Cedric is listening carefully in his History of Education course, held at 8:30 A.M. in a dark basement classroom that has many of his classmates falling asleep. Cedric assumes that these students already know the information the Professor James is teaching, but he certainly does not. James mentions Ellis Island, and Cedric scribbles it down, the references completely going over his head. He has found in his first month at Brown that while he is just keeping his head above water, his classmates seem to know what to do without asking, even the ones who sleep through class, like they are privy to some source of knowledge that Cedric does not have access to. After class ends, he goes to his Spanish class, where at least he feels that he is on the same footing as his classmates.
Now that Cedric has begun his classes, he is faced with the daily work of keeping up with students who are more knowledgeable, and have been exposed to rigorous academics in high school. His only choice in this situation is to put in more work than his peers—while they fall asleep in class, Cedric furiously takes notes that he will dutifully study later on. He has already had this experience at MIT, but the stakes are higher this time. This is the case for many students from underserved schools, who must work twice as hard to play catch up, especially in that critical first year.
When his classes are finished for the day, Cedric decides to treat himself to lunch with the money left over from his monthly support check of $200 from Dr. Korb, his patron. He goes to Café Paragon, which is packed, giving him a good chance to eavesdrop on his fellow diners. The hot topic of the day is affirmative action, especially as there have recently been protests in California in response to the ending of preferential admissions based on race. Brown takes part in affirmative action, offering a select number of places to students from underrepresented groups. But like many colleges and universities that take part in affirmative action, this support does not extend past the offer of admission.
Cedric’s lunch at Café Paragon is a perfect opportunity for the author to present the issue of affirmative action, which is central to Cedric’s life story in many ways. He has certainly benefitted from local and national programs, as well as help from individuals, in his struggle to lift himself out of poverty. He was likely accepted at Brown through affirmative action policies, helping to complete the process that Cedric started with his intelligence and hard work in school.
Once students like Cedric arrive on the Brown campus, they are left to their own devices. While there are tutoring and counseling services available to students, minority students often avoid taking advantage of those services out of shame and fear that someone will discover that they are struggling. This leads to higher dropout rates among minorities and students from low-income backgrounds. Cedric overhears two professors talking about this topic, and one comments to the other that bringing affirmative action students up to the level of their fellow students would take more resources than most universities have.
Cedric is currently experiencing the aftereffects of affirmative action, in which he must prove his worth without the support systems that were available to him in high school. Yet while Cedric has a wealth of knowledge based on his lived experience with affirmative action, instead of taking part in these conversations that affect him intimately, Cedric must simply overhear the opinions of two white, middle-class professors.
Cedric longs to join the conversation between the two professors, and tell him about his journey and how it has built within him a king of strength and conviction that other students do not have. But he is also filled with self-doubt, as he beings to wonder if this is enough to get him through his college years. As the professors leave, they begin discussing minority professors on campus, arguing that they have only been hired for their perspective and are not real scholars held to the same academic standard.
While many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds benefit from affirmative action policies, it is clear that they also have to face the prejudices of their white, middle-class peers and professors, many of whom will see them as outsiders and undeserving of their position, whether it is college admission or high-level employment.
When Cedric leaves the restaurant, he passes his Richard Wright professor, Stephan Wheelock, who is engaged in a deep conversation with a friend. Cedric overhears him—a black graduate student from Mississippi—talking about his experience with affirmative action and the minority experience at Brown. Wheelock notes that while Brown wants students to think that they are all equal and on the same footing, people like him did not have the same upbringing, advantages, and access that would empower them to be successful in academia. Cedric spends the rest of the day mulling over what he has heard, and wishing that his success or failure at Brown would not be considered representative of the entire African American race.
The author creates a meaningful juxtaposition of the conversation inside the café—in which two white professors discuss the theoretical drawbacks of affirmative action—and Stephan Wheelock outside, who criticizes the inherent inequities of higher education. While Cedric is intensely focused on his own educational experience, he has found himself at the center of a topic of great national interest. He is not the only black man on campus who is swimming upstream, trying to overcome his race and background to succeed academically.
