Summary of Chapter Eight: Fierce Intimacies
Cedric is in his 8:30 class, History of American Education. The topic of Ellis Island comes up and what that means. This is a bit of white American history that doesn’t make it to Southeast Washington. It has only been one month, and Cedric feels like he is drowning, like a “foreigner,” while the others are “guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge” that they have absorbed (p. 190). Affirmative action is a hot topic on campus, as it is at Café Paragon on Thayer Street. Recently, the California Board of Regents decided to end the practice of racial admission quotas. Brown still has such a policy, but now Cedric knows that it really ends with admission. The minority students seldom seek counseling or tutoring for fear of admitting their need. The dropout rate among minorities is high. He hears professors discussing how much money it would take to get minorities up to speed. They have to have a sink-or-swim attitude towards these students; after all, they should have gone to middle-rung universities. Cedric decides not to be a dropout, and for that he goes back to his monkish routine of hard work.
In his Richard Wright class that he thought he would enjoy because of the young black professor, Stephan Wheelock, Cedric is disappointed when during class discussion Wheelock makes a mistake, from lack of preparation or research. He had heard the professors speaking of minority faculty with the same sort of criticism they give minority students. They are not up to speed, “unpublished, not respected, not scholars” (p. 192).
Cedric’s roommate, Rob, is very popular and sought after, making Cedric feel insecure. Cedric had avoided the questionable social life of Ballou with its sex, drugs, and liquor, a dangerous combination. Here in college, it seems acceptable and Rob is at home partying and studying together. Rob’s side of the room is messy, and Cedric is tired of being his social secretary, taking messages. Cedric forgets to hand on phone messages and damages the relationship with Rob. They barely tolerate one another now.
But Cedric makes friends with a student down the hall named Zayd Dohrn, blonde and fun-loving who shares a love of black soul and rap music with Cedric. They spend time together, and Cedric begins to confess his problems to him. Zayd is interested in Cedric’s point of view. Another friend is Chiniqua Milligan, a black female student in the dorm. She grew up close to Harlem, but attended a top prep school in New York and has a head start on Cedric for adjusting to the white world. She likes Cedric’s authentic black culture that she missed out on.
The other students are interested in Cedric, who is clearly an urban black by his speech, but he will not party with them, and they do not understand his aloofness. They think he doesn’t like them. Many of them offer advice about the friction with Rob, but Cedric thinks their attention will make it worse. There is no common language between Rob and Cedric.
Meanwhile, Cedric Gilliam, Cedric’s father, is in deeper trouble. He cannot evade the marshals any longer since he has failed drug tests on parole. His girlfriend Sherene has hired a lawyer for him, but he is sent to a medium-security prison that is much tougher than the minimum security prison he was in before. He is given recommendation for a year-long drug rehabilitation program, but the waiting list is long. He thinks of his life contrasted to his successful son’s.
Cedric got a 94% on his calculus mid-term project but feels guilty for not aiming higher. He had to study hard, but he knows it is not what he came here to achieve. Often he studies in the library to avoid Rob, but he tries to hang out with other white kids so that what Rob may say about him won’t damage his reputation. He is confused by the white boys’ social behavior, however. They are more physical in touching one another, and they show their vulnerability to one another. They are so confident they don’t mind self-criticism or teasing. When they refer to homosexuality as a joke, Cedric leaves the room, and later explodes when someone makes a joke about him in that way. Zayd remains a loyal friend, trying to understand Cedric.
Zayd is from Chicago, from the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. He is a ladies’ man and has many short-term sexual relationships. His whole credo is about experimentation which he inherits from two professor parents who were 1960s radicals. Zayd is his own man and avoids being in a group. When Cedric isolates himself and locks his door to everyone, Zayd is still able to communicate to him.
Commentary on Chapter Eight: Fierce Intimacies
Cedric is beginning to find that his strategies for high school won’t work at Brown. The social scene is different with mixing of races, but the students have in common middle-class backgrounds and values. They do not understand Cedric’s withdrawal any more than the Ballou students. He is unable to explain why their sexual behavior and jokes offend him, or their partying. He has come from a strict religious upbringing, knowing that sex and drugs lead to failure and possibly jail. His religion saved him before, but now it isolates him. Whereas Rob and Zayd have the attitude of “experimenting,” Cedric is only at Brown because he avoided experimenting. Experimenting in the ghetto can get you killed. Cedric associates clean living and hard work with success.
In addition, he does not have the simplest references or vocabulary that the other students have: Ellis Island, Winston Churchill, Jerry Garcia. This means he does not even know how to take notes in class. He feels like a foreigner in his own country. Cedric does not know how to talk about his predicament to anyone, even other blacks like Chiniqua, who is comfortable in white culture. He senses there is little sympathy for affirmative action students. He hears the professors saying that students like him must sink or swim if they choose to come to the Ivy League. They are also hard on minority professors like Wheelock who have come from black institutions and are not prepared to step into Ivy -League ideas of academic rigor. Wheelock tells Cedric that “I haven’t been reading the right books since I was twelve and then have some Rhodes Scholar Daddy tell me the rest” (p. 193). At this time other universities like the University of California were canceling affirmative action programs on the grounds of unfairness to qualified applicants.
Cedric’s response is to answer back what he said to Leon Trilling at MIT; that he can work harder than other people. He wants to explain that “his struggle has built in him a kind of strength” and an ability to overcome obstacles (p. 192). Cedric thinks that his values are knitted into his being, and he can’t change them now, but slowly, he will be willing to open up to other points of view, and this itself, is an important part of his education.
This chapter develops the profiles of other students as a contrast to Cedric: Rob, Zayd, and Chiniqua, as well as Stephan Wheelock, his black professor. Chiniqua is sophisticated in that she has already integrated with white culture. She has a different problem in wanting to know more about her African background and likes to hang out with Cedric. She tries to get him to join the black group. Always looming in the background is Cedric’s father in prison, a truly frightening heritage that keeps him moving forward.