It is rent day for Barbara Jennings, and she must take two buses across town to hand-deliver her check for $445.22. Her bank balance is $478, so she withdraws $30 in cash to last her until payday. She delivers her rent check and then makes her way to church. On her way, she thinks about the $20 she is supposed to give to the church tonight—on one hand, this means that she and Cedric will have to survive the week on just $10, but on the other hand, the pastor always tells her that the money she donates to the church will return to her tenfold.
Religious faith and financial instability are the two main factors that control Barbara Jennings’s life. Like many poor residents of the inner city, Barbara lives in fear of her landlord, who makes her jump through many hoops to pay rent, and backs it all up with the looming threat of eviction. On the other hand, Barbara is willing to hand over her last few dollars to her church to show her dedication to her faith and the specific church itself.
Barbara also thinks about her life: how she was expected to raise her brothers and sisters as a child, and was often beaten by her parents, who were poor and overworked. By her twenties, she was an unwed mother of two, when she met and began dating Cedric Gilliam. He had been in prison for bank robbery, but also had a college degree and drove a shiny new green Chrysler. When Barbara got pregnant, Cedric pressed her to have an abortion, as he did not want to have children. She couldn’t go through with the abortion, and had her baby boy, Cedric Jennings, in 1977.
Barbara has spent her entire life taking care of other people—even as a child, she was a caretaker, and was taught to connect her self-worth to her ability to support others. This led to a number of decisions that would conspire to keep her in poverty, including her two pregnancies with men who did not stick around. When she meets Cedric Gilliam and winds up being a single mom again, she is repeating this process.
It wasn’t long after having Cedric that Barbara found the church. A friend dragged the depressed young mother to a service, and the Apostolic Pentecostals offered her the love and community she had been missing. From that moment on, Barbara gave nearly every free moment to Scripture Cathedral, as well as ten percent of her meager wages. As she sits down for the service, Bishop Long makes his appeal for donations by claiming that giving one’s last dollar to God is an expression of true religious faith. As the donation basket passes by Barbara, she makes some quick mental calculations, and puts a $10 bill in, keeping the $20 for herself.
Barbara’s discovery of the church is directly linked to her situation in life—she comes to Scripture Cathedral when she is at her most needy and fragile state. This is strategic on the part of this particular church, as they cater to the needs of the downtrodden, while also exploiting them financially. Bishop Long asks his parishioners to express their faith through donations, ensuring that they will stay poor and continue to need the church’s services. In this case, however, Barbara chooses to keep some money for herself.
When Cedric was a baby, Barbara decided to quit her job and go on welfare, so that she could be with her son for the first few years of his life. She would take him to museums, buy secondhand books and learning materials, and spend time with her sisters or the women of Scripture Cathedral. For the first five years of Cedric’s life, he was protected from the outside influences of his inner-city neighborhood, but Barbara would need to go back to work once he began kindergarten. She warned him against the local drug dealers, gave him a key to wear around his neck, and sent him off to school for the first time.
Barbara’s choice to quit her job and spend time with Cedric is possibly the most important decision she will ever make, solidifying her relationship with her son and giving him a stronger educational foundation than many of the children around him. These first five years of Cedric’s life are formative in that they create a solid moral foundation for Cedric, insulating him from many of the temptations of easy money and friendship through drugs and gangs.
When Cedric was eight years old, Barbara got a call from Cedric Gilliam, asking to meet his son. The boy had regular visits with his father for a while, until Cedric, Sr., was arrested again. Barbara decided to move them into much nicer neighborhood in the Maryland suburbs, but could not afford the rent and was soon evicted. They moved a number of times after that, each time to increasingly dangerous neighborhoods. All the while, they regularly attended Scripture Cathedral, where Cedric began singing with the church choir and was chosen as a soloist. This seemed to boost his confidence, along with his being admitted to Jefferson Junior High, a magnet school that could place Cedric on a path to college in a few years.