Cedric is still trying to work out some ground rules with his roommate Rob, regarding control of the stereo. They have decided that whoever is in the room first has control of the music, and the other roommate must wait patiently—music control is only given up if the roommate leaves the room. They also disagree about cleanliness: Rob, accustomed to cleaning ladies, is not interested in using his precious free time to mop the floor, while Cedric sees cleanliness as one more aspect of his life that he must control in this new world. He also recognizes that while Rob makes their classmates and neighbors comfortable, and makes friends easily, Cedric has the opposite effect on them, and spends much of his time alone. This bothers Cedric, as he navigates his feelings of anxiety and loneliness.
The story re-focuses on Cedric, and his complex relationship with Rob. While Rob already feels at home at Brown, where the majority of the students are similar to him in many ways, Cedric is overwhelmed by how little he has in common with anyone on campus. This means that Cedric must once again be an observer, letting few people in on what he is thinking or what he wants. However, a silent and withdrawn black man may seem threatening and unwelcoming to white students, which is part of the reason why Cedric has trouble making friends in this first semester.
Back at Ballou, Cedric had built a wall in order to resist the lure of drinking, drugs, and sex. While the peer pressure was strong and often backed up by violence, Cedric also had daily support from his mother and Bishop Long, as well as the constant reminder of the negative consequences of those actions, in the form of his father, Cedric Gilliam. Here at Brown, however, he is faced with the knowledge that even smart and ambitious kids partake in those same activities. The self-denial that was necessary in high school seems strange here, but it has become part of who he is.
At Brown, Cedric is faced with the realization that for Brown students, the consequences are not quite as severe as they would be for a Ballou student or a man like Cedric Gilliam. This highlights a major double standard in American society—drug dealing and use can result in prison and even death for black men in the inner city, while white upper- and middle-class students deal and use drugs on elite college campuses with relative impunity.
One evening, Cedric decides to be social, wandering into the dorm room of John Frank and Zayd Dohrn, two popular white kids from his unit. He doesn’t know much about them, because he has been reluctant to get to know many of his classmates at all, and when he looks at Zayd’s CD collection, he is surprised and impressed. Zayd listens to rap music, which confuses Cedric to no end, and as the two kids begin to talk about music, Cedric realizes that he has found his first friend. That evening, he lays in bed smiling, thinking about the first time he met Zayd, when the tall blonde boy informed Cedric and another classmate that he enjoyed oral sex. To Cedric, the idea is as strange as a name like Zayd.
Cedric’s newfound friendship with Zayd will be one of the highlights of his first year at Brown, and a learning experience for the both of them. Cedric is surprised to find a white student who appreciates rap and hip hop music, which at this point in time was not as mainstream as it would later become. This is the first time that Cedric feels that an outsider has any understanding of his culture, a realization that confuses and delights him. However, later on, Zayd’s interest in black culture will also annoy Cedric.
After a short meeting about a group project for their Richard Wright class, Cedric walks back to his dorm with Chiniqua, the other African American student in his unit. He jokingly describes her as a “ghetto girl in disguise,” and she is a mixture of two worlds, to a certain extent. She comes from a working-class background—her father is a bus driver and her mother is a teacher’s aide—but has spent much of her time in prep schools in Manhattan, thanks to a program called Prep for Prep. She was chosen for the program in the sixth grade, and began to attend Columbia Prep, a prestigious private school, and given both tutoring and counseling on a regular basis. She scored 1100 on her SATs, and did not need affirmative action to attend Brown University.
Cedric’s friendship with Chiniqua will also teach him some of the skills necessary to transition between two cultures. Cedric sees her as a “ghetto girl” and hopes to connect with her on that level, but she is also able to make friends with the white, middle-class students in a way that Cedric has not. She has benefitted from a robust set of academic support systems that brought her in contact with the kinds of students she would meet at Brown, but gave her the emotional support to connect with them without losing her sense of self.
