Cedric sorts keys at his internship at the Price Waterhouse Accounting office, thinking about his life to come. He feels like he is in between two worlds, finished with the old one, and only a pretender in the one to come. He is wearing a nice new outfit that he bought with his first paycheck from the job, which makes him feel much more comfortable than the two suits that he received from his benefactor Donald Korb, a Boston optometrist. Korb had read about Cedric in the Wall Street Journal and began to send him money for books and clothes, and had purchased the two suits—“old white man suits” to Cedric—when he learned that Cedric would be working at an accounting office. Cedric eventually took the suits back and exchanged them for a lot of graduation gifts for the people in his life.
Cedric is finished with high school but has not yet started at Brown. This is a strange transition period for most high school graduates, but is especially difficult for Cedric, as he sees this move as a life-changing one. He is also deeply concerned about developing a sense of belonging, hence his feeling of being a pretender—someone who is looking to fit in, but has not had the chance yet. He also worries about maintaining some sense of self—like not wearing clothing meant for old white people—now that he is joining this new world.
As he leaves the office for the day, Cedric passes by the black receptionist, whom he considers “ghetto” like him, despite the fact that she uses her “Vanna White voice” on the phone and in the office. At home, Cedric talks to his friend LaTisha on the phone. They talk mainly about their friends from high school and what they have been doing in the weeks since graduation. One friend has been killed in a triple homicide while working at McDonald’s, and another was killed while dealing drugs. Phillip Atkins is working in the mailroom of a newspaper, and LaTisha comments that while the young man is very smart, they both know that he will never get past the mailroom. The talk of their classmates’ various failures tires Cedric, and he tells LaTisha that he has to go.
Cedric’s interaction with the black receptionist at his internship is the first of many examples of code-switching, where someone will feel obligated to change their voice, manners, or presentation in order to fit in and succeed in a white world. This is then contrasted with his conversation with LaTisha, who has kept tabs on the other members of their high school class. Most are unlikely to find any sort of traditional success, and will be lucky to get through the next few years without ending up in prison or murdered.
Cedric Gilliam has gotten out on parole, and is making an attempt to connect with his son. He tries to invite him to a concert series with three of Cedric’s favorite musicians—Patti LaBelle, TCL, and Mary J. Blige—but Barbara shuts this down immediately, deciding that she cannot take the risk only a month before the boy is headed for Brown. Cedric, Sr., is a recovering drug addict, and there is sure to be alcohol, drugs, and violence at the concert. She refuses to take the risk. She and Cedric spend much of their time together, when they are not working, and Barbara focuses on the details that need to be tied up before her son leaves.
Barbara is still very protective of her son—she intercepts the call from Cedric’s father, making sure that he does not get a chance to do any damage before Cedric is safely away at college. She sees Cedric Gilliam’s world as a series of temptations, and while Cedric has managed to keep himself separate from this world for the past eighteen years, Barbara will take no chances, even if that means preventing Cedric from connecting with his father.
In the course of one of their conversations, Cedric mentions that he is a man, now that he is 18 years old, but Barbara reminds him that a man is someone who takes care of himself “physically, financially, and spiritually.” Cedric protests that he takes care of himself, and Barbara knows that he is anxiously awaiting the moment when she pronounces him a man. She only offers praise when her son truly deserves it, and she is not ready to concede this one yet. She will admit, however, that one of the fellow parishioners at Scripture Cathedral had recently commended her on how “mannerly” Cedric was, and that clearly she had done something right as a mother.
Cedric is anxious to begin this new phase of his life, but Barbara takes every possible opportunity to teach him about the world. This is especially important for her now, as she worries that she will lose her connection to her son when he leaves for college. Barbara’s definition of masculinity stands in stark contrast to the image portrayed by Cedric Gilliam, who is more concerned with stereotypical markers of masculinity such as sexual conquest, money, and confidence than he is with manners, spirituality, and self-respect.
