A Hope in the Unseen: Chapter 3
Summary of Chapter Three: Rise and Shine
Cedric gets up early each day and is out the door by 6:30. He gets to school long before the other students so he can work. That is the only time work is possible, since the atmosphere is too difficult for learning in most classrooms. He is worrying about his grades, about SAT scores, and about his application to MIT. He explains to Mr. Taylor that he is at a “crossroads” (p. 44), and unless it happens now he will “crash” (p. 44). He instinctively knows that it is a moment for “a display of pure will” if he wants to succeed (p. 45).
Cedric is working on his school science fair project, a chemical analysis of the effects of acid rain on monuments. It’s part of a city competition. He knows he has to work harder to compete with kids from other schools. His preliminary SAT score was only a 75 out of 160. He had panicked on the test because “so much was riding on it” (p. 46). Now, he is trying not to focus on fear. He “moves like a missile” (p. 46). The courses are so “thin” at Ballou that he plunges in and does everything extra he can, earning A plus for math and physics. LaCountess is his only competition.
In many classes Cedric is the only one who has done homework. He knows he is not developing analytical skills. He gossips with some other students about a classmate who is living in a homeless shelter. LaTisha says she plans to go to UDC, the University of the District of Columbia, a mediocre school that accepts everyone. Cedric says he has sacrificed too much to put up with UDC. Mr. Taylor says he is trying to prove things to other people like his father, but Cedric insists that MIT is the kind of place he belongs.
Mr. Taylor misquotes a verse from Hebrews 11: 1 in the New Testament: “The substance of faith is a hope in the unseen” (p. 49). Cedric corrects him but likes Mr. Taylor’s version.
At Lorton Correctional Institution, Cedric Gilliam is dressed in jeans and a shirt instead of the uniform because he is one of the work/release men who can go to Washington for the day to work. He has been cutting hair for the last eight months in Northeast D. C. This is a treat for him after eight years in prison. But every moment of freedom is a temptation, even though he wanted to abide by the rules at first. He goes to his girlfriend’s house, and Leona takes him to work. She is a computer programmer at the Department of Justice. Gilliam gets on the phone and orders his supply of heroin for the day. He is a good barber but sells heroin to thirty customers as well. He has been selling drugs since he was fourteen. He is expert at managing the needs of his heroin customers giving them and himself only what they need. He puts the haircut money away to turn in to Lorton and takes his heroin profit for a dinner with Leona. The next day, his act is busted as the program officers notice there is too much traffic in the barber shop for the money he has turned in. His work/release program is cancelled.
He decides to call his son from the prison library phone. They have been communicating lately. They begin chatting, and then Cedric, Sr. brings up some old memory and scolds the boy for talking back to his grandmother. Cedric defends himself, shouting that his father is the disrespectful one by being in jail. The father thinks to himself that young Cedric did not back down; instead, he hung up on him. Gilliam realizes that he can’t control Lavar; he is a “straight-A momma’s boy” (p. 58). He hopes that he can be paroled in time to go to his son’s graduation, so his son will know he cares.
At Ballou in the SAT preparation class, Cedric has no competition. There are few kids and they have not studied. He thinks back to his time at Jefferson when there were three friends to compete with. He learned more in one year there than in three here. He still visits one of his friends from Jefferson, Eric, who has Supernintendo. In the SAT class, the teacher divides the class into two teams with Cedric as one captain, and Phillip Atkins as the second. Phillip is the class clown and starts with the stand-up comic routine, making the other students laugh. Phillip is Cedric’s “light-footed nemesis” (p. 61) to whom the girls are attracted, and all the boys are friendly.
Cedric thinks about Phillip’s life. He knows Phil is smart, but he has made his own choice, and now Cedric is envious in a way. Phil has friends, and Cedric doesn’t. He tells LaTisha it’s time he got a life; he is killing himself for nothing. LaTisha encourages him: “you know what it’s going to take, and then you get it done” (p. 63).
In the hallway, Phillip is entertaining the crowd with an Elvis imitation. He has been labeled the “next Richard Pryor” but he is expert at “hid[ing] so many parts of himself” (p.64). Phillip grabs Cedric’s book and ends up punching him in the chest. He feels bad about punching Cedric, and about his “double life” (p. 66). Three years ago, his life was coherent. He was a nerd, part of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then one day he saw a boy he admired gunned down. He was questioned by the police as a witness. He was afraid. He thinks Cedric is crazy to make himself a target by standing out. Of course he himself won’t be going to college now, but his father has taught him a “shoot low” philosophy to avoid being hurt (p. 68). Phil is a genius at tap dancing, but his father convinces him it won’t get him a job. None of his family show up at an all-city talent show where Phil is the star. He gets the message.
Cedric insults his computer science teacher who is doing a directed study with him, when the teacher won’t let him use the computer because someone else needs it. He tells Mr. Taylor he is not going to enter the science fair after all. It is raining, but Cedric goes to his Thursday night prayer meeting at Scripture Cathedral where his mother is anxiously awaiting him. He is depressed by the obstacles he faces, but by the end of the service, he joins in singing hymns with the others and smiles. When they return home, there is an acceptance letter from MIT.
Commentary on Chapter Three: Rise and Shine
This chapter contrasts two other ghetto men with Cedric to show the pressure he is under by trying to go a different way. Both Gilliam and Phillip Atkins are smart, perhaps as smart as Cedric, but they lack his ambition and “hope in the unseen.” Gilliam easily knocks off B. A. degrees from within prison (three of them eventually) but they won’t get him anywhere because he is unemployable with a prison record. He does not break his addiction or habits when he gets out and ends up in the same cycle he got into at the age of fourteen. He has no long-term goals, unlike his son. Both Gilliam and Phillip scorn Cedric for having no friends, for not being cool and accepted. This begins to eat at Cedric himself who does not want to be isolated. LaTisha has to remind him that he is special and that he knows what he is doing.
Gilliam seems to have some feeling for his son and admires him, but doesn’t know how to express it. Suskind shows us his inner thoughts, how prison has changed him. Like Phillip Atkins, Gilliam doesn’t aim very high. Prison has “blunted” his cockiness. Now he is an expert in “how to do time shrewdly” always thinking “five or six steps ahead” (p. 52). This is not applying intelligence to anything long-term but in how to survive in a cage. This is an apt metaphor for ghetto life itself, which is a prison. Phillip has adapted in the same way, doing what he needs to do to survive rather than using and displaying his gifts.
Phillip’s story is as sad as Gilliam’s. He has talent and intelligence but through fear hides with a false identity. His witnessing a murder when he was young, backed up by his father’s fear of success, leads him to give up and play the clown. He gives himself the nickname “Blunt,” meaning a marijuana cigar. We learn later that he will be working in a mailroom for the rest of his life. Both Phillip and Gilliam try to shake Cedric’s confidence, but he remains firm. Both Phillip and Gilliam strike out at Cedric instead of helping or encouraging him. He is hurt by this treatment, but it hardens him in his resolve to succeed, even if he has to be alone. By looking in depth at the choices of other ghetto men, one understands better “ the crab/ bucket syndrome” (Chpt. 1, p. 17) where ghetto students tear each other down instead of helping one another up.
The church, by contrast, builds Cedric’s morale. It is a community that supports him, and it is understandable why Barbara sees it as the only viable alternative to the violence and why she is willing to tithe for membership. Both Gilliam and Phillip go for the short-term comforts. This chapter shows that Cedric has a certain discipline and vision of something that is hard to achieve. It is a long distance run, with happiness deferred. He truly has to believe in the “unseen.”