It is moving day, and Cedric is looking for a few important items as he leaves his room—he has lost his graphing calculator, and finally decides he must leave without it and buy a new one at Brown. Barbara is feeling unsentimental as she looks at the nearly empty room and thinks about how so many other families will be packing up and leaving today, but from nicer, happier homes. She has hauled most of Cedric’s belongings out herself, and now he is left to pick up his television—his “date every Friday night.” They leave the apartment and get into a Dodge Caravan. The van rental cost Barbara $232, and she will spend another $96 to stay at the Holiday Inn in Providence, Rhode Island, before returning home.
This special moment in Cedric’s life—when he actually moves out of the house and into the college of his dreams—is a serious financial burden on Barbara. She is already aware of and anticipating the vast differences in class and wealth that she will face on the Brown campus during her visit. While Cedric is focused on the big picture of his new life, Barbara has to deal with the details, like the cost of the van rental and hotel. This marks the beginning of a long phase of disconnection between the two.
As Cedric and Barbara drive out of D.C. towards New England, they begin to talk about school breaks. Barbara explains that Bishop Long will be sending money so that Cedric can come home for Thanksgiving, and he responds that he does not plan on coming home for breaks, even Christmas, and that he doesn’t plan on calling Barbara very much, either, because he will be very busy. She informs him that she will be attending Brown’s parents’ weekend in October, because it is her right as a parent. This silences them both, as Barbara spends much of the trip reminiscing about the past, and Cedric is focused on the road—and his life—in front of him. The tension is finally broken around midnight, as they near Providence, when Cedric finds a tape of gospel songs, and together they sing along.
Like many students who leave home for college, Cedric is intent on this new sense of independence from his family and home life; this is much more intense, however, based on Cedric’s lifelong rejection of the world he grew up in. He is still using his anger to push others away, including his mother, who wants to hold on to him for as long as possible. This is another example of the vast chasm opening between Cedric and Barbara, as she holds on to the past and he chases his future. Their only connection in this moment is music, which has long been a staple of their life together.
After the long drive, Barbara and Cedric get a late start to the day, and it is nearly lunchtime when they get to Cedric’s dorm room in Andrews Hall and begin to unpack. While Cedric is beginning to feel more at ease on campus, Barbara feels tense and pensive, observing the other parents—clearly more affluent, and presumably used to the college atmosphere—and wondering where she fits in. She has sacrificed so much, and now she worries that she will lose Cedric in this new world. They have lunch together, and when they get back to Cedric’s room, his new roommate Rob is there, so Barbara decides that it is time for her to leave. Before driving off, she hands him all of the extra money she has—three twenty-dollar bills.
Their arrival on the Brown campus is a historic moment for the both of them—while Cedric has at least had a glimpse of higher education while at MIT the previous summer, Barbara is completely new to this world, and must quickly run through many of the same emotions that Cedric did, but in a shorter time frame. Meanwhile, Cedric meets his white, upper-class roommate, Rob, who will come to represent everything about the world Cedric did not grow up in—it is with Rob that Cedric will learn his hardest lessons about class and race.
With Barbara gone, Cedric sits on his freshly made bed and begins to talk to Rob, his new roommate. Rob tells Cedric that he is from Marblehead, Massachusetts, that his father is currently birding on Cape Cod, and that his sister is away at Harvard. Cedric does not know what birding is, and Rob has to explain it to him. They being to talk about music, finding that they have very different tastes, and then decide how to organize their dorm room. When Cedric notices that Rob has brought a small brown dorm fridge for their room, he is so excited he shakes his roommate’s hand.
Up until this point, Cedric has had very little interaction with white people, and this first conversation with Rob serves as a kind of introduction to a very different world. Rob is not necessarily the typical white person, however—he is from an upper-class background, with vacations to Cape Cod and references to bird-watching and other upper-class leisure activities that Cedric does not know about.
The first week is an orientation period for Brown freshmen, with carefully planned activities designed to help them get to know each other and the campus. Cedric begins to read the orientation packet, and focuses on the racial diversity of the 5,559-person class, learning that “black, non-Hispanic” students like him make up 6.5% of the incoming class. Later on, when he meets the other 33 freshmen in his unit, he counts two black students (including himself), roughly corresponding to the 6.5% of the class overall. For the first few days, Cedric is watchful, taking in more than he offers to others, and learning as much as he can about the people who surround him. He is exhausted by the end of each day, feeling like he has been studying for exams.
Cedric is initially obsessed with the specifics of the ethnic makeup of Brown, calculating the percentage of black students in his freshman unit. This need to place each student in a racial category is one way that Cedric will attempt to deal with his insecurities during his first semester at Brown. He is acutely aware of being part of the 6.5% (the percentage of black students on campus), and again, he falls into the role of the outsider, observing those around him without joining in or revealing anything of himself. This is Cedric’s way of protecting himself emotionally.
The Brown freshmen are often reminded of how proud they should be to have been accepted to such a prestigious institution, and of how intelligent and diverse they are as a class. This instills a pride of place, and they begin to really think of themselves as Brown students. But one evening, when students begin to discuss their SAT scores, Cedric begins to worry. One student announces that he scored at 1200, which must be the lowest score of the group. As the other students share their scores, Cedric finds that they range from 1430 to a low of 970. When it is Cedric’s turn, he tries to be casual as he reveals he scored 960, but knows that each one of these students will remember this number and associate it with him forever.
Although he has already been accepted to, and enrolled in, the Ivy League college he has always dreamed of, Cedric is still concerned about his low SAT score. For him, it is much more than a single element of a college application; the SATs are a measurement of his overall intelligence, and therefore his worth as a human being. The other Brown students also seem to feel this connection between SAT scores and self-worth, as each knows their number by heart and carries it with them even once they’re in college. Cedric not only fears that he does not belong, but that he will be of less value among his peers for his score.
After this conversation about SAT scores, and the handful of references that Cedric does not understand, he gets up early to re-think the courses he will take this semester. He has lost his temporary ID card, so he has a breakfast of Fritos in the dorm lounge while he looks through the catalogue for courses that he feels he can handle. He meets with his advisor, explaining that he does not want to get in over his head. While his grades and test scores would place him in a third-semester calculus class, he decides to take a second-semester course instead; he does the same with Spanish, and he also opts for an English class on Richard Wright, because he has already read Native Son.
Not surprisingly, Cedric is shell-shocked by this new world, brimming with cultural knowledge that he could not have obtained in his community or at his high school. While this lack of cultural capital does not necessarily mean that Cedric will have trouble succeeding academically, he is convinced that he is behind already, and needs to stack the deck in his favor during his first semester. This is an about-face from his hunger to learn while in high school, and clearly a protective move.
The last issue Cedric discusses with his advisor is his plan to take all of his courses pass/fail, explaining with a note of shame that he comes from “a real bad city school.” His advisor approves this plan, as Brown students are given a lot of autonomy over their academic careers. The college is known for its open curriculum, and allowing students to take as many classes as they want on a pass/fail basis. The idea is to allow students to challenge themselves without fear of bad grades, but for Cedric, this is a chance to take a slightly easier path while he gets used to the new academic and social atmosphere of the college.
While later, Cedric will regret taking all of his classes pass/fail, it may have been one of the best decisions he has made since arriving at Brown. While the transition to college can be trying for most students, it will be particularly difficult for Cedric, as he catches up with his fellow students, both academically and socially. This second layer of education, about the intersection of race, class, and academics, will occupy much of Cedric’s time and mental energy.
Friday night is the diversity orientation for Brown freshmen: they are welcomed by the university chaplain, a Rabbi Flam, and a Hispanic third-year student, who will lead them through a number of activities to help them understand Brown’s take on diversity and community. Their first activity involves finding other students who know specific cultural facts, like the significance of Cinco de Mayo, which will lead them to lean on their preconceived ideas about their classmates. Cedric is overwhelmed by other students in his unit asking him who Rosa Parks is, and he rightly feels singled out for the color of his skin. This is the point of the exercise, of course: for students to access the prejudices they claim not to have.
