Friday, February 15, 2002
Book Review Reading for Black History Month: Ron Suskind's A Hope in the Unseen
February is Black History Month, a time when we celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans throughout our national history, and study their experience as Americans. The necessity to separate these accomplishments and this experience from the mainstream successes and history of the nation says a good deal about our collective effort to correct ignorance caused by injustices which resonate down the 300 years of our existence on these shores. If African Americans had always been valued as citizens equal under the law and under moral consciousness, there would be no need to treat their accomplishments as if they had occurred in some kind of parallel universe. However, the obstacles placed in their way by the very people with whom their experience has been intertwined have forced on their experience a parallel quality. Out of those obstacles has come a body of invention and contribution unique to America and a literature that specifically defines the black experience here in the U.S. From the poems of the eighteenth-century slave Phyllis Wheatley to the great poets, novelists, speechmakers and essayists of the twentieth century, African American literature is rich in art, depth, and in the separateness of the black experience.
At the end of the twentieth century, however, comes a book which chronicles the struggle and eventual success of a young black man in our society, a book which finally begins the process of dovetailing black and white experience in this country. A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind, came out of a 1995 Pulitzer prize-winning series written for the Wall Street Journal.
In 1994, Suskind was researching the experience of students who were striving for excellence amid disadvantage and discouragement in inner city schools. He met 15-year-old Cedric Jennings at Frank W. Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. and began the odyssey with this remarkable young man which is the story of the book. A Hope in the Unseen opens with Cedric "holed up in a deserted chemistry classroom," having cut an awards assembly at which he would have been recognized for his academic accomplishments, because he couldn't take the abuse of being called "Nerd! Geek! Egghead! And the harshest, Whitey!"
Cedric's journey from that fearful beginning takes us deep into the grim inner city of Washington, where a picture of hopelessness, skillfully drawn by Suskind, would test the most courageous among us. Cedric is among the most determined, and he has a talented and equally determined set of supporters who keep him off the streets and in school. His mother, bringing up her family alone, keeps him in church and enforces strict discipline at home; a teacher, Mr. Taylor, assists him in applying to a summer program at M.I.T.; and finally, after years of hard work and development, aided by devoted and persevering adults and minutely chronicled by Suskind, Cedric is accepted to Brown University.
A Hope in the Unseen was published in book form in 1998; at that time, Cedric Jennings was a student at Brown. Suskind attributes his success there to the many adults who helped him along the way, but mostly to Cedric himself, who "had hope in a better world he could not yet see that overwhelmed the cries of 'you can't' or 'you won't' or 'why bother.' More than anything else, mustering that faith, on cue, is what separated him from his peers, and distinguishes him from so many people in these literal, sophisticated times. It has made all the difference."
Suskind's fine writing elevates this book beyond an inspirational story to one which is so based in reality that Cedric's success seems not only more remarkable, but in many ways simply logical: the only reasonable end. The people in Cedric's story are not gods, but human beings, and their situations are rendered with unbiased, journalistic clarity throughout.
This is a peculiarly American success story, which demonstrates not only the hope of a bright, resolute young man to succeed, but also the hope of a meaningful melding of black and white experience in America. Cedric Jennings graduated from Brown in 1999 with a major in applied mathematics.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito