It is March, and Cedric is up and out of the house early. His mother is worried about him, but he says he prefers to get started on his schoolwork, rather than sitting around worrying about MIT, his grades, or the SATs. He makes it in to school, where Mr. Govan opens up the computer lab early for him. Cedric is working on one of his many extra credit projects, which he does in order to “compete with kids from other, harder schools,” as he realizes that there is little learning that happens during class time at Ballou. He is also worried about the fact that he received a very low score on his PSATs, which are often used to predict what a student will score on the SATs the following year.
Even though Ballou is one of the lowest-achieving high schools in the city, Cedric is able to make use of its meager resources—mainly, the hardworking teachers—in order to achieve his academic goals. He is aware of the position he is in, relative to other students across the country, and is using this vague sense of competition as motivation to work harder. His main concern is his standardized test score, which will likely be the weakest part of his college application.
In his history class, Cedric and one other boy are the only ones present that day among the twenty students on the class roster. As the weather gets warmer, fewer students attend classes, and outside of his advanced math and science classes, Cedric is often the only student to have done any of the homework. In this context, Cedric knows that he is not developing the more advanced analytical skills that he will need in college, where classes are full and spirited discussions are the norm.
Again, Cedric shows that he understands where he stands academically, in relation to other students across the country. He can do as much extra credit work as possible, but that does not make up for the lack of intellectual stimulation from his fellow classmates at Ballou. In some ways, it is as if he is studying in a vacuum, with no peers to communicate with.
In his chemistry class, Cedric talks with his friends LaTisha and Tanya about plans for the future, and the girls are astounded when Cedric mentions wanting to attend an Ivy League college. Their ambitions are much lower, as they set their sights on the University of the District of Columbia or some other local college. They are doubtful that Cedric would like being at an Ivy League, and note that he wouldn’t even be able to find them on a map. They realize that their teacher, Mr. Taylor, is listening, and when the girls leave class, Cedric talks to his teacher about what the girls have said to him.
In addition to the lack of intellectual stimulation, Cedric is held back by his classmates’ lack of ambition and curiosity about the world. Even in his advanced science class, Cedric’s classmates are dead-set against the idea of leaving Washington, D.C., out of fear of the unknown. This kind of mindset promotes mediocrity, and Cedric is not swayed by the girls’ arguments. His ambition is stronger than their fears.
Mr. Taylor believes in Cedric and supports his ambitions, and recognizes that the young man has a lot to prove to other people. He reminds him, however, that even attending an Ivy League college will not make others like him or apologize to him. Cedric agrees with this, and notes that he also wants to do this for himself, because he believes that he belongs somewhere else, even if it’s a place he has never been before. Mr. Taylor then quotes from the Bible, that “the substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.” Cedric informs him that he has misquoted, and then recites the passage correctly for his teacher. They agree, however, that “a hope in the unseen” is a valuable phrase to hold on to.
Cedric’s teachers provide him with a strong support system to combat the negativity and anti-intellectual spirit among students at the school. Mr. Taylor is also very religious, and uses some of the same motivational tactics as Barbara Jennings, which may be why he and Cedric get along so well. Mr. Taylor misquotes the Bible here, and while Cedric corrects him, he finds that he likes the misquoted version better, and uses the idea of “a hope in the unseen” to describe his life’s struggle.
Cedric Gilliam gets ready to take the bus from his home inside Lorton Correctional Facility to his job in Northeast Washington, D.C., where he has been cutting hair for about eight months on a work-release program. He meets with his girlfriend Leona, and then spends the day at the barbershop. He also sells heroin out of the barbershop, allowing him to make a little bit of money for himself on the side. At the end of his shift, Cedric, Sr., takes out a bag he has purchased for himself and snorts some heroin. He then takes Leona out to dinner, has some time alone with her in her apartment, and manages to catch the 7:30 P.M. bus back to the prison.
Cedric Gilliam is also struggling in his own way, and this passage illustrates the ways in which he attempts to live a normal life, but is pulled down by his surroundings. He is on work-release from prison, and should be working towards getting his life together, but drugs are too easily accessible, and they feed his habit even while he is incarcerated. There is no way for Cedric Gilliam to change his life until he takes refuge in another institution, the rehabilitation center.
When Cedric, Sr., wakes the next morning, however, one of the guards informs him that he will not be going to work that day, because there have been discrepancies between the number of clients in the barbershop and the amount of money he turns in at the end of the day. Cedric, Sr., knows that his work-release will be cancelled, and he will go back to spending his days in prison. He thinks about the fact that he already has two college degrees—one that he earned while in prison in the 1970s, and another from his prison term in the early 90s. But he wonders about the point of these degrees, as few people will hire ex-convicts.
