A Hope in the Unseen: Essay Q&A

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1. What is the historical background of slavery in the United States?

In The Hope of the Unseen, the reader feels the residual struggle of African Americans to cast off the legacy of slavery, which is still operating de facto in many ways. Cedric comes from a literal war zone where he is confined and surrounded by hatred, despair, and death. Getting out of the ghetto, as his ancestors tried to get out of slavery, takes supernatural will and effort. Four centuries of history are not so easily cast off.

The European colonization of the Americas required cheap labor to develop the land. Enslavement of Africans in the American colonies grew steadily from the early 17th century until by 1860 there were about four million slaves in the United States. Slavery did not become illegal after the American Revolution as many hoped; it was not abolished in the United States until 1865 at the end of the Civil War.

Most of the Africans were brought over on slave ships, kidnapped or sold by other Africans, and used for field labor or household workers. Investment in slave ships was a way for white businessmen to make a fortune in early America. Most of the slaves were held in the southern plantations, but blacks were house servants in the north, and most wealthy families were expected to have them. The prosperous Wheatley family of Boston, for instance, had several slaves, but their famous slave, Phillis Wheatley, the first published American poet abroad, was treated from the beginning as a companion to the family and above the other servants. The Puritan attitude in New England towards slaves was somewhat liberal, as slaves were considered part of the family and often educated so they could be converted to Christianity. In the south, masters usually forbade slaves from learning to read or gather in groups to worship or convert other slaves, because literacy and Christianity were potent equalizing forces. Later rebellions in the South were often fostered by black Christian ministers, a tradition that was epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Slaves felt that Christianity validated their equality with their masters. The masters, on the other hand, claimed that the Bible recorded and condoned the practice of slavery. The story of the Africans in America was told from the point of view of whites in the beginning. The stereotype was that blacks were primitive, ignorant, and immoral, less than human, and therefore it was not wrong to enslave them. Once blacks gained literacy they began to speak for themselves, and their voices were the proof that slavery was wrong. Phillis Wheatley was bought as a starving child and transformed into a prodigy in a few short years of training. She was the first and most compelling example for abolitionists that the black race was intelligent and deserved to be treated as human. Wheatley was the first African American to publish a full book, but other slave authors, such as Lucy Terry and Jupiter Hammon had printed individual poems earlier.

2. What is the history of African American civil rights in the United States?

Though African Americans had been emancipated by President Lincoln in 1865, it took another century for them to win their civil rights. When the civil rights movement began in the  mid-1950s, blacks were still barred from registering to vote in the South or running for office. At the same time, segregation laws made it impossible for blacks to mingle with whites in public places. There were racially segregated restaurants, movie theaters, schools, churches, hotels, and parks. Black citizens had little legal recourse for injustice. The federal court ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional in 1954, but it was still a fact.

In 1955, Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, broke the rule that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus and was arrested. It was the spark that set off demonstrations and sit-ins by African Americans everywhere to win their civil rights. In 1962 when African American James Meredith tried to attend the University of Mississippi by federal court order, two people were killed and twenty-nine marshals shot trying to protect him. In 1963, the Children’s Crusade, with thousands of black high school student protesters attacked by fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, was shown on TV and roused public outrage. The 1963 march on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous  “I Have a Dream” speech was attended by 200,000 and made a huge impact on public awareness, yet it was not until July 2, 1964, that President Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act passed. This bill barred discrimination in public places, and mentioned voting rights, but voters’ rights were addressed more fully in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that suspended poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that kept blacks from voting. Within months, a quarter of a million blacks registered, and within four years, voter registration in the South doubled, and African Americans entered the political scene as a new force. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent methods of creating change, but he became a martyr to that change when he was murdered in 1968. Meanwhile, there were race riots in northern cities like New York and Philadelphia and later in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Black militancy was born in the Black Power groups, and Malcolm X’s ideas of black self-sufficiency appealed to many younger blacks who did not want to be assimilated into white culture. For young African Americans in the 1990s, like Cedric in the book, these events took place before they were born, but the events shaped the environment in which they lived. Although civil rights had been achieved in law, racial inequities still existed.