This diversity orientation is meant to provoke strong reactions from students, and that is exactly what happens, especially for Cedric. He is hurt that his new classmates are making assumptions about him based on the color of his skin—but this activity intentionally reveals the latent racial biases that students have, but do not want to recognize, for fear of being seen as ignorant. However, for Cedric this is an experience that he has all too often, and it hits close to home, as he is in the middle of trying to come to terms with his racial identity.
The next activity requires students to write down their identity in one word on a piece of paper. Cedric thinks about his conversation with Clarence Thomas, who advised him not to think of himself as black at Brown, and is unsure of what to write. He finds that other students have similar concerns, and very few of them want to use their racial identity as their defining characteristic. This generation of students has grown up with the understanding that “multiculturalism” can cause divisiveness. The third-year student who is leading the conversation digs in further, asking what identities people might have been avoiding, like HIV positive, LGBTQ, abuse survivor, anorexic, and handicapped.
This part of the exercise illustrates just how confused and frustrated Cedric is feeling at this point—he is asked to write down his identity in one word, and he is flooded with the different pieces of advice from friends, mentors, and others. If he follows Justice Thomas’s advice, committing to a “color-blind” approach and distancing himself from his racial identity, then what other word would he choose to identify himself? On the other hand, he is uncomfortable being seen as simply the black student, and he especially doesn’t want to be the poor black student on campus.
There is a discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to use a limitation (like a handicap) to define oneself, and this strikes a chord within Cedric. He speaks up, arguing that identity should be linked to something that a person is proud of, not just what sets them apart from others. He uses the example of losing a leg—he would consider that a part of himself, but would not want that to define who he is. The third-year counters that identity can be both positive and negative, and is often imposed by others, despite how a person may attempt to define themselves. They move on to other issues, like why Caucasian is not considered an identity, which prompts one student to announce that “Caucasian is the oppressor group,” and that most people would rather side with a minority or victim group.
As his fellow students begin to explore other possible identities that do not involve race, Cedric begins to make a parallel between being black and having a disability. He does not want to be defined as the poor black student because it places him on a lower social, academic, and economic level. Yet as the moderator points out, some students may not be able to choose their identity, and instead are labeled by others in a way that is out of their control. Cedric will work hard in this first year to control the way others identify him.
On Saturday afternoon, Rob returns to his room after a morning of playing soccer, and enjoys a moment of rest and relaxation. He thinks about his life in Marblehead, and while he misses home, he is also very confident that this is where he belongs. He begins to write a letter to his parents, and when he mentions Cedric, he begins to think about his roommate, and how this will be a broadening experience for him with a roommate like Cedric. He has never had a black friend, and in most of his interactions with black men, he has felt like he has to be extra careful of what he says or how he sounds. He is not alone in this experience—many of his new friends at Brown are interested in Cedric, because they haven’t met many people like him, and he is something of an anomaly at Brown.
This passage is told from Rob’s point of view, and offers a different perspective on Cedric’s interactions with the white students at Brown. Rob has the privilege of an immediate sense of belonging, in a space that has been created by people like him, and is populated by people like him, for the most part. He has the luxury of being curious and interested in Cedric without worrying about losing his own identity—but, at the same time, this passage makes clear that he is genuinely interested in exploring friendships outside of his class and race boundaries.
Cedric comes into the boys’ dorm room, and he and Rob discuss the fact that Cedric has lost his temporary ID and cannot eat in the dining hall at the moment; Rob offers to steal food for him to help him out. Cedric asks if Rob would consider mopping the floors every once in a while, and notes that Rob’s feet smell bad. Cedric is disgusted by the fact that Rob walks around barefoot, and when Rob tells him that everyone does the same, Cedric responds, “not where I’m from.” Cedric turns on his tv, and Rob is annoyed because he can’t concentrate on his letter to his parents. Frustrated, he leaves the room to find some friends to hang out with.
Cedric and Rob have their first disagreement, which is rooted in their cultural backgrounds. While Rob is used to having someone take care of him and tend to his surroundings, Cedric has grown up in an environment where he cannot trust anyone else—to clean the trash and heroin needles off of the ground, for example—and must wear footwear to protect himself, and do the cleaning himself if he wants to live in a clean space.
