembering Cedric's complaints about last summer's dorms, she adds, "And a lot nicer than MIT, ain't it?"

"Lot nicer," he says, almost shouting. "This place is nothing like MIT."

A small paper squaretaped to the door of room 216 says "Cedric Lavar Jennings and Robert Burton." Cedric fumbles with the key and opens the heavy wooden door.

"Wow," he says.

"Hmmm, very nice," Barbara confirms.

His roommate, Rob, has already been here, settled in and gone. Barbara moves to the empty bed and starts unpacking while Cedric goes back downstairs for the rest. She carefully places a dozen new pairs of underwear, a dozen new pairs of socks, and six new T-shirts (clothes bought with money she didn't have to spare) onto closet shelves, and she begins a ritual that she figures is being repeated at this moment in hundreds of rooms across the campus: a mother making her child's bed for the last time. It's not like Barbara made his bed back home, she muses, but it doesn't matter. She made a thousand beds before she was twenty, and now she meticulously presses flat a fold of sheet, tucking it tight. Cedric returns, carrying his CDs, and crosses the room to check the unfamiliar titles in Rob's collection as Barbara lays the blanket and smoothes it.

With the van unpacked and their stomachs growling, Barbara decides they should walk to one of the dining halls for lunch. Soon, she and Cedric are strolling the campus, through archways and across neatly edged rectangles of thick grass.

While Barbara is delighted that Cedric, so tightly wound yesterday, is now buoyantly bouncing as he walks, an unwanted self-consciousness is welling up inside her. She'd rather not notice the cars other parents are driving, the clothes they're wearing, and the ease with which they move. She knows, of course, that the typical Brown parents probably went to college and on to some professional status that their offspring, by virtue of this Ivy League acceptance, are now bounding toward. Here, it's a day for her to be proud, but she can't help staring at them--these smiling, polished people--and overhearing their jaunty melody of generational succession: a child's footsteps following their own, steps on a path that leads to prosperity's table and a saved seat right next to Mom and Dad.

Barbara, watching Cedric demolish a ham sandwich at the dining hall, tries to figure out what she brings to this place, where she fits. It's her day, too, she resolves, looking across a dining hall filled with effusive, chatty parents and freshmen, though her song is flat and elemental--an old, familiar harmony, really, about sacrifice and denial and a child venturing where the parent never could.

"Really is a whole 'nother world up here," she says quietly across the table as Cedric reaches for her untouched sandwich, barely noticing that she's there. In that instant, she realizes how afraid she is that she might lose him.

It's almost two o'clock when they head back to the dorm. Near the new, soaring brick medical school, Cedric spots a bumper sticker on a parked car: "Your Honor Student Was Beaten Up By My Kid" it says, a play on the honor student bumper stickers that are especially popular in the inner cities.

"That car must be from D.C.," he jokes, and Barbara puts her arm around him as they laugh.

A tall, thin Caucasian girl with hazel-blue eyes, a row of earrings, and a shaved head strolls by. "Isn't that awful," Barbara murmurs to Cedric after the girl passes. "Must be chemotherapy." He nods sympathetically.

A few blocks ahead, passing a lovely Victorian house just north of Andrews dorm, Barbara admires the wide, circular porch and an apple arbor alongside it. "That fruit could feed a lot of hungry people," she says as they walk the last few feet to the dorm. Inside Cedric's room, they're puttering around when the door opens. It's a smallish white boy with dark hair, a faint Van Dyke beard, and sandals.

"You must be Rob," says Cedric with a wide smile.

"You must be Cedric," he echoes back in a soft, cheery voice.

Barbara nods a hello at him and rises from Cedric's bed. She knows that the time has come. In a moment, she and Cedric go down the elevator and outside and begin walking the last block to the van. She doesn't want to lead and senses that he doesn't either, so their pace slows until they're almost weaving--like they're not going anywhere, really. But as he looks down at his feet, she's able to glimpse the side of his face without him knowing. And Barbara Jennings can't help but hear echoes of her earlier self, holding a baby a little too tight, saying, "I'll save you, and me, too."

At the bumper of the van, he looks up.

"You be good, okay?" she says.

"Yeah . . ."

"Come here," she finally says, holding her arms out wide, and the two fall together as she presses her cheek hard against his.

"Trust in God, let Him guide you," she whispers.

"I will, Ma."

