A Hope in the Unseen is set in inner-city Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, where Cedric Jennings seeks to lift himself out of poverty and attend Brown University. The story chronicles Cedric’s successes and failures along the way, focusing on the struggles that African Americans face when they aspire to improve their social or economic status. Throughout the story, Cedric works to fit in without losing his sense of self. This proves difficult as Cedric is pigeonholed into certain roles and stereotypes because of his blackness. The story builds on the idea of race as a social construct, highlighting how it is continually reiterated—and thus perpetuated—through learned attitudes and behaviors.
From an early age, Cedric receives messages that he is not black enough, based on his work ethic and ambition. In Cedric’s neighborhood, the concept of being “black” is reinforced through social markers like an indifferent or negative attitude towards academics, lack of emotional expression, and a narrow view of masculinity. Cedric’s academic achievement makes him both an outsider and a target of ridicule and occasional violence. At his high school, Cedric begins to skip out on the awards assemblies due to the calls of “nerd,” “egghead,” and “whitey.” Once, when he attended the ceremony and received award money for his achievement, he was almost immediately confronted by a student with a gun, looking to steal his money and his pride. Even Cedric’s own father, Cedric, Sr., belittles him, describing young Cedric as a nerdy mama’s boy, while Cedric’s friend LaTisha jokes that he “just ain’t a woman’s man.” While he actively pushes against the social codes that permeate his environment, Cedric has also internalized them in many ways. Among his peers, African American men are valued for defying authority, demonstrating courage through threats or acts of violence, and rejecting any form of intellectualism. Logically, then, Cedric realizes that all that he embodies—the polar opposite of the ideal African American man in his community—emasculates him entirely.
Once Cedric is exposed to the world beyond his neighborhood, his racial identity is redefined for him. Yet while Cedric’s racial identity is inverted at MIT and again at Brown—he is suddenly deemed authentically black rather than not black enough—he is still unable to control that identity and continues to feels like an outsider. In his summer program at MIT, he is seen as authentically black, even among a group of racially diverse students. He uses the word “ghetto” to describe himself, reinforcing an “edgy urban version of blackness.” In contrast to his relative whiteness at Ballou, Cedric represents the epitome of blackness in this larger community of students of color through his speech, taste in clothing, and music choices. In his first week at Brown, during a game of “cultural pursuit,” Cedric is overtaken by students asking him about Rosa Parks and reflects that he hates having “the identity carrying the highest voltage” in the room. His friendship with a white classmate named Zayd is complicated by the fact that Zayd seems to admire his blackness, while Cedric resents Zayd for the privilege he enjoys and often does not recognize. He sometimes lashes out at Zayd, worried that he is using Cedric as a token black friend in order to make himself seem edgier. This only exacerbates Cedric’s impression that he is perceived as a jumble of African-American stereotypes, rather than an individual.
Cedric gradually develops his own sense of identity as the story unfolds. He is able to accept that his academic achievements do not make him any less racially authentic, and to integrate elements of his African American identity into his new, more racially diverse world. His tension eases as he learns to express his concerns about race. For example, Cedric and Zayd talk openly about Zayd’s intentions regarding their friendship. Cedric opens up to his roommate, Rob, sharing his experiences with gangs and violence during high school, and begins to appreciate the fact that his white, upper-class roommate is genuinely trying to gain a better understanding of his background. During his freshman year, Cedric watches as his classmates and friends find refuge in clubs dedicated to individual racial or ethnic groups, including the Harambee House, where many black students live and hold social events. Cedric resists joining in because it seems to represent exactly what he was running away from by attending Brown in the first place, though later on he occasionally attends events there. He has trouble balancing his desire to be around a community that feels familiar to him with his fear of being defined and marginalized by his race. Cedric’s date with Chiniqua, the other black student in his dorm, helps him feel comfortable as a black student at Brown, as they share their experiences living in two worlds at once. They bond over their shared familiarity with Popular Club, a clothing store popular in low-income areas, and classic R&B music that their white classmates would not have heard of. After watching a film called A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Cedric considers its overly simplified vision of blackness. The film establishes one character, the “ghetto scoundrel,” as the epitome of racial authenticity, while the college-educated and principled woman is portrayed as “losing touch with her black soul.” Cedric thinks about how far from those stereotypes he has come since leaving home, noting the artificiality of these polarizing images of African Americans, and his alternative interpretation that encompasses elements of both characters.
A large part of Cedric’s education is a process of self-discovery, and by the end of the narrative, he is able to place himself outside of the narrow definitions of race that have been imposed on him. Suskind thus reminds readers of one of the main obstacles to success for African Americans—the overly simplified markers of racial identity that strip them of their power to build their own futures.
Race, Racism, and Identity ThemeTracker
Race, Racism, and Identity Quotes in A Hope in the Unseen
I worked hard. Why should I be ashamed? Ashamed to claim credit for something I earned? I hate myself for not going.
Educators have even coined a phrase for it. They call it the crab/bucket syndrome: when one crab tries to climb from the bucket, the others pull it back down. The forces dragging students toward failure—especially those who have crawled farthest up the side—flow through every corner of the school. Inside the bucket, there is little chance for escape.
“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.’”
“Your identity, I think, should be something that you are proud of. I wouldn’t be proud to say that I had only one leg and I could just barely walk, you know, on one leg. That may be true, but I wouldn’t let it define who I was.”
“Are we doing a services to young people to boost them above their academic level and then not offer the services they need? Because, who really can? Who can offer that sort of enrichment? You can hardly blame the university. It would take years, and money, and a whole different educational track to bring some affirmative action students to a level where they could compete.”
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.”