Cedric finally manages to get his permanent Brown ID card and goes off to have a meal with the other students from his unit. They talk about the karaoke party from the previous evening, in which Cedric sang, and everyone is amazed by his voice. They ask if he will be joining any of the singing groups on campus, and while he is not sure if he wants to, he is happy to be recognized for something other than being black. The conversation moves on, and when Rob is talking, Cedric suddenly interrupts to announce that Rob is Wally Cleaver from the old television show Leave it to Beaver. He realizes that this is a set of references that will connect him to his new classmates, and he continues, giving the other kids at lunch their television identities.
Among the more difficult moments for Cedric in these first days, this set of interactions with his new classmates marks a high point, as Cedric finds a way to connect with them, outside of the boundaries of class and race. While he has his religious background to thank for his vocal skills, Cedric finds that music is something that connects him to this new group of people. Even more useful are his television references—with television as his window into the white world, Cedric finally has a way to connect to his new friends.
Later that day, Cedric goes to the Brown bookstore to pick up his books. As he wanders the aisles, he becomes increasingly anxious about how much he does not yet know. The bookstore will close soon, but Cedric still needs to find a fourth course to take, and is using the required reading to help him decide. He looks at, and disregards, courses on psychology, religious studies, physics, and philosophy. He feels internally conflicted about the religious studies course, because he can feel Bishop Long’s eyes on him, reminding him that the only true answers come from God.
Cedric ends up making his decisions about an entire semester at the last minute, in the bookstore. While he has met with his advisor, Cedric is still lost when it comes to making choices about academics. In addition, he feels uncomfortable studying religious topics, as he worries that they will conflict with the teachings of Scripture Cathedral, illustrating some of the conflict between religion and education.
Cedric lands on an education textbook, and likes the practical aspect of the course, so he decides that his fourth course will be the History of American Education with Professor James. In line to purchase all of his books, Cedric looks at the cover of Rolling Stone, which announces the death of Jerry Garcia. He opens the magazine and gets a quick lesson on who the man is.
Cedric is most comfortable with the practical and tangible aspects of higher education, and therefore finds education a good fit. Armed and ready for his academic studies, Cedric has one last lesson to go—he must read up on popular culture, in case someone mentions Jerry Garcia.
The next morning, after a highly formal processional, with a strategically diverse set of students carrying the “Class of 1999” banner through campus, the students assemble for the convocation. The speaker is Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, whose message is bereft of hope and faith, and fails to inspire Cedric. After convocation, the students attend their classes for the first time, receive their syllabi, and receive their first assignments. They discuss the classes afterwards, and Cedric tells Rob he is excited about his Richard Wright seminar, and likes his instructor, an African American graduate student named Stephan Wheelock. Rob is excited about his Marine Biology course, because he is hoping to major in it.
Cedric is unimpressed with Elie Wiesel’s perspective on hope and faith, mainly because these two values have helped to usher Cedric out of the inner city and to Brown. It is interesting to note, however, that Wiesel survived much more dire circumstances than Cedric could ever imagine, but Cedric’s self-absorbed mindset at this point makes it difficult for him to empathize with someone he considers white, and therefore in a more privileged group. Instead, Cedric focuses on his Richard Wright seminar, taught by a fellow black man.
At dinner, Cedric mentions how disgusted he is that some students shower without shoes on, which he considers very dirty. He is met with a knowing smile from the other African American student in his unit, Chiniqua Milligan, and another girl volunteers that she thinks everyone should wear flip-flops to shower. Cedric continues his television references, calling one student Casey Kasem. When the question of roommates comes around, Cedric and Rob joke that they have big problems. Back in their room, they are both feeling relaxed and happy, and Cedric suddenly breaks into song—he sings “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” and Rob is astonished at his voice.
Cedric’s connections to his fellow students continue, as he finds support for his feelings about bare feet. In this moment, just about any shared belief, no matter how small, is meaningful to Cedric and helps him to feel less isolated. He feels that he has found his method of interacting with this group, again using pop culture references that allow him to feel like he shares a culture with his classmates. His relationship with Rob is still tenuous, and their joke at dinner may contain some shred of truth.