They hug for a good, long time. She's not been a mother to show him much physical affection in these latter years. The situation demanded strength. She had to be a father, too, as best she knew how, and maybe that hardened her touch. So, as they pull apart, she finds that her cheeks are flushed. She shakes it off.

"Okay, now," Barbara says. She reaches into the back seat and gives him a Frito-Lay assortment pack, uneaten from the trip. He nods. She gets into the front seat and waves once, and Cedric begins ambling down the hill toward the dorm.

"Wait!" She spots his deodorant in the space between the seats and yells through the open window. He runs the few feet back to get it.

"All right, 'bye," she says, and he turns, briskly walking back to the dorm as she watches him in the rearview. He doesn't look back.

Barbara is quiet as the van eases into gear and drifts onto the quiet street. She told herself she wouldn't cry, so she tries to occupy her eyes, looking at things she passes by. That Victorian would sure be nice, she thinks to herself, heading past the wraparound porch.

But something's wrong. She snaps to attention. The money!

Next thing, she's back in the dorm parking lot and then running up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

The door to room 216 bursts open. "I forgot this," Barbara says, panting, and squeezes three neatly folded twenties into her son's hand. Already, though, the room belongs to Cedric Lavar Jennings, a Brown freshman, and that nice white boy on the other bed. She feels suddenly unsure. Cedric is smiling broadly but like he's looking right through her. "Well, good-bye Lavar," she says simply and slips out. Doesn't hug him this time. She'd think a lot about that later.

It takes a moment for the heavy oak door to swing on its hinge. And when it slams, it's like a thunder clap, leaving her alone with the smell of fresh paint.



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Interviews & Essays

On Thursday, June 11, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ron Suskind, author of A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN.


Moderator: Thanks for joining us this evening, Ron Suskind, to discuss your first book, A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN, which is based on your Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper feature on an incredible young man, Cedric Jennings. How are you doing this evening?

Ron Suskind: I'm doing great. We are on a book tour, and we are in San Francisco today.



Kris from Wilmington, DE: How did you first meet Cedric Jennings? How closely did you work with him? Are you still in touch now?

Ron Suskind: I met Cedric in 1994. I was then, like now, The Wall Street Journal senior national affairs writer, and in that job I was searching for a story that I thought might be interesting, and it was about kids learning, or attempting to learn, in war-zone high schools, in some of our blighted urban areas. I had visited schools in tough urban areas, and I was interested in what it would take to learn in that kind of environment. That's sort of a herculean feat. So I went to what is arguably the worst high school in the District of Columbia, one of the worst school systems in country, called Frank Bellou High School. And I met students with top GPAs. But as is often the case, some of the best journalistic endeavors are the ones that are not what you would expect, and here the honor students hid. They would not raise their hands in class or come to awards ceremonies designed to honor them, so my reporting project looked destined for failure. Until one day I was in the principal's office lamenting all this with the principal, about the undercover honors students who wouldn't want me to uncover them, and a kid walked into the office, kind of a gangly, cocky 16-year-old kid, and began arguing ferociously about a grade, saying he was going to fight it, that he deserved an A+ and he was given an A-. And as he walked out, I said, "Who's that?" And the principal said, "That's Cedric Jennings, but stay away from him, he's nothing but trouble. Straight A's but he has a quick tongue, and he is too proud. Gets him into a lot of trouble around here. He's a real target." And I thought about that for a second or two, and I decided I would run up and find where Cedric had gone, and that was four and a half years ago, now, at the beginning of an odd sort of partnership where I have been committed to trying to see the world through his eyes, and see what I could learn from that exercise. Yes, Kris, we are in touch. I talk to Cedric every day or every few days. We see each other often. Our families are friendly, and he is doing fine. He'll be a senior at Brown University in the fall, he has a B average, and he has grown from that gangly 16-year-old that I met to a young man almost 21, of gravity and grace and poise.



S. Freeman from Ann Arbor, MI: I have been reading your book, and at times the scenes read like a novel. I am assuming that this is not a strictly journalistic account, in the sense that you are not merely reporting. What were your goals in writing this book? What sort of book is it?

