Summary of Chapter Two: Don’t Let Them Hurt Your Children
Barbara Jennings has had a hard life. There’s a knot in her stomach every time she has to pay the rent; she has been in poverty all her life. If she is two weeks late on the rent, eviction proceedings start, and she has been evicted many times.
Barbara has to take two buses to her church, which she attends three times a week, letting Cedric only attend twice because of his homework. The house where she and her nine siblings were raised on 15th Street has been a refuge at times when she has been evicted, but she does not willingly go there. It was a tough childhood, with parents who couldn’t pay attention to her and often meted out harsh punishment in the form of beatings. The house was full of anger, and she escaped to the porch. Her father was a construction worker by day and janitor by night. Her mother worked evening shift as a cook. Barbara began taking care of the younger children when she was nine. As a teenager, she wanted out and had two illegitimate daughters from different fathers, neither of whom gave support. Then she met Cedric Gilliam who seemed to have money and be successful. He had a college degree and impressed her, though he was actually on parole from prison. They dated until she got pregnant. He insisted she have an abortion, and when she didn’t, they broke up.
Her son Cedric Lavar Jennings was born on July 24, 1977. Barbara called him Lavar to avoid using his father’s name. Her life changed when she joined Bishop Long’s Scripture Cathedral and devoted her time to her son and church. She tried to raise three children on her meager salary from the Department of Agriculture. Barbara quit her job and went on welfare when Lavar was two to take care of him. They lived on thrift stores, food pantries, church, and in cheap apartments between evictions, but she also took her son to libraries, museums, and church when the girls were in school.
When Lavar went to kindergarten Barbara went back to work but trained the boy on a daily routine. She showed him the drug dealers to stay away from who used kids to deliver the drugs. She showed him a safe way to school and home, and when he got home, he had to lock himself in and call her.
Lavar’s father was not around much and the few meetings were disasters. Lavar wanted to be called Cedric, however, after his father. He began to get good grades and praise from his teachers. At church he became a soloist in the choir and was featured on TV. Barbara was proud and paid her tithe willingly to the church believing it was helping Lavar survive. Little Lavar or Cedric was bussed to Jefferson Middle School for talented minority students. He found friends and began to blossom.
In eighth grade, however, his life crashed. Cedric’s school work became harder and took more time. He had to study in an apartment without heat or light because of their poverty. A visit to his father in prison also had a negative impact when his father ignored him. Cedric was asked to step down from his solo performances in church because the other parents wanted their children to have a chance. Frustrated by all this lack of support, Cedric acted out at school and was not invited back to Jefferson. Instead, he ended up in Ballou High School, the lowest-performing high school in D.C. It was all uphill there, with no like-minded friends to compete with.
Commentary on Chapter Two: Don’t Let Them Hurt Your Children
Suskind focuses on Cedric’s upbringing but includes snapshots of the people in his life to give depth and understanding to his development. What begins to emerge is a picture of the recurring cycle of poverty and crime in the generations of African Americans living in the ghetto. Though Barbara had two working parents, the family was large and the anger and frustration too much for them. Barbara, like many young black women, tries to escape through relationships, but the boys run off when she has children. Cedric Gilliam, Cedric’s father, also comes from a bad home where his father beat him and his mother and then deserted the family. Cedric tells Barbara he doesn’t want kids now that he is trying to get his life on track. He is already hooked on a different lifestyle of drugs, money, and women. He is not a husband or father type. Later, he seems to want to know his only child, but not enough to give him a home or affection. He tries to bully and beat Cedric since that is all he has known. Barbara refuses to have an abortion because she has a hunch this is a son. He gives purpose to her life, as she is determined to save him from the ghetto cycle.
Barbara’s plan is to bring Lavar up in the church, a black Pentecostal Church run by a charismatic young preacher (Long). She invests all her hopes in her boy, “giving their relationship a ferocious intensity” (p. 29). Barbara clings to her faith and continues to tithe to the church no matter how poor she is. The plan seems to work in that Cedric grows up to be very religious and has a strong moral sense.
Suskind points out that normally a boy comes to self-consciousness slowly, but Cedric is not so lucky. Even with Barbara’s protection, he is exposed to “adult-strength realizations about powerlessness, desperation, and distrust” (p. 31). He has a “steady diet of uncertainty and upheaval” with constant moving and evictions (p. 31). He is shocked by the violence of the life around him, with constant gunshots, drug use, and early sex.
Cedric Gilliam’s attempts to see his son also take a toll on young Cedric. The seven-year- old is “beside himself with joy” (p. 34) to meet his dad for the first time, and his father takes him to a rich luxurious apartment. He buys the boy things he doesn’t normally get. Once however, it happens that little Cedric does something his father does not like, and he beats him. Then he is arrested and goes to jail, abandoning the child altogether. Cedric feels betrayed by his father. Barbara does her best but knows “the chances of a boy emerging from here [the ghetto] intact were almost nil” (p. 35). She becomes strict, both mother and father to her son, and is too exhausted to be affectionate. She goes without meals herself to be able to buy him food or clothes. When he complains about something, she throws a fit of anger and makes him cry. She doesn’t know how to control the anger at their difficult life. It is clear both mother and son have chosen heroic paths, and their challenges never let up.