Cedric and Chiniqua discuss the recent trial of O.J. Simpson, a famous African American athlete who was accused of killing his wife, a white woman, but was acquitted. This story has the Brown campus talking, as many whites are outraged by the perceived lack of justice in the case, and African Americans feel “a swell of jumbled, out-of-context pride.” Cedric asks Chiniqua what she thinks of the case, and she responds that she has been surrounded by people who are angry about the outcome, but who will not say anything about it to her. She attended the school’s mandatory racial outreach meeting, which Cedric skipped out on, making her the only African American in the room. She left early, and felt that she was letting the group down, now that there would be no African American presence in the group.
Once again, Cedric finds that his personal experience intersects with larger national news, and while both Cedric and Chiniqua feel uncomfortable discussing these issues with their white classmates, they can talk about it openly with each other. Chiniqua becomes an important friend to Cedric, as she offers him the opportunity to stay connected to his identity as a black man within a sea of white students. Chiniqua may feel the same way with Cedric, though she is slightly better equipped to deal with these feelings, having attending a majority-white high school.
Like Cedric, there is more to Chiniqua than meets the eye. But unlike him, she has grown up around white classmates and their families for her whole life, and thus does not consider them special or mysterious. She was the one who would wreck grading curves in school, and she is not feeling intimidated here at Brown, either. She has also begun to spend time at Harambee House, the African American dorm and has invited Cedric, though he mentioned something about spending his whole life around black people and wondering if there was a place for him among non-blacks.
One of the ways that Chiniqua stays connected to her racial identity is through the community of black students at Harambee House; Cedric is still unsure about how he wants to experience his racial identity, however, and is currently determined to separate himself from black communities. This is a profound conflict for Cedric—he both rejects and desperately needs the company of black people at Brown.
Cedric has been spending more time with Zayd, and this evening the two are chatting about the O.J. trial—Zayd thinks that he is guilty, but that overall, black men are often framed by the police. They are discussing Marion Barry when Zayd’s roommate comes in and argues that the former D.C. mayor was recorded on video smoking crack cocaine, and therefore it doesn’t matter if he was targeted by police. Cedric disagrees, claiming that as a black politician, he was targeted from day one. As he argues his point, a number of other students from the unit come into the room, and Cedric senses that they really want to hear what he has to say.
Cedric is slowly opening up to his classmates with the help of Zayd, who has grown up in more racially and economically diverse neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City. He is also more open minded, and his parents have taught him progressive values, including the tendency to question authority. This gives Cedric the opportunity to talk about issues of race with a white student who might be better equipped to understand his perspective.
Cedric knows that racial differences underlie his relationships with everyone in his unit. He is both black and standoffish, and others worry that he does not like them for being white. This also factors into his tension with Rob: Cedric often has to act as Rob’s social secretary, answering the door and the phone to Rob’s friends who want to make, change, or cancel plans, and he has screwed up a few times. When Rob confronted him about it, Cedric felt that his roommate’s anger and condescension would be less if he weren’t black. The argument escalates and the roommates nearly start fighting.
Outside of his conversations with Zayd, Cedric has trouble connecting to his white classmates, many of whom have come to college with preconceived ideas about what black men are like, based on media portrayals. This makes Cedric’s race the unspoken element in every conversation, and his awareness of this fact makes it worse, creating a vicious cycle of unspoken assumptions on all sides.
Cedric Gilliam is finally ready to turn himself in for parole violation. For the first few months he was out, things were going well, but then Cedric, Sr., started to use heroin again, and his girlfriend Leona kicked him out of her apartment. He went to treatment, but continued to use drugs, and ended up hiding out at the apartment of another girlfriend, Sherene, while the U.S. Marshals were looking for him. Sherene suggested that he turn himself in, and while he did not want to, he began to think about his son, Cedric, who was managing things so well at Brown. It made Cedric, Sr., realize that he needed to stop running away from his problems, and he called a parole officer and set a time to be picked up and returned to prison.