Ron Suskind: A reviewer recently on NPR called it a suspense novel with great issues of the country at stake, and all true. The kind of book, the reviewer said, that both illuminates real truths about America, but also a book that you would take to the beach. So, that gets to this interesting issue that you raise. The intention was to marry rigorous, dense reporting, which I have learned over years at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and other publications, with a kind of point-of-view writing, where you see things through the eyes of the characters. In tone, certainly, that will feel more like a novel, and that process of getting to that place was one for me of having to write and rewrite, to figure out how to do it. For years, I have done the more traditional sort of evolved newspaper/magazine feature writing where you sense the presence of the writer as narrator or explainer or person who offers why you ought to read this paragraph, about, for instance, what points or issues are illustrated by the story. In this case, I tried ot go to another step, to a step away from that, and maybe in certain narrative ways beyond that, and I don't do any of that in the book. I don't stand up and say here are the important issues that the book answers or solves, I just let the readers see whatever they see, in the complex and often suspenseful, uplifting, harrowing, funny, and telling journey of Cedric. Especially nowadays in our very fractious political, special-interest, single-issue environment, I feel as though this allows more readers from various camps of our society to join in and embrace a story.



Heather from Utica, NY: At what point did you decide to pursue Cedric's story with a full-length book? Was it before or after he entered Brown? What made you decide to follow his freshman year?

Ron Suskind: I wrote about Cedric in 1994 for The Wall Street Journal, two stories that won the Pulitzer Prize, and then I just talked to him sort of infrequently from the fall of 1994 until the spring of 1995, at which point I found out he got into Brown, and decided that I would try to follow him through his freshman year for a book. From that point, there were all sorts of logistical issues, and access issues, and basic block-and-tackle reporting issues that I had to deal with to make sure by the end of the summer of 1995 that indeed I would be able to really watch him go through Brown in a way that would not affect how his journey would otherwise look if I were not there.



Betsy Anne Washington from Maryland: The title to this book is beautiful and, I think, true to the case described in your book. Could you tell us where this title came from, and for those who haven't read the book, what it means?

Ron Suskind: At one point, while he was a junior in high school, Cedric was vexed about betting everything, all of the eggs in one basket -- on the dream that he could go to one of the famous Ivy League colleges. What vexed him, specifically, was the idea that these were places he had never even seen before and barely could imagine, and that he might not be accepted up there, up ahead, if he ever managed to make it. And then he might be lost. And a teacher who heard Cedric voice these doubts said to him, "But Cedric, faith is a hope in the unseen." And Cedric and he -- the chemistry teacher Clarence Taylor -- had a funny give-and-take. Cedric knows actually the proper line from Scripture from which that comes, Hebrews 11 1, which is "Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." But he kind of liked the botched-up version, and in a way, he kind of pocketed it, and that phrase is what helped propel him across the country from one America to the other, almost like so many immigrants have crossed oceans to come to this land that they could barely imagine. Throughout always figures the unseen as a place, up ahead, where he will be accepted for who he is, judged on his merits, and ultimately, finally comfortable in his skin. A place where he will finally find a home in America.



Megan from Williamsburg, VA: How much do we hear Cedric's voice in this book? Do you include excerpts from him? Obviously he is the focal point of the book -- I am just wondering how involved he was in writing it? Thanks for taking my question.

Ron Suskind: Not at all. He was not involved at all in the writing of the book. His voice is often heard in dialogue, and his thoughts are heard in my representations of what I know he is thinking -- based on rigorous interviews -- at various moments. He did, after the book was written, sit for four days on a couch in my living room with a three-pack of Post-Its and a red pen, marking anything that he did not feel was completely accurate. I made, based on that, a few minor alterations, and then we went to press.



Pauline Brooks from Austin, TX: Does Cedric mind being the central focus of a book? What does he think of A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN?

Ron Suskind: Cedric is certainly the main character, comprising about 60 percent of the narrative, and 12 other characters, most prominently his mother and father, along with teachers, friends, and a few odd cameos by Clarence Thomas and the former radical leader of the Weather Underground, Bernadine Dohrn, comprise the rest. Cedric's reaction to the book? Thrilled. He has embraced it, and he goes on tour with me on many events, answering questions, giving his impressions, and in some cases citing passages.



Megan from New York City: Jonathan Yardley of The Washinton Post called the book a tremendous and empathetic leap by a white reporter, daring to try to understand what a black guy might see, to "get it." How do you think you measure up to that challenge?

Ron Suskind: For that I really have to defer to Cedric. He's often asked that question, and his response is, "Ron got real real real real real close. Closer than I ever imagined anyone could. He got me 99 percent." And that, I think, heartens me as a writer and as a person. That we can really cross divides with shared understanding, albeit, given often herculean effort.