Their conversation moves on to some young women that Barbara and Cedric know from church, who they acknowledge are very beautiful. Barbara warns Cedric about making a fool of himself for pretty girls, and he counters with a sharp question: “how do you know what love is?” Barbara explains that in contrast to lust, love is more than sex, and involves really getting to know the other person. However, she does not feel confident telling this to her 18-year-old son, because she has no idea what’s going on in his head.
Barbara worries that she has little information to offer Cedric in terms of sex and romance, but in reality, her son is absorbing her advice and values, and will later repeat her advice to a friend at Brown. Cedric’s upbringing has impressed itself upon him, and will help him maintain a sense of identity among the many social and emotional difficulties at Brown.
Cedric responds that he will never fall in love, that he wants to be alone and possibly adopt children. Barbara tells him that he can send them to her to raise, and is again hit with the realization that Cedric will eventually leave her for good. Cedric changes the subject, asking Barbara if she has ever been in love. She thinks of Cedric Gilliam and responds that she thought she was, once.
Not only has Cedric internalized his mother’s strict teachings on sexual morality, he has doubts about his own sense of masculinity—thus, he heads off any possible rejection by deciding that he wants to be alone. Barbara, of course, does not want to be alone—she wants to be with Cedric.
During the sweltering summer days in Washington, D.C., Scripture Cathedral is an oasis of air conditioning, and many of the services are full. Bishop Long has a hard time controlling the pride he feels in the size of his congregation and the religious empire he has built. In addition to the church, which is large and newly renovated, he has a radio show, his choir appears on a local cable network, and he produces a variety of religious material for distribution. He also manages charity and volunteer work to help drug addicts, the poor, and the illiterate. Some have criticized him for owning a large home in the suburbs, owning more than one Cadillac, and wearing expensive clothes. But Long knows that these criticisms are born of jealousy and presumes that they will blow over.
Scripture Cathedral is both a refuge for the people of this low-income neighborhood, and a highly efficient machine that drains money from its credulous members for its own profit and glory. The image of the church as an oasis can be read literally, because the air conditioning makes it the only bearable place in Washington, D.C., and figuratively, as a space that is free of the violence, fear, and destructive temptations. But while the parishioners are feeding their souls spiritually, Bishop Long is filling his pockets with the last dollars they have to give.
Long begins his sermon by reaching out to the women of his congregation, whom he thinks of as his infantry, because they do the bulk of the work while leaving the men nominally in charge of the church itself. As he preaches, he sees Cedric in the congregation and thinks about how difficult it is to talk to students going off to college. Simply put, Long knows that those young people who go on to achieve real success and land themselves in the middle class will no longer fit in at Scripture Cathedral. Pentecostalism targets people on the bottom rungs of society, who have no idea where to start on the path towards a better life. The church then helps them get on the right track, and they can attribute just about any form of success to their faith, becoming loyal members for life.
Bishop Long is aware that his particular brand of religion is most attractive to the poor and needy, and can foresee Cedric’s eventual break from the church. He knows from experience that Cedric will begin to question the strict rules and simple values of the Pentecostal church. Cedric’s burgeoning sense of personal ambition is at odds with the idea of giving oneself fully to the religious community, and this is one of the reasons that he will eventually leave. In this moment, however, Bishop Long feels that he has one last chance to influence Cedric.
The ones who experience the most dramatic transformations, according to Long, are those who usually end up leaving the church. They transform their faith in God into an even deeper faith in themselves and their abilities, and no longer see faith as a mysterious force that runs their lives. In contrast to the parishioners who give the church all their extra money in the hopes that it will come back to them tenfold, there are those who have discovered a secular path towards prosperity, involving hard work, a college education, and strategic career development. This knowledge breaks down that sense of unquestioning faith in God, yet that is the foundation of Scripture Cathedral.
Cedric’s transition can be seen in the context of many religious high school students who leave their homes and communities for college. Those who have been taught not to question their faith in God may have more difficulty maintaining that belief outside of their churches. They will find that higher education promotes secular values like education, reason, and individual initiative. While these values are not in conflict with all religions, this can be the case for many, like Cedric.
