A Hope in the Unseen. – book reviews

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at several high
schools in New Jersey. Once again, I was disappointed with American
public school education. Our society seems to be failing the majority
of our young people. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? Every day,
many of our young people simply show tip at an educational site, move
through the corridors, laugh with friends, talk about clothes and
sports, ignore their teachers, and wait for the day to end so that they
can return to the streets. Unless we undertake and adopt major reforms,
our democratic foundation as a nation will be imperiled.

Of course, there are some good public schools across the nation and
many excellent teachers. And there are those young people who are
excelling in spite of the obstacles placed in front of them. There are
many success stories out there. My concern, however, is with all the
children who are faceless and simply show tip as numbers in educational
reports.

My problems with Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen begin with the
opening pages. The book quickly became a meal for which I lost my
appetite. It is about the real-life story of Cedric Jennings, a smart
student at Frank W. Ballou High School in southeast Washington, D.C.
Cedric is an academic Jesus Shuttlesworth — he’s got game! He wants to
“show” not the NBA but an Ivy League college. My disappointment with
the book is that it perpetuates the myth about schools like Harvard,
Yale, and Princeton. If one is blessed to attend these institutions, it
makes one superior to everyone else.

Well, Cedric makes it to Brown University and is saved — I guess
— from the University of Maryland and Howard University. As Suskind
follows Cedric’s journey from high school to college, he includes the
typical incidents we have seen in bad movies, Here is the single-parent
home, the hardworking mother praying to God, the prayers of Black folks
being answered, the father who is in jail and can’t write a letter to
his son, the White college roommate who listens to different music, the
indecision a student has trying to decide what classes to take, and of
course, the key question of making it in a White world.

Can Cedric make it? Is he prepared?

But what makes A Hope in the Unseen more than just a mediocre book
— elevating it to the dangerous level — is that it appears to be a
sneaky tale which belittles affirmative action. Cedric might be a star
academic player at Ballou, but his skills are not as good as some of
the students sitting next to him at Brown. Now if Cedric can’t make it
at Brown, what do we do with all the other young members his racial
group — his friends and neighbors — who have lower grades and
expectations? This is the question I kept coming back to as I read the
book.

My dislike for A Hope in the Unseen was further strengthened when I
read about Stephen Wheelock, the African American instructor at Brown
who is Cedric’s teacher. During a class discussion of the works of
Richard Wright, the author leaves the reader with the feeling that
although Wheelock might have a lot of style, he is really not qualified
to teach at Brown. The tone of his writing, especially here, made me
uncomfortable.

Maybe I should have known what was coming since this book is an
outgrowth of a profile of Cedric Jennings that was printed in the Wall
Street journal. Suskind’s making a book by expanding a newspaper
article is no different from someone making a movie from a book. He
obviously thought it would sell, so I have to sit through Godzilla
again.

I read the book, but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas beat me
to the Cedric Jennings tale by reading about the young man in the
newspaper. Thomas extended an invitation to Cedric, an encounter which
is described in the book. These eight pages are very interesting. Only
Ralph Ellison could have given us something better. Unfortunately, this
is not fiction.

When Thomas advises Cedric to stay away from African American
studies classes at Brown, I chuckled. Some of our elders are still
handing out this type of wisdom? It makes one want to cry. “You have to
he your own person,” Thomas tells Cedric.

This philosophy of individualism is what I believe motivated
Suskind to write this book. It explains why its beginnings were in the
Wall Street Journal. But what lies beyond self? How are we to view the
African American community which surrounds Cedric?

Suskind’s interpretation of Cedric’s story is a sad tale which
might convince someone to either give up or simply resort to prayers
for solutions and answers. As Cedric struggles to triumph over his
past, one worries about the lives of his family, friends, and
neighbors. Do they continue to pray? How many of them live without hope?

Suskind’s book is why I continue to visit schools and prisons. I
know the story of Cedric Jennings. I want to learn more about the
stories of the people fie left behind. I want Frank W. Ballou Senior
High School in Washington, D.C., to be one of the best high schools in
our nation.

Is this a dream? Is it a prayer? I like to think of it as a demand
— a demand that we provide quality education for all our children, not
just a select few.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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