Paul from Williamsburg, VA: Could you tell us a bit about how Cedric Jennings was received upon entering an Ivy League college? I can imagine that, despite our idealistic hopes, it was difficult for him to really fit in. Did he ever find his way?

Ron Suskind: Well, when Cedric arrives at Brown, it is as though he has arrived from another planet. Twenty years or 30 years ago, kids from the ghetto made it to the top colleges with greater regularity than now. As one professor at Brown said to me, "You can make a place like this look like a rainbow without ever having to go, nowadays, to the ghetto." There are plenty of middle-class black and Latino kids to fill the slots, kids who will most probably succeed. Cedric is isolated. He doesn't know basic things because he's never learned them, he's never been exposed to themFaulkner, Hemingway, Winston Churchill, all people from some other country. And beyond being academically overmatched, he is profoundly confused socially by what he sees. Cedric, after all, is a church kid. That's an important reason why he made it. He doesn't smoke or drink or mess around. At Brown, the upwardly mobile black kids or upper-middle-class white kids do all of those things and still ace tests. So Cedric needs to feel his way along in the darkness through much of the year, trying to find common ground, and eventually, and I think hearteningly, he succeeds. And that is part of what at the end is so hopeful about the book. If a kid like Cedric, who is like tens of thousands of kids, who each year are left behind, if he can find common ground with kids from the opposite end of America, then maybe in the end we can become one country, rather than two countries, if that makes any sense.



Moderator: Ron Suskind, thank you so much for leading this fascinating discussion of your book, A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN. Do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Ron Suskind: I have come to understand that the reason Cedric's story is resonating so powerfully with readers is that, in some ways, it's the universal story, similar to almost all the great storeis that we have embraced. Like Gulliver, or Gilgamesh, or Hiawatha, a young man leaves his home and journeys into an undiscovered country, and along the way faces enormous obstacles, hurdles, and is tested. And in meeting those tests, he ends up being changed, and he returns home somewhat different from the person who left. And that certainly is what happens to Cedric. And at the same time, it is a quintessentially American story of grit, perseverence, and ingenuity in following one's dreams. In such a story -- sort of a shared national narrative -- I think we can all find a place.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2000

    Expanding my Thouhgts

    I strolled the campus of Cornell University and quickly decided to make it my home for the next four years. Yet I failed to realize the many challenges I will face there as an African-American male. Although I reside in the suburbs, and have been a lone black male in many of my classes, Cedric's struggle has given me great insight to the road I am about to embark upon.This book is passionate, well written, and should be implemented into humanities classes throughout the country. Ron Suskind's biography of Cedric's life has greatly impacted my approach to becoming a great scholar at Cornell University. Because of its impact on my thought process, I recommend this book to anyone who is willing to take an epic journey through the mind of a young-man venturing through the American struggle.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2000

    A Hope Needed to be Seen

    While I struggled to relate directly to Cedric, in his most difficult situation in an inner city public schools, I found the story most interesting. I especially enjoyed the story, because I live in DC, as did Cedric, yet I have been sheltered from the life that he was forced to live. I never imagined how a few miles away, life could be so drastically different. I never thought about how bad DC public schools might be, even though I attended one for 8 years. While I wasn't able to relate to Cedric and his situation, I found it very interesting how much different DC public schools actually are from one section of the city to another. I would most definetely recommend this book to all readers, and hope that the next person enjoys it a

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2000

    The More Aware the Better

    I am a seventeen-year-old senior in high school. I was assigned to read this book in my Social History class along side the study of the history of the SATs. We focused primarily on the first half of the book, where Cedric Jennings is in high school, struggling with SAT scores, applications, etc. This book reads very easily. You gain immediate access to most of the characters, which allows a better insight into Cedric's situation. Although Barbara Jennings (Cedric's mother) is not in the story as much as I thought she should have been, Suskind is able to make his readers understand where she is coming from when she comes down hard on Cedric. I think this book accurately portrays a struggle that many people must face. Cedric was forced to make some tough decisions and was pushed past his limit on more than one occasion, and we are able to see him through each incident through Suskind's writing. It's worth the time to look at this one boy's experience -- there is so much that can be done to improve public schools, the SAT test's fairness, the college application/admission process, how colleges deal with diversity, etc. If we're not aware of how bad these things are getting, nothing will ever get done.

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