The narrative’s turn to Cedric Gilliam and his struggles to stay out of prison creates a strong contrast to the new life that the younger Cedric is attempting to build for himself. Out on parole, Cedric Gilliam has found few systems of support to help him transition to life outside of prison or to end his drug addiction. And despite the rift between them, Cedric Gilliam uses his son’s success as inspiration to lead a better life, even if he must return to prison. At a distance, his anger at his son has turned to admiration.
Cedric Gilliam alternates between feeling good about being responsible and hating the lack of freedom in the medium-security facility. On the day of his hearing, he sees Sherene for a moment, and meets his lawyer briefly before being taken into court. He sizes up the parole board member who will decide his fate, and knows that he favors Hispanics over blacks in these kinds of cases. He listens to the rundown of his entire criminal history and the conversation between his lawyer and the judge, and finally blurts out that he wants to be placed in an inpatient drug program, rather than going back to prison, where drug use is rampant. The judge agrees, though Cedric, Sr., will have to go back to Lorton prison until they can find a spot for him in a yearlong inpatient program.
Cedric Gilliam’s court experience demonstrates the scant justice that is available to black men, drug addicts, and repeat offenders within the criminal justice system. He meets with his lawyer for only a few minutes, giving them little opportunity to discuss a strategy for the hearing, and then is ushered into the court, where he will not even be asked to speak on his own behalf. He is at the mercy of the parole board member, who may have prejudices that could seal his fate. When he speaks up, Cedric Gilliam is finally taking control of his life.
Cedric is in the dining hall, looking at the calculus midterm that he aced, and feels bad about the fact that he shot so low for this first semester. And during the midterm study period, he and Rob have been keeping their distance from one another, though Cedric still makes an effort to spend time with the other white kids from his unit. He is confused by their group dynamic, which is nearly the complete opposite of the way that African American men act around one another, at least in Cedric’s neighborhood. They are physically affectionate with one another, and tend to be very self-deprecating, as if they do not need to build up their self-images for one another.
At this point in the semester, Cedric has chosen to stay away from the black student groups on campus, and attempt to join in with the white students. In some ways, this seems like a personal challenge, not unlike his struggles to earn higher grades or improve his SAT score. He observes the interactions between his white classmates almost as an anthropologist would do, but through the lens of his background among black men in the inner city.
One afternoon, the guys are all hanging out together in Zayd’s room, and the conversation takes a slightly homoerotic turn. They begin to offer to fill each others’ gas tanks, and Cedric is the only one who doesn’t laugh at the idea, which makes them push a little harder with the joke. He finally tells them all that he doesn’t like the conversation, and hides out in his room. He later has a confrontation with one of the kids, and Zayd tries to tell Cedric that not everyone is against him, but Cedric is too upset and just goes back to the safety of his room.
While Cedric has always considered himself an outsider in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood, he has clearly internalized many of the values in that community, especially the fear of effeminacy and male homosexuality, and—by extension—all expressions of affection among men. This, coupled with his strong religious foundation, make this jokingly homoerotic conversation an element of white culture that Cedric cannot accept.
Zayd is the only person brave enough to continue to try to penetrate Cedric’s armor. He notes that other kids wonder why he and Cedric are friends, but he likes the fact that they are so different. This may be an effect of his upbringing, a son of two radical professors who have made a point of exposing him to counterculture since childhood. Zayd knocks on Cedric’s door, where he has been hiding out for days, and even leaves him a note asking if they are still friends. One day, the door is open and Zayd goes in to talk to Cedric about the new Tupac Shakur album that has just come out, noting that he was named after Tupac’s uncle, Zayd Shakur, a radical activist that his parents may have known personally. This helps draw Cedric out of his shell again, and the two go downtown to buy a CD together.
The motives behind Zayd’s friendship with Cedric are unclear—while it seems that they get along well, and bond over their shared musical interests, it also seems that Zayd has sought out Cedric as a token black friend and a symbol of difference. Cedric, however, has little choice in the matter, because he has not made many friends at college yet, and is in need of a social connection, no matter how fraught it may be. Regardless of his intentions, Zayd’s offer of friendship helps Cedric feel more at home at Brown, and gives him a way to connect with some of the white students.