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Study Guide: A Hope In the Unseen by Ron Suskind - Online Notes

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LITERATURE SUMMARY: A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN BY RON SUSKIND

2. Don't Let Them Hurt Your Children

Summary

On March 1, Barbara Jennings goes to pay her rent check of $445.22, leaving only $30 to withdraw from her account for other expenses. She reminds herself to call her brother Butch, now living in the house where she was raised; he had been living there for free since their father Maurice died, and the situation needs to be resolved between him and his five sisters. Barbara was the third in a family of ten children. She was never favored by either parent but took on many responsibilities to try to earn that favor. By the time she was twenty-eight in 1975, she had given birth to Nanette and Leslie, each by different men. In August of that year she met Cedric Gilliam, who had a criminal past as both a bank robber and drug dealer, but also a bachelor's degree in business. They started a relationship and in fall of 1976 she became pregnant with her third child. She told Cedric and said she thought it will be a boy. Cedric didn't care and told her to choose between the baby or him; she tried to get an abortion twice, but changed her mind each time. On July 24, 1977, Cedric Jennings was born; the fact that the baby was a boy still makes Barbara smile in the present day.


In the present day, Barbara is heading by bus to the Shaw neighborhood where the Scripture Cathedral is located, in which she and Cedric are members. When Cedric was three months old, she was taken to the Baltimore Armory to hear some Apostolic Pentecostals, where she first encountered Pastor C.L. Long. That night, she made two decisions: to always call her son by his middle name Lavar, and to spend every minute they can in the Scripture Church of Pastor Long's. Now the Church is a Cathedral and Pastor Long is Bishop Long, but he continues to ask for financial sacrifice from his parishioners. Barbara knows she is expected to donate twenty dollars that night and is ready to do so until the last minute, when she realizes she needs to cover her week's commute and food until Sunday's chicken dinner at the church. She gives ten dollars instead.

Raising Cedric, Barbara moved around a good deal, living on welfare until he was five so she can spend all her time with her son. When Cedric turned five, she prepared herself to return to work as he would start school. She also prepared Cedric by taking him around their neighborhood, pointing out all the drug dealers in a five block radius and further instructing him to come home straight from school, then call her at work when he did so. When Cedric was seven, Cedric Gilliam called and asked to see his son. Cedric Junior was thrilled to meet his father and enjoyed the relative luxury of Cedric Senior's life; but when he stole coins from his father's apartment that turned out to be rare coins paid in exchange for heroin, Cedric Junior was beaten badly. Several weeks later, Cedric Senior was arrested for heroin dealing and armed robbery, then sentenced to serve time at Lorton Correctional Institution. Desperate to save her son from a lifestyle like his father's, Barbara got an apartment she could not afford in Landover, Maryland, and was evicted six months later. After more moves and evictions, they wound up on V Street in the Southeast part of D.C., where they currently live.

One Sunday when Cedric was younger, Barbara was preparing the congregation dinner when she was told Cedric was singing in front of the church. She rushed up to see him singing, "Please don't let them hurt your children." At eleven, Cedric became one of the soloists of the choir, and star of the children's choir. He was then accepted into Jefferson Junior High School, a magnet school that often led to great academic success for its students. However, Barbara's five dollars an hour salary was not enough for their expenses and they had to deal with no gas heat as the weather got colder. Complaints were also being made at the church about Cedric receiving too much attention in the choir. Steve Lawrence, the choir director, eventually sets Cedric aside for other soloists, which crushed the boy. A visit to his father in prison was also traumatic, as Cedric Senior chose to devote the visit talking to Cedric Junior's cousin, who was more athletic. Cedric's behavior in school worsened and finally Barbara was told that Cedric would not be invited back for ninth grade; instead, he would go to Ballou.

In the present day, Barbara leaves the church and nods towards a hooker who complimented Cedric last year on his potential sex appeal. Cedric is asleep when she arrives home and gone for school when she awakes the next morning. Of the remaining $20 she has, $11 goes to bus tokens, the rest must be used for groceries for the next five days. When she comes home she is angered by seeing the dishes haven't been washed by Lavar. She yells at him and he proceeds to do as he's told, but complains loudly. She berates him for being disrespectful. This causes Cedric to cry, but she decides not to apologize.

Notes

The initial focus of this chapter is Barbara and Cedric's personal history, which then shifts somewhat to their relationship with the Scripture Cathedral as it becomes such an important part of their lives. The motif of Barbara paying her bills and seeking refuge in the church repeats throughout the book. Note the exactness of the amounts, which brings home just how tight the finances are, as every dollar counts.

One can interpret an implicit criticism against the church for moving Cedric away from the spotlight, as the basis for this wasn't merit as much as egalitarianism - that is, Cedric earned his right to be in the center, but was moved away not for diminished performance but because others should also have that turn. As most religions advocate this kind of equality, it may be argued that Cedric had already felt a philosophical rift with his church based on this incident. He wishes to be rewarded for his abilities and merit, and instead is punished for maintaining that standard for too long.

It is also interesting that his fall from the church choir corresponds with his fall both academically and economically. In that light, one bad turn of events has a domino effect of impacting all aspects of Cedric's life, emphasizing the main theme of the novel. One gets a sense that if Cedric was allowed to remain as a star of the church choir, he would not have exhibited such difficult behavior in his magnet school, and thus would have been invited back there instead of being forced to go to Ballou.


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