Cedric Gilliam’s taste of freedom is short, thanks to the negative influences that surround him. He is unable to resist the temptation to return to a life of drug dealing and drug use, even though he knows he is being closely monitored in the work-release program. He is also a prime example of the futility of higher education without a corresponding change in lifestyle—he may have a degree, but he is also a convict who continually relapses, and therefore will have difficulty finding a job.
Cedric, Sr., then begins to think about a phone call he had with his son Cedric a while back, before he was out on work-release. After half an hour of easy conversation with his son, Cedric, Sr., ran out of things to talk about and suddenly brought up an old memory of when Cedric had told his grandmother to shut up. Cedric, Sr., scolded his son for not being more respectful of his grandmother, despite the fact that the incident happened a handful of years earlier. Cedric responded by claiming that his father has been disrespecting the woman by getting into trouble and going to jail. The two argued, and Cedric, Sr., threatened to shoot his son, who then hung up on him. Thinking back on it, Cedric, Sr., feels bitter and angry at his son, and completely hopeless about his life.
In his mind, Cedric Gilliam takes out his anger and frustration on his son, who represents all of the promise of success that is not available to Cedric, Sr. While later on, he will see his son as an inspiration, he does not have that kind of perspective at the moment. Instead, he thinks about his failed expectations of a father-son relationship in the form of an old argument. Their values clash strongly, as Cedric Gilliam seeks to impose his paternal dominance, while his son sees the man for who he is—a convict and drug user who refuses to change.
Teachers at Ballou High School have pegged Cedric’s classmate Phillip Atkins as a future Richard Pryor—a popular black comedian from the 1970s and 80s. Phillip makes lighthearted jokes at Cedric’s expense in class, and begins to nag at him in the hallway. He takes a book out of Cedric’s locker, and the two boys get into a tussle, with Cedric grabbing onto Phillip’s shirt. While Phillip sees this interaction as a game, Cedric certainly does not; Phillip tells him to calm down, claiming that he was only playing around with him. Phillip was once as straight-laced as Cedric is now, following his father around town in pressed pants and a shirt and tie, passing out The Watchtower to spread the word of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Tt Ballou, many of the teachers like to take a single attribute—like Phillip Atkins’s humor—and expand it to define that person entirely. This is what has happened to Phillip, who can now simply identify himself as a comedian without needing to succeed in other areas of his life. This also gives him the freedom to bully Cedric under the guise of humor. The two boys are alike in some ways—they both grew up in religious homes with strict rules, but Phillip hides that part of himself away in order to fit in.
In the eighth grade, Phillip witnessed a shooting, and fearing retaliation, he began a slow transformation in order to fit in better with the kids in his neighborhood and school. He changed clothes, portrayed himself as a tough kid and a class clown, and began smoking marijuana regularly. When Phillip gets home on the day of his scuffle with Cedric, he overhears his father talking to a friend about the dangers of individual ambition. Their church decrees that followers should not have careers, or professional ambitions, because that amounts to choosing temporal success over divine glory. This means that Phillip’s dreams of tap dancing, or a comedy career, or his older brother’s goal of being a musician, are forbidden to them. When Phillip performs his tap dancing at the Kennedy Center, his parents are nowhere to be found.
Similar to Cedric’s story, Phillip’s life changed during his junior high years, when he began to realize what life is like for black men in his neighborhood. But unlike Cedric, Phillip chose to lean into this image in order to fit in with those around him, not having the courage to forge his own path. In addition, Phillip’s father suppresses all ambition in his children as part of their religion, forcing Phillip into a life of mediocrity and unrealized talent. Thus, even if Phillip wanted to succeed academically, as Cedric does, he would not be able to dream of college or a career.
Barbara is at Scripture Cathedral on Thursday night, as usual, but she doesn’t see Cedric. He slips in the back of the church just after the service starts, not bothering to look for his mother among the 300 parishioners. He is quiet as the people around him yell, raise their arms above their heads, and run down the aisles as the holy spirit catches them. When a song begins that he recalls from his days in the choir, Cedric begins to sing, and the women in front of him look back at him to admire his voice. Bishop Long, who is leading the service, begins to talk about struggle, and it strikes a chord with Cedric. He jumps to his feet and shouts his agreement. When Cedric and Barbara get back home that night, he finds a letter from MIT in the mail: he has been accepted to their summer program.
While much of A Hope in the Unseen focuses on Cedric Jennings’s movement away from the church, it is important to note how integral Scripture Cathedral has been to his life experience. The strong foundation of faith and spirituality is clear in this passage, as Cedric is moved by the music and the sermon, responding viscerally. The fact that he receives his acceptance to the prestigious MIT program immediately after the church service highlights the role of faith and hope in Cedric’s academic career, even as he moves away from the church as an institution.