Wednesday, July 28, 2004

A Hope in the Unseen

An extremely thought-provoking book, and one that ought to be essential reading both for those who deny the reality of an "acting white", anti-intellectual mentality amongst poor blacks, as well as those who claim to be for the poor and downtrodden and yet refuse to support meaningful school choice.

Book Description
The inspiring true story of a ferociously determined young man who, armed only with his intellect and his willpower, fights his way out of despair.

At Ballou Senior High, a crime-infested school in Washington, D.C., honor students have learned to keep their heads down. Among the mere handful of students with a B average or better, some plead to have their names left off the "Wall of Honor" bulletin board; others hide during awards ceremonies; only a few dare to raise their hands in class. Like most inner-city kids, they know that any special attention in a place this dangerous can make you a target of violence.

But Cedric Jennings, the lanky son of a jailed drug dealer, will not swallow his pride, though each day he struggles to decide who he wants to be. With unwavering support from his mother, he studies and strives as if his life depends on it--and it does.

The summer after his junior year, at a program for minorities at MIT, he gets a fleeting glimpse of life outside Ballou--an image that burns in his mind afterward and fills him with a longing to live in such a world. In his senior year, walking a gauntlet of sneers and threats, he achieves a 4.02 grade-point average and then the impossible: acceptance into Brown University, an Ivy League school.

At Brown, finding himself far behind most of the other freshmen in his academic training and his knowledge of broader culture, Cedric must manage a bewildering array of intellectual and social challenges. Cedric had hoped that at college he would finally find a place to fit in, but he discovers he has little in common with the white students, many of whom come from privileged backgrounds and party hard while acing tests.

Even the middle-class blacks have trouble understanding Cedric, a straight-arrow church kid from the ghetto who seems like an obvious product of affirmative action. As he struggles to master classwork and think like a scholar, he realizes that faith alone can take him only so far. Having traveled too far to turn back, Cedric is left to rely on his intelligence and his determination to keep alive his hope in the unseen--a future of acceptance and reward that he struggles, each day, to envision.

Ron Suskind first wrote about Cedric Jennings in a pair of articles for the Wall Street Journal, which later won the Pulitzer Prize. Now, having spent three years at Cedric's side, Suskind delivers a triumphant coming-of-age odyssey that includes us all. Eye-opening, sometimes humorous, and often deeply moving, A Hope in the Unseen weaves a crucial new thread into the rich and ongoing narrative of the American experience.
And just in case anyone's wondering, this story does have a happy ending, at least so far. If anyone can read this book and still maintain that there isn't an intensely anti-intellectual culture in the inner cities, or that all failing schools need is yet more money, I'll be flabbergasted. It's well past time we came to terms with the fact that Cosby was right, however shocking his little speech might have been to those who are more accustomed to hearing "blame The Man™" rhetoric from their so-called "leaders."

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an article by the book's author which appeared in the Wall Street Journal way back in 1994, and which ought to give a tiny bit of the flavor of what Cedric Jennings had to go through.