A Hope in the Unseen: Theme Analysis

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The black students at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. find their sources of self-esteem and pride in their popularity, in their clothes or possessions, in their music, but rarely in their academic achievements. In fact, the honors students are undercover, afraid of harassment. Out of 1,389 students, a mere 79 students are on the honor roll and few of them show up to awards assemblies. Cedric Jennings “is the only male honor student who bears the cross with pride, the one who stands up to the blows” (Chpt. 1, p. 4). Cedric is special because he has a goal to get into an Ivy League college, and for that he is ostracized and afraid for his safety: “Pride, he knows, can get you killed in a place like this” (Chpt. 5, p.126).

He is encouraged by his chemistry teacher and mentor, Clarence Taylor, to develop “intellectual muscle” (Chpt. 1, p. 6) with constant study and extra projects. When a teacher makes a mistake on his grade and ruins his straight A average with a B plus, Cedric complains to the assistant principal and has his grade changed. It is Cedric’s pride in intellectual achievement that propels him out of the inner city. He shows up in the computer lab before school starts to begin his work, explaining to Taylor it’s the only way he can compete with advanced students.

Cedric applies for an MIT summer program in his junior year, and it is a “display of pure will” that wins him a spot with the 52 other gifted students (Chpt. 3, p. 45). It is a life and death struggle in his mind to be recognized as an equal: MIT is “where I belong” (Chpt. 3, p. 49), he tells Taylor. Taylor thinks Cedric just needs to prove himself, but Cedric believes that his true place is in a place of excellence. When a counselor at MIT tells him, “I don’t think you’re MIT material,” (Chpt. 4, p. 96) he fights even harder to find another prestigious college (Brown). Only his friend La Tisha understands: “It’s just that you know in your heart that you’re gonna make it—and that’s the key” (Chpt. 3, p. 64). Pride in his gifts and the need to develop are stronger than his need for acceptance. Cedric keeps his distance from other students with “his prickly, headstrong self” (Chpt. 3, p. 74).

He plays with the concept of black pride as he puts on a leather jacket and cap and picks a fight with the principal, feeling he has “to escalate—to not give in, not ever” (Chpt. 5, p.102). This false pose, he discovers, is not the real pride, the force that can get him where he wants to go. Another hurdle for him is his church. Every time he begins to excel in church, for instance, in singing solos in the choir, he is told to step down because he has too much pride. As a Christian, he should be humble and give all credit to God. When he gets accepted at Brown, he feels the acceptance letter is “straight from God” (Chpt. 5, p.113). As he adjusts to college life at Brown, however, he loses interest in church. He begins to search for his own identity: “I think your identity should come from something you take pride in” (Chpt. 7, p.177). He does not want to be known for his race or religion. He discovers that the pride which was a “sin” in church and at Ballou, is the key to his success: “It was pride—pure, simple, in-your-face, shining breastplate pride—that got him to this place. And, after making it this far, he’ll be damned if he’ll swallow it now” (Chpt. 11, p. 276).

Hope

The title of the book, A Hope in the Unseen, takes its name from a Bible verse frequently quoted and misquoted by the characters: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Chpt. 3, p. 50). Cedric’s long journey out of the ghetto is summarized in this verse. His mother and his church reinforce the importance of faith and hope. Barbara Jennings has been on “ a path of sacrifice and piety” to protect her son and motivate him to seek a better life (Chpt. 1, p. 12). The church offers an alternative to the street and helps Cedric to live the life of a recluse while he focuses on his studies in the hope that he can escape the sordid and fearful reality around him. Against all odds, Barbara builds Cedric’s faith in his future: “If she can just keep Lavar’s faith in God and in righteousness living intact for a while longer, blessings will come” (Chpt. 2, p. 30). Phillip Atkins, on the other hand, adopts his father’s advice to aim low in life because “hoping for too much in this world can be dangerous” (Chpt. 3, p. 68). Bill Ramsey, the black engineer at MIT who runs the summer program for gifted students, agrees that sometimes the hope backfires. He sees ghetto kids filled with hope come to MIT to find out a taste is all they will ever get.

Justice Clarence Thomas, however, is proof that hope works. He shows Cedric his statue of St. Jude, who gives “Hope for the hopeless” (Chpt. 5, p.119). Hope in the unseen is the hope for his true self to emerge. Thomas tells him not to “narrow yourself into some group identity or other” (Chpt. 5, p. 121). He must see himself as just a person, not a black or from the ghetto. Cedric fights these temptations at Brown, at first defensive and unable to forget his origins. Bishop Long knows he is going to lose Cedric as a member of the church as soon as he finds “the sovereignty of the self” in college (Chpt. 6, p.151). This is the journey Cedric takes. He does not discard God but begins to believe in himself as a person. He tells Mr. Taylor, “I always imagined the unseen as a place, a place I couldn’t yet see, up ahead, where I’d be welcomed and accepted, just for who I am” (Chpt. 13, p. 330).

The students Cedric meets at Brown do accept him for who he is and help him to overcome his lack of confidence. He sees that he had tied his “identity to that notion of separateness” (Chpt. 12, p. 293). He begins to understand that the other students are “just all going about their business” (Chpt. 12, p. 293). He lets go of his preconceptions and begins to mingle with the others, “to dive into the flow” (Chpt. 12, p. 296) “and not lose himself” (Chpt. 13, p. 333). After a year at Brown, Cedric understands he no longer belongs to the ghetto; “he needs to find his own way from here on” (Chpt. 14, p. 353). He is finally becoming free. Cedric decides that a hope in the unseen is the thing “that built the country, that drew often luckless people across oceans to a place they could barely imagine” (Chpt. 14, p. 365).