Cedric Gilliam is a complex figure in Cedric Jennings’s life, as he represents many of the dangers that Barbara has warned her son about. He is an absentee father, and so Cedric will have a number of stand-in father figures throughout his life. His mother, however, provides the main direction for his life, working hard to give him the right opportunities to succeed. When he finds his voice and confidence in the church choir, and is admitted to a good school, both he and Barbara feel that his life is on the right track.
Barbara and Cedric followed a path that was common among African Americans in the inner city during the 1970s and 80s, leaving mainstream Christian churches for the Pentecostal congregations that were popping up around the country. For these new converts, there were clear delineations between good and evil, rules of conduct, and most importantly, absolution for past sins and failures through loyalty to the church. Faith was highly valued at Scripture Cathedral, and pride and ambition were sins. This helped give Barbara a sense of purpose, and helped her to maintain order and discipline within her household. Cedric was obedient at home, and was becoming a rising star within the church choir and at his new school. Barbara even went out one day and bought him a new shirt that said “Harvard” across the chest.
The author places Barbara’s religious fervor in a historical and political context, making it clear that while for her, it seems like a personal choice, there are economic and social factors that have pushed her towards the Pentecostal church. Barbara uses her connection to the church to insulate her from the negative effects of poverty that surround her; this is similar to what Cedric does throughout the story with his schoolwork. Both mother and son have found methods of self-protection, separating themselves from the society where they live.
Money was tight in the Jennings household: Barbara made $5 per hour, and she gave as much as she could to Scripture Cathedral to show her gratitude for the support and community she felt there. But that meant that Barbara often did not have enough money to pay the bills, and she and Cedric had to go without heat, which made it nearly impossible for Cedric to study. Meanwhile, at church, there were complaints about the fact that Cedric was singing all of the solos and receiving so much individual attention for his musical talents. Cedric had to step back and allow others a chance to sing, his choir director told him, so he did. But it bothered him, and he felt that he was being punished for using his God-given talents.
While Cedric has shown promise in both music and academics, there is a steep uphill climb towards improving his station in life. The author notes one of the huge barriers to success, which is the lack of basic necessities like food and heat, and how they can profoundly affect a child’s academic success. In addition, Cedric becomes the target of jealousy, which often plagues those who attempt to stand out of the crowd. All of these early events will just make Cedric work harder.
Around the same time, Cedric had an opportunity to go and visit his father, Cedric Gilliam, in prison. Cedric Gilliam and his brother were housed in the same prison, and so young Cedric and his cousin would both go together to see their fathers. This visit ended up being a painful experience for Cedric, as his father only paid attention to the cousin, who was a football player and much more confident. Cedric felt ignored and insulted by his father; not long after that, Barbara began to receive calls from the principal of Jefferson Junior High about her son’s misbehavior. Cedric was angry at his father and at the church for letting him down, and he was taking out his frustrations at school. He was eventually asked to leave Jefferson and transfer to Ballou, one of the worst schools in Washington, D.C.
While all of the other factors working against him may not have been enough to break Cedric in these early years, his complex and fraught relationship with his father definitely did the job. Cedric Gilliam is unable to see his son for the unique person that he is, and imposes his own expectations of masculinity onto him. This meeting between father and son is another way in which Cedric’s talents and ambitions are invalidated, and this seems to be the last straw. His behavioral problems at Jefferson are unquestionably the result of these setbacks.
Back in the present, Barbara comes home after a long day of work, traveling to hand in her rent check, and church. She reminds Cedric that finances are tight this week, and that he should eat as much as possible at school, as there will be less food available at home. She notices the dirty dishes in the sink and yells at Cedric to come out of his room and wash them. He complies, mumbling under his breath the whole time. This angers Barbara, who snaps and yells at her son, making him cry. She feels bad for snapping at him, but does not apologize; she goes to sleep on the couch, asking Jesus to help her with her anger.
Both Barbara and Cedric are suffering in this environment, as Barbara’s financial situation has not gotten better than when Cedric was a young boy. They are both living with a simmering anger that bubbles over every once in a while, as it does here for Barbara. She is ashamed of her anger, and does not know how to control it or use it in her favor; Cedric, on the other hand, will use his anger to propel himself out of Washington, D.C.