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Most people aren't so lucky
A Hope in the Unseen
Broadway Books, $25
by Ron Suskind
Review by Wendy Brandes
Web posted on: Tuesday, July 21, 1998 1:56:19 PM EDT
(CNN) -- As more voters, politicos and talk-show hosts write off affirmative action as a well-intentioned anachronism, "A Hope in the Unseen" should be required reading for would-be opinion-mongers.
Equal opportunity doesn't exist in the classrooms and hallways of inner-city schools like Frank W. Ballou Senior High in Washington D.C., where crack dealers solicit customers on nearby streets and in one year, Ballou itself was the site of a shooting, a stabbing and an ax attack.
Cedric Jennings, the son of a jailed heroin dealer, was a junior that year. The class clown called him "the amazing nerdboy"; the assistant principal said he was "nothing but trouble ... too proud." A straight-A student with Ivy League dreams, he was mocked and threatened by his peers, who interpreted his ambition as rejection. But he was also a problem for a school administration that -- by necessity -- had more experience with crowd control than college preparation.
"Wall Street Journal" reporter Ron Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize for a two-part series he wrote about Cedric in 1994. The articles were simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, following Cedric from Ballou to a summer program for minority math and science whizzes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, Cedric hoped to find an intellectually challenging home -- a payoff for years of independent study, religious faith and social deprivation. Instead, he was so handicapped by inadequate schooling that he was an outsider again, miles behind black and Latino students from top public and private schools. And yet, the second article ended with Cedric still looking to break out into a top-ranked college.
A year later, incredibly enough, he was headed to Brown University. Hot on his trail was Suskind, with a contract to expand his articles to a book. Unfortunately, in carrying out his mission, Suskind dropped his objective reporter's voice to put himself inside Cedric's head. Such novelistic conceits may be all the rage in nonfiction these days, but in this book the device seems fake. Time and again, one is moved to wonder just how Suskind knows the immediate thoughts of Cedric, his mother, his classmates and his teachers. Obviously, he interviewed the participants at length and probably witnessed some of the events he writes about. But which passages came from where?
Also, Cedric is bright and driven, but he's still a kid, meaning Suskind the newspaper professional brought a lot more to the story than Suskind the faux teen-ager of the book. For example, the second newspaper article included a devastating description of Cedric's reaction to a dismissive evaluation from MIT professor Leon Trilling, who tells Cedric not only that he isn't up to the demands of MIT but that he ought to lower his college ambitions well below the Ivy League, perhaps toward one of the traditionally black colleges: "The next morning, wandering out into the foyer as calculus class ends, (Cedric) finally blows. 'He made me feel so small, this big,' he says, almost screaming, as he presses his fingers close. 'Not MIT material' ... Who is he to tell me that? He doesn't know what I've been through. This is it, right, this is racism. A white guy telling me I can't do it.' " Contrast this to the book's omniscient and more childlike narration, which ends with Cedric moping in bed: "With his eyes still closed, Cedric yells, 'RACIST!'"
Cedric's mother, Barbara Jennings, deserved a more complex portrait. A single mother and one-time welfare recipient, she became a clerical worker for the federal government and her son's source of strength, emphasizing education as a way out. But, at times, she focuses so single-mindedly on Cedric's future that she seems unable to cope with the here and now, and Suskind takes at face value her rationales for falling behind in rent while turning over precious dollars to her Pentecostal church.
The church's preacher, "Bishop" C.L. Long, is another figure whose contradictions aren't fully explored. He's a vital source of inspiration for the Jennings family and others in his poverty-stricken congregation. Yet he constantly passes the collection plate -- and drives a Rolls Royce.
Suskind's biggest gaffe is his reticence about his own impact on Cedric's life. Particularly grating is a chapter on Cedric's meeting with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which follows what the author coyly describes as "a story in the Wall Street Journal." Obviously, the publicity accorded Cedric's struggles makes all sorts of prominent people willing to meet with him. Indeed, it is not clear that Cedric would ever have made it to Brown without the emotional, financial and institutional support generated by Suskind. That does not mean Cedric was not qualified -- he was. But no one makes it entirely on his own, and that seems to be what society foolishly expects from its most disadvantaged.
Professor Trilling's remark in the second article puts it succinctly. "He seemed to have this notion that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything," Trilling said of Cedric. "And, at the present time, I told him, that just doesn't seem to be enough." Fortunately for Cedric, fate intervened.
Most people aren't that lucky.
Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She previously worked at the Wall Street Journal.