Dreambusters

Cedric is the salutatorian of his class at Ballou. Having realized his dream of being accepted to Brown University, he makes a speech at graduation against the “Dreambusters,” those whose “favorite lines are ‘you cannot’ or ‘you will not.’” (Chpt. 5, p.136). Every day Cedric has been jeered at and punched by students like Phillip Atkins, who very early shut off his own intelligence and became the class clown. Phillip learned to create a “double life” between the inner and outer self. Once a smart kid, he changed after seeing a boy gunned down in front of him: “All I know is what I do now. I act stupid” (Chpt. 3, p. 68). A gifted tap dancer, Phillip even lets go of that, accepting his father’s “shoot low” philosophy (Chpt. 3, p..68), so he won’t be disappointed. He ends up working in a mailroom.

Only two hundred names are listed on the Ballou graduation program, and many of them won’t really graduate because of missing requirements. The teachers often teach to near-empty classrooms, and Cedric has no one to push against in his bid for intellectual competition. Ballou is an example of the “crab/bucket syndrome”—“when one crab tries to climb from the bucket, the others pull it back down” (Chpt. 1, p. 17). Cedric thinks of himself as special, apart from the others, but secretly he knows “these kids are not all that different from him” except for his “will and faith” (Chpt. 1, p. 18).

Cedric has to learn to fight the feeling of “powerlessness” that is conveyed not only by the other kids, but also by the adults around him (Chpt. 1, p. 31). He has no role models. His father, Cedric Gilliam, is intelligent, having earned three bachelor’s degrees in prison—in business, urban affairs, and environmental science. He has been in prison half his life for selling drugs. An absent father and a negative influence, he loses his son by trying to intimidate and control him. Cedric, Jr. stands up to his father, not backing down when his father taunts him as a “straight-A momma’s boy” (Chpt. 3, p. 58). Torrence Parks, a friend, tries to convince Cedric he shouldn’t go to Brown because he is selling out his people by going to a white university: “You’re feeling bad, deep down, because you’re betraying your people” (Chpt. 4, p. 87).

Cedric also learns to fight his own panic when teachers and administrators warn him he is too behind to catch up to the advanced students. Leon Trilling tells Cedric his SAT scores are two hundred points below what they should be for MIT. Cedric replies, “I can work harder than other people” (Chpt. 4, p. 96). He is confused by meeting black middle-class kids who are more prepared than he is. He wants to be part of “that strange crowd of smart, secure, casually confident blacks” (Chpt. 4, p. 100). He overhears white professors, however, discussing dropout rates of minorities, and they should not expect to be pampered. They must “sink or swim” (Chpt. 8, p.192). Cedric, like his black instructor, Stephan Wheelock, is “constantly having to play catch-up” (Chpt. 8, p.193) to keep from being thrust down again in the crab bucket. As Judge Clarence Thomas tells Cedric, “you could get eaten alive” (Chpt. 5, p.120).

Diversity of culture

Attending Brown University is an affirmation of cultural diversity for Cedric Jennings. At first he despairs because he comes from a “parallel universe to white America” (Chpt. 1, p. 2). At his summer classes at MIT, Cedric had been the only ghetto kid, “unable to find a single match” among other minority students who came from middle-class backgrounds (Chpt. 4, p. 83). At Brown, Cedric has trouble with his white roommate, Rob, because they have nothing in common. At the diversity orientation lecture, the students try to get beyond labels such as skin color or sexual preference. Cedric begins to think about what identity means, since he has always seen himself as black and poor. Cedric has had to survive and does not understand someone like Rob who is “Casual and nonconfrontational, upbeat and accommodating” (Chpt. 7, p.179). Cedric is still treating life like a battle in his isolated discipline, while the other kids are relaxed and fun loving. They try to make friends but don’t understand what is eating him. Cedric finally makes a breakthrough with television and music as common languages everyone understands.

Cedric resists Chiniqua’s invitations to hang out with the other black kids. Each group tends to stick with its own, but he has wanted a wider world. This leads to a major discussion in the book between two ideas of cultural diversity. Does it mean separate but equal groups—the Hispanics, the blacks, the Jews, the gays, or does it mean assimilation? Franklin Cruz, for instance, is from the Dominican Republic, and though he is proud of being a Latino, he is “slowly cutting away some of his cultural ethnicity as he cuts a deal with the broader American society he expects to enter” (Chpt. 10, p. 258). Cedric ends up experimenting with both ways to honor cultural diversity.

He has to learn to let go of his background, his ghetto perspective, to take a step back from his feelings, and see not only the diversity of everyone, but the commonality as human beings. He learns this lesson by accepting the other students as individuals and by observing an inner city class like the one he came from. He is studying education and reflecting on the methods that make kids feel equal. In his poem, he writes “these kids are yearning for real diversity” and he feels “homogeneous grouping may be the prime suspect.” Instead, he advocates to “let the colors run” (Chpt. 12, p. 301), a plea for assimilation. By the end of the year, he decides it is all right to also hang out with the other black kids as a group. He was afraid of getting stuck in a black identity, but he sees that he can be a dual citizen and have both white and black friends.

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