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A COMING-OF-AGE TALE THAT'S MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN:
An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League

By Ron Suskind
Broadway Books
372 pages, $25

Don't read Ron Suskind's book for a bridge to the racial divide that is America's rawest scab.

No moral message of tolerance or uplifting endorsement of affirmative action here.

There's nothing easy about this nonfiction account of Cedric Jennings, who comes from the wrongest side of the tracks in Washington, D.C., and rises like a phoenix to stick out among the casual elite of the Ivy League.

The book dares to ask whether this particular variation on the American dream should even be considered viable: Perhaps it's unrealistic to believe someone who has been educated only in an urban battlefield can survive at one of the nation's most elite universities. As one of Jennings's mentors puts it, "This Cedric had to run three more laps than the other kids, but he's still two laps behind, so he loses. Beautiful."

It reinforces a small, stabbing notion that has begun to gnaw at a new generation of academic specialists in diversity -- that perhaps economic class, and not skin color, is the true dividing line in American society.

And Jennings is the exception to the rule.

But Suskind pulls off a neat trick. Precisely because Jennings is that exception -- because this one tenacious boy made it from Frank W. Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. to Brown University in Providence, R.I., Suskind finds hope unseen lurking even in the darkest of the nation's corners.

Jennings' journey isn't an easy one. Along the way there is resentment and retribution from his peers, who treat him like an alien. "Ivy League?" asks a D.C. classmate. "Why do you want to go so far away from here, somewhere you ain't even seen? See what kind of fool spends his life trying to go somewhere he ain't even seen or has no idea about."

And there is puzzled, well-meaning condescension from his dormmates at Brown, who treat him gingerly, not sure what to make of someone from a background they have only seen in MTV videos.

His high school teachers don't know what to make of him -- if they should praise him for actually completing his homework assignments or upbraid him for thinking further than they ever did.

In Providence, his professors are polite but professional, on their guard against caving into their natural liberal empathy and making it easier on Jennings, a subtle form of reverse racism that they struggle with every day at the front of classrooms where kids educated in the nation's best prep schools snore quietly as Cedric scrawls desperately.

His father is in jail. His mother is his bedrock, but every step he takes toward a new life -- attending a summer program for minority students at MIT, breaking away from his Pentecostal church group -- tears them further apart.

It is notable that by the end of the book, both Jennings and Suskind are changed. Suskind, a Wall Street Journal reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his two-part series about Jennings, set out to bridge a racially divisive gap. Whether or not he does so fully is between him and Jennings.

But he does deliver a valentine to Jennings and his readers. Told through the voices of the countless characters who float in and out of Jennings' life, as well as Jennings' pattering inner monologue, Suskind's work is not only beautifully written and honestly moving, it strikes rare tones of recognition. There are times in the book where you forget that Jennings is black and poor and from the inner city and remember only that he is growing up.

One of those scenes at the end of the book sticks in your mind. It's Jennings and one of his old teachers from D.C., passing through Providence, standing close at the edge of the Brown's main quadrangle.

"I always imagined the unseen as a place, a place I couldn't see yet, up ahead, where I would be welcomed and accepted for who I am," Jennings tells his old mentor, a Scripture-spouting chemistry teacher. "But first . . . I need to know, really know, who I am, deal with some of my own issues. . . . The good thing though is that it seems like I'm just now coming into focus to myself -- you know, beginning to see myself more clearly."

Jennings' story doesn't end here, in this uplifting moment -- and to do so would put a false spin on the story. In fact, the penultimate scene in the story is his mother's near ejection from their cold-water flat due to mounting debts. Likewise, Jennings' world at Brown is not satiny-smooth. At the end of the book, he's still looking for where he fits in -- with the white kids, in an effort not to limit himself? With the upper middle-class striving black kids at Brown, who try to emulate Jennings' ghetto patina? With his old friends from D.C., a number of whom are already dead, in jail, on drugs or in an intractable religious fervor?

But Jennings doesn't need to know quite who he is, yet. None of us really do at 21. What is inspiring about Suskind's work is that it gives us a picture of a kid who is slowly, painfully, but actually figuring it out, despite (or maybe because of) everything.