3. Why was Brown University a significant place for Cedric Jennings to reshape his life?

Brown University is a private university in Providence, Rhode Island, established in 1764. It is part of the Ivy League athletic conference, so named because of the ivy- covered walls of the older private and prestigious universities in America—Cornell, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. They are known for their academic excellence, selectivity and social elitism. Cedric was not only out to prove he was good enough to compete at an Ivy League university, he felt he “belonged there” because of his love of learning and desire to live in a larger world.

Jennings was attracted to Brown for its emphasis in multicultural experience and liberal attitudes.

Before the American Revolution, the university was known as the College in the English Colony of New England and Providence Plantations. Even though the university was founded by Baptists, it was the first American university to accept students regardless of religious affiliation, allowing freedom of conscience. The school was renamed for a family of benefactors. Joseph Brown was a professor of physics, and his nephew, Nicholas, was a wealthy alumnus. The family money ironically came from the slave trade, though Nicholas was an abolitionist.

Brown always had a liberal and experimental attitude. In 1850, President Francis Wayland declared that every student should study what he chose. This idea was later incorporated into Brown’s New Curriculum of 1969 in which any course could be taken for pass/fail and students had a larger control over what they studied. The curriculum emphasized teaching students how to think rather than mere content. This challenge of learning how to think objectively is the task Cedric has to master in his freshman year.

In 2001, after Jennings left, the first African American woman president of Brown, Ruth Simmons, was appointed. In 2003, President Simmons reopened the issue of Brown’s endowment money coming originally from the slave trade with the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The result was a $10 million endowment given by Brown University for the benefit of public schools in Rhode Island, a commitment to education in urban centers that would benefit the sort of school (Slater Junior High School) that Cedric Jennings observed during his fieldwork at Brown. Brown was a particularly good environment, as the book demonstrates, for Jennings to find his bearings and to work through his feelings on race and diversity.

4. Is  affirmative action a successful strategy for creating racial equality?

Since Cedric Jennings achieved his dream to attend an Ivy League college because of affirmative action, this policy is discussed at length in Suskind’s book. Affirmative action takes race into consideration to promote equal opportunity in education, employment, and health programs. By insisting on mandatory percentages of minority representation, the policy attempts to redress imbalances due to racial discrimination. Minority candidates are often handicapped by background and circumstance, by discrimination and stereotypes, from competing fairly. The argument is that though affirmative action may not be a perfect solution, without it, the imbalances perpetuate.

In America, affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in a 1961 executive order. A section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) laid the groundwork for subsequent use. It has been further developed by legislative and Supreme Court decisions. It is largely meant as a temporary measure for social change, but it has been extremely controversial with opponents saying that it unfairly favors those less competent. Other problems with the policy are discussed in the book.

At Ballou, the advanced science and math programs single out smart ghetto students and focus resources on them so they can compete with other students. Suskind points out, however, that advanced programs in ghetto schools are only middle level academics in good schools. Another strategy is the magnet school that draws students out of the inner city and buses them to a school for gifted minorities, such as the Jefferson Middle School that Cedric attended. These schools try to save the promising students, funneling them to magnet high schools and then on to college. Cedric makes progress at first, having other smart kids to compete with, until financial and emotional problems lead to his misbehavior and dismissal.

He is sent back to Ballou with its curriculum like “a thin academic soup” (Chpt. 3, p. 46). Cedric fights hard for his grades and then tries another long shot with a summer program at MIT for his junior year. Through affirmative action, he gets in, the only ghetto kid of fifty-two in the program. It is a set up for failure, as he finds out he is not as prepared as the middle-class minority students. The program director, Bill Ramsey, knows that “the affirmative action deck has been stacked” towards the upwardly mobile middle-class kids rather than the ghetto kids it was meant to help (Chpt. 4, p. 92). He feels bad watching Cedric fail as he is told he is not MIT material because of his low SAT scores and his difficulty in the summer classes. Cedric has believed his hard study and high grades were enough, but they were not. Nevertheless, he is accepted at Brown with low SAT scores because of its affirmative action policy. Meanwhile, he sees other students accepted at universities, but unable to go there because of lack of financial aid. The point is made that the underprivileged need a lot of help—academic, financial, and emotional to catch up.

