Even among African Americans, there are a variety of class distinctions that further complicate Cedric Jennings’s sense of self in A Hope in the Unseen. In Cedric’s community in a poor part of Washington, D.C., class is represented by extravagant displays of wealth. Once he leaves his neighborhood, however, Cedric finds that class is far more complicated than meets the eye, which invariably makes upward mobility more difficult than it may seem.
In Cedric’s neighborhood, class is defined narrowly as the outward display of wealth, and the desire to make more money—or to be perceived as someone who makes money by looking the part—is pervasive. Many people covet the trappings of wealth as status symbols. For instance, boys sell drugs to be able to own Lexuses, showing that the luxury item is more important than the means used to obtain it. Even Cedric’s mother yearns to provide more expensive gifts to her son—although she worries that she will not have enough money to pay her rent or buy food for the week, Barbara has purchased a $1,500 television for Cedric’s room. This becomes an item of immense value to Cedric, and a way for Barbara to provide for her son. In surprising contrast, however, Barbara once made a significant decision that contradicts her community’s conflation of class and material goods. When Cedric was young, his mother quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom until he went to school. This meant that they had less money and fewer luxuries, but it set Cedric on a path towards academic success later on in life. While they lacked material wealth, Barbara was able to arm her son with the skills and foundational knowledge to eventually rise above the systemic poverty of their neighborhood. It was only by rejecting certain markers of class that she actually gave her son a chance at upward mobility, reflecting the distinction between class and wealth that is present throughout the book.
Once he leaves his neighborhood, Cedric quickly learns that class distinctions are more complex than just about being able to afford certain luxury items. Class also encapsulates social and educational opportunities, which adds several layers to the differences separating Cedric from his peers. Cedric spends a summer at an elite MIT academic camp for students of color, where he is competing with students who have attended schools with more funding, stronger academic programs, and communities that link academic success to future prosperity. While Cedric has been trying to take in the barrage of new information in his classes, one of the girls comments casually that while some of it is complex, she has already been exposed to it in her high school. Through these interactions, Cedric realizes that education and class go hand in hand, complicating his earlier understanding of class simply being about what a person can buy. Cedric’s first days at Brown University provide him with a learning experience outside of the classroom that rivals his academic courses. He feels bombarded with new cultural references—he has to look up both Sigmund Freud and The Grateful Dead—that exhaust him every night. In his classes, he feels that his fellow students are “guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge” to which he is not privy, due to the fact that he has not been exposed to the same set of educational, social, and cultural opportunities. Cedric’s relationship with his roommate, Rob, is a jumble of cultural differences that neither of them has ever considered. For example, Rob’s messiness suggests that he has grown up expecting someone to clean up after him, while Cedric—a latchkey kid for most of his life—has had to take on his share of family chores from an early age, and is used to keeping his room clean. His friend Chiniqua is also black but has a different experience at Brown due to the fact that she has grown up among middle- and upper-class children in New York City. She has already become accustomed to the generational wealth that Cedric observes at Brown, as well as the sense of entitlement that comes along with it. Likewise, Chiniqua has long been exposed to the social and cultural context that pervades the Brown campus, while Cedric is experiencing it for the first time in his life.
As he attends college during the year and returns for the summers, this class distinction exacerbates Cedric’s sense of living in between two worlds. Because it is so multifaceted, it is class—even more so than race—that makes him feel markedly different from everyone around him. In response to the variety of higher-order cultural references at Brown, Cedric uses television and film references to connect with his classmates. Mainstream popular culture provides Cedric with a third way of communicating that helps overcome some of the racial and class distinctions that hold him back. When Cedric visits Slater Junior High School in a working-class area of Providence, he feels strangely at home. He sees his past in the eyes of these students, and begins to take in the complexities of the struggle for upward mobility. Cedric also connects emotionally to the story of Professor Wheelock, a black man who also grew up in poverty. Like Cedric, Wheelock feels that he is “constantly having to play catch-up with guys who’ve spent the past five years speaking three languages, visiting Europe, and reading all the right books.” To Cedric, Wheelock represents the possibility of navigating both the academic and social spheres simultaneously, and an acknowledgement that Cedric’s lack of cultural references and educational resources need not be a barrier to academic achievement.
A Hope in the Unseen presents Cedric’s struggle to survive in two very different worlds. By the end of the story, however, Cedric begins to recognize that he can balance his past and present, and transition from the depths of his inner-city neighborhood to the heights of the Brown campus and back again. Cedric’s experience emphasizes the fact that for students from low-income backgrounds, academics are only one part of a complex struggle for upward mobility.
Class vs. Wealth ThemeTracker
Class vs. Wealth Quotes in A Hope in the Unseen
“How can I compete? It’s like I’m living in a refrigerator!”
“You sure talk funny, southern, sort of, and you know, slangy.”
“For reeeal? What, like I’m slurring my words or something? […] You mean, I guess, that I talk sort of ‘ghetto.’”
“Come on now, I know Ballou. Some guys in the joint came from Ballou, and I have a cousin who’s a teacher there. Ballou’s no place for students.”
“I just feel I need to figure out where I stand. I don’t want to get in over my head […] Well, I didn’t come from that good a school and all, a really bad city school.”
By now, he understands that Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.
“I am constantly having to play catch-up with guys who’ve spent the past five years speaking three languages, visiting Europe, and reading all the right books. Here, at Brown, they say ‘Don’t worry, you’re all equal, starting on the same footing. Ready, set, go!’ They just don’t get it. Where I come from, people don’t go to France to study. A trip to France is a big deal. I haven’t been reading all the right books since I was twelve and then have some Rhodes Scholar Daddy tell me the rest. I didn’t have that kind of access, access that could empower me.”
It’s exciting to work with a kid who is so devoid of irony, so unguarded. And also terrifying. While it’s not going to be easy to get him where he needs to be academically, Cedric simply can’t afford to fail. He’s got everything—God, mother, faith—riding on making it. The thought makes her short of breath.
“You don’t understand anything, LaTisha. He’s saying you take care of yourself. All right?”
“It don’t matter how you look, Cedric—it’s what’s inside, the spirit in you. That’s what matters, that’s what matters!”
“Listen to me! He’s saying you don’t let yourself go! All right?! You make yourself look as good as you can! You hear me? What I’m telling you—you just don’t let yourself go!”
“You know […] I can tell the ones that will die when they leave here, when they leave this school. I can see them. You look at them hard enough, long enough, and you can tell. You really can.”
“If you’re going to make it here, Cedric, you’ll have to find some distance from yourself and all you’ve been through. The key, I think, is to put your outrage in a place where you can get at it when you need to, but not have it bubble up so much, especially when you’re asked to embrace new ideas or explain what you observe to people who share none of your experiences.”
“Like, no one in the unit knows anything about Keith Sweat. It’s kind of nice, you know. You have to be real. You have to have grown up with it like us, to really know it.”