Bishop Long knows that he belongs with the poor and downtrodden, and that he owes his career to them. It is his job to help his parishioners rise up, but when they leave, and laugh at the church, or even badmouth him, Long wonders why they cannot be loyal to him in exchange for all he has done to them. Instead, these people say that Long is just profiting off of people who have so little to give in the first place. When the choir stops singing, Long begins to preach again, and speaks directly to the young people going off to college, reminding them that God may be hard to find on the college campus. He tells them that while they will be taught to trust their minds and education, they must remember that God has all the real answers.
As the head of Scripture Cathedral, Bishop Long is a complex figure—while he appears to be deeply dedicated to the values of the church and the community he serves, he has also separated himself from them. He demands loyalty to the church and to him as its head, yet he has little to offer those around him beyond his good works and promotion of faith. This creates a difficult bind for those who want to remain faithful but would also like to achieve personal success, and Long has very little to offer those members.
Long finishes his sermon with a call to contribute $20 to the church—in fact, he asks people to line up with their money, and those who drop at least $20 in the basket at the front of the church can stand at the foot of the stage to be personally blessed by Bishop Long. He notices that Cedric has not moved from his seat, and intensifies his call until the young man comes up, drops his money in the basket, and reaches his hand out to Long for one final blessing before leaving for college.
Despite the fraught image of Bishop Long, he is clearly an inspirational speaker, selling the promise of future prosperity for the price of $20 in cash. When Cedric is not convinced to donate, Long considers it a personal challenge to ensure that he maintains the boy’s faith and money at least until he leaves for college.
It is nearly the end of summer, and much of Washington, D.C., has emptied out as its residents make one last trip to vacation homes or beach houses. Scripture Cathedral is the headquarters for the preparations for the upcoming Million Man March, a national protest march focused on African American rights. Cedric, Sr., is enjoying one of his last days of freedom, as he has failed his most recent urine test and will most likely be going back to jail or rehab for heroin use. Meanwhile, young Cedric is on his way to his aunt Chris’s house, where he will celebrate his last days in D.C., before going off to Brown. At the party, Cedric hangs out with the adults and joins in on their jokes; when the children come in to eat, someone suggests that Cedric touch their heads to pass along his intelligence to them.
This sweeping scene portrays the stark contrast between those who are able to leave, and those who are trapped. The leavers achieve this either by virtue of money—like those who can afford to go on vacation—or through their herculean efforts to attend an Ivy League college in the fall. Cedric’s family will stay behind, not equipped to pull themselves out of poverty. Cedric’s father, for his part, has made a series of choices that will not only keep him from escaping Washington, D.C., but will also have him imprisoned for much of his adult life.
After leaving the party, Cedric wanders the streets of D.C. for a while, until he comes to a house where he lived, on and off, during his childhood years. He sees his uncle Butch on the porch and says hello. Cedric is excited to be in the company of adult men—the party was almost exclusively women. Cedric, Butch, and Butch’s friend Cornelius talk casually for a few moments, and Butch asks how Cedric is doing in school. When Cedric tells him he is attending Brown, Butch does not recognize the name and Cedric must explain that it is an Ivy League college, which seems to bother Cornelius, who was accepted to college once but ended up in prison instead. When the men begin to joke about how Ballou is no place for an education, Cedric realizes that he is finally ready to leave Washington, D.C.
On the eve of his new life, Cedric is taking in his old surroundings, saying goodbye—both literally and figuratively—to the people and places he grew up with. He is beginning to see his neighborhood as an outsider already, which is clear from the conversation with Butch and Cornelius. To them, Cedric’s life is foreign and difficult to understand—they are not even impressed by an Ivy League college, because they have little context for understanding that kind of academic advancement. This seems to confirm to Cedric that he no longer belongs in his old neighborhood, if he ever did.