A Hope in the Unseen follows Cedric Jennings, an African American teenager living in inner-city Washington, D.C., during the 1980s and 90s, as he rises above the violence, poverty, and despair that surrounds him and heads off to Brown University. Cedric is an intelligent and determined student, which makes him both an anomaly and a target of bullying at Ballou High School, where only about half of the students manage to graduate, and even fewer aspire to attend college. To avoid the wrath of his fellow students, Cedric hides out in the chemistry classroom or the computer lab, where he works on extra credit assignments with his teachers to augment the meager curriculum of his underserved high school. When he does interact with other students, they are aggressive towards him, calling him “nerd” and “whitey,” and ridiculing him for his academic ambitions. He shares a tiny apartment with his mother, Barbara, who works at the Department of Agriculture for $5 an hour; his father, Cedric Gilliam, is in and out of the teen’s life, as he spends most of the story in prison on drug charges. The few times the two men do meet up, their relationship is strained, as young Cedric aspires to a very different life from the one his father leads, and Cedric, Sr. sees his son as weak and bookish, seeing little value in academic ambition.
Cedric’s hard work pays off in his junior year of high school, as he is admitted to a prestigious pre-college program for students of color at MIT. Math is Cedric’s best subject, but when he arrives on campus for the advanced math/science program, he realizes how poorly Ballou has prepared him, even with all of the extra support and tutoring from dedicated teachers. He is overwhelmed by the middle-class students who have had the benefit of more challenging curricula, as well as the fact that he sticks out—even among his fellow students of color—for his inner-city background. He refers to himself as “ghetto” as a way of embracing this part of his identity, but also longs to be part of his elite group. As the program ends, the faculty director meets with Cedric to dissuade him from applying to MIT, telling him that it is unlikely that he would be admitted, and that he certainly would not succeed at the college.
Cedric returns to Ballou with a renewed focus on college, applies for early admission to Brown University, and is accepted. In the spring of his senior year, Cedric is invited to meet with Chief Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most powerful African American men in the United States at this point in time. Cedric is also asked to speak at his high school graduation, and delivers a powerful, sermon-like speech in which he condemns “Dreambusters” who would like to see him fail.
In Cedric’s first year at Brown, he is overwhelmed by how different his world has become, and worries that he will not be prepared enough to succeed. He decides to take easier courses that teach topics he is familiar with, and to take all of his classes pass/fail. He makes friends, though his relationship with his roommate, Rob, is rocky at times—he finds it difficult to share such an intimate space with someone so different from him. He finds support in his sponsor, Dr. Donald Korb, who invites Cedric to have Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Boston, and treats him like a member of the family.
When Cedric returns to Washington, D.C., for winter break, he returns to Ballou and spends time with some of his friends from high school, which demonstrates for him how much he has changed after only one semester. When he returns for the spring semester, Cedric challenges himself a bit more, and continues with the education coursework he began in the fall, taking a fieldwork course in education and doing regular observations at Slater Junior High School, an inner-city Providence school that in many ways reminds him of Ballou. He realizes that he feels at home in this space, and begins to realize that he will always live somewhere between two worlds.
Meanwhile, Barbara Jennings has been struggling with depression since her son left for college, and has been spending money she does not have, which leads to threats of eviction from her landlord. She contacts Bishop Long at Scripture Cathedral, hoping that he will be able to help one of his most loyal missionaries. The U.S. Marshall arrives to remove Barbara from her home, moving the furniture out on to the street, when Minister Borden arrives in one of his Cadillacs with the money to pay back rent and fees, narrowly saving her from eviction. This is a triumphant moment for Barbara, who regularly donated her last $20 to the church for decades, and finally saw the money come back to her. That triumph is short-lived, though: the money from Minister Borden will need to be repaid, and when Barbara is evicted a second time, the church does not come to the rescue again.
Cedric’s spring semester is much more difficult academically than the fall, but he is also beginning to find himself at Brown. His relationships with his friend Zayd and his roommate Rob are tumultuous, and Cedric begins spending time with the only other African American student in his unit, Chiniqua, even going on a date with her. He also attends events at Harambee House, the African American cultural house on campus, which he has avoided because he did not want to be defined by his race. By the end of the year, he is able to make peace with Zayd and Rob before going home to be with his mother.
His mother’s near-eviction upsets Cedric, and will not speak to her for a month, breaking his silence to tell her that she can rely on him, just as he relied on her to support him and help him get to Brown. He also makes an effort to reconnect to his father, visiting him in prison and making peace. In an epilogue to the story, Suskind reports that Cedric is in his junior year at Brown, where he is dating a girl from the basketball team, and is still friends with both Rob and Zayd. He hardly speaks to anyone from Ballou anymore, but is building a relationship with his father, who is out of prison and working as a drug counselor. Cedric finds that he no longer has that anger that defined his high school years—what he called “something to push against”—and he does not miss it.