At  Brown, Cedric finds himself behind and lost, as at MIT. Affirmative action ends with admission: “Once they arrive, affirmative action kids are generally left to sink or swim” (Chpt. 8, p. 191). Cedric hears professors discussing the minority dropout rate unsympathetically. Justice Clarence Thomas had warned Cedric that people like them have no safety net; one failure and they are out. By contrast, Cedric watches the confident wealthy students who are relaxed in “the presumption of ongoing success” (Chpt. 9, p. 233). He finally agrees to a tutor paid for by his sponsor, Dr. Korb. The tutor feels terrified by Cedric’s innocence and lack of intellectual training. Yet, she knows that “Affirmative action can be subtly woven into grading” (Chpt. 10, p. 242), and she helps him put his personal background into the papers as a plus rather than a minus. In his education class, however, Cedric cannot discuss an issue dispassionately or with any perspective. This is a major skill that other students master in high school. Suskind comments in an “Author’s Note” that “A student like Cedric carries a heightened likelihood of failure at a place like Brown” (p. 368) and thus, his achievement was all the more remarkable. It would not have been possible at all without Brown’s affirmative action policy. Suskind’s book revived enthusiasm for this strategy at a time when its popularity had been waning since the 1980s.

5. Who are the black male role models mentioned in the book?

Cedric has only a few male role models to look to: his high school chemistry teacher and mentor, Clarence Taylor, his pastor, Bishop Long, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he meets for an inspirational talk. The famous successful black men mentioned in the book have all had to face terrible obstacles and controversy. Clarence Thomas was confirmed as Supreme Court Justice in 1991 but smeared with sexual scandal as a result of Anita Hill’s testimony accusing him of sexual harassment. Football star O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995 but caused a racial divide in the country over the verdict. African Americans applauded the verdict, but most whites felt it was an injustice. Marion Barry, the black mayor of Washington D.C. who visits Ballou, was forced to leave office in 1990 through a police sting that led to his conviction him on drug charges. Though famous and powerful in America, these black men are not so different from Cedric’s father in some ways, who is always living with the threat of jail or scandal. Cedric defends Mayor Barry, whom he claims was framed by the police: “A black is suspect, no matter who he is. And eventually they got him” (Chpt. 8, p. 205). Zayd agrees with Cedric about black men being suspect, saying that O.J. was acquitted not because he was innocent, but because of the white guilt for all the other men who were framed over the years (Chpt. 8, p. 205).

Cedric’s meeting with Clarence Thomas offers a symbolic overview of the history of black men who tried to achieve something significant in America. In contrast to the classic marble busts of “dead chief justices” (Chpt. 5, p.117), Cedric sees in Thomas’s chambers a painting of slaves, and then, portraits of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, who both left slavery behind to become great reformers and writers.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was a former slave who became an abolitionist, author and orator. By the time of the Civil War he was the most famous American black man, who had toured Europe with his stories of slavery. The eloquence of his bestselling book, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) proved a black man was intelligent. He was a persuasive speaker who argued for black education and desegregation. There were times of danger for him, however, when he had to escape to Canada or Europe. British supporters paid the money to free him.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a slave, then worked in the coal mines, but became an educator and leader of the African-American community after the Civil War. He pleaded with middle-class whites to let the black race develop along separate lines to develop the skills they needed to support themselves economically. He was accused later by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), a black scholar and political advocate, as accommodationist. Though Washington won white support for blacks, it was felt he did not ask enough for his race.

Du Bois is also mentioned in the book, with Cedric considering Du Bois’s statement that a black man lives in “double consciousness,” having to switch between white and black expectations (Chpt. 13, p. 327). Du Bois was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard; he began the push for civil rights (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) later taken up by Dr. Martin Luther King.  Du Bois was a sociologist who explained in The Philadelphia Negro (1899) that blacks in the city are violent because of stress, not genetics.

Cedric takes a class at Brown in the literature of the African American author, Richard Wright (1908-1960). Wright’s masterpieces are Native Son (1940), explaining the pressures that lead a black man to murder a white woman, and Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy (1945) explaining his difficult upbringing in the South. Both Du Bois and Wright, though world famous, felt they had to leave America to be respected and died abroad.

The sacrifices of black reformers over the last two hundred years precede Cedric Jennings’s journey and are the living history in which he participates.

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