A few years before I finally girded up my loins to write Boy At The Window, I bought a copy of Ron Suskind’s bestseller A Hope in the Unseen (1998). It’s a book that looks at the life of one Cedric Jennings between his junior year of high school and the beginning of his sophomore year at Brown University. It’s a well-written and heartening account of how this African American teenager from Southeast Washington, DC overcomes his family’s poverty, the complete absence of his father and one of the worst school systems in the US to get into and succeed at Brown University. Suskind had won a Pulitzer in ’94 for his series of Wall Street Journal articles on Jennings during his junior year of high school in Southeast. It was and remains a great book about overcoming stereotypes and poverty and resisting the temptations that a quick and-all-too-fleeting-buck can offer. But it’s also a book that offended me as a writer and as someone who understands what Jennings went through to get to Brown.
It started when I first read the Acknowledgements section at the end of A Hope in the Unseen. In commenting about the grand achievement of reporting and writing an authentic book about a poor Black person’s experiences growing up, Suskind wrote, “I hope this book will go some distance toward refuting” the idea that “there’s simply no way a white guy can ‘get it’.” I found the comment ridiculous on its face. The fact is, “White guys” and gals have been writing about Black people’s experiences for years. Or at least, they’ve worked with us in writing about some aspect or another of an African American’s experience. The same is true for White writers who’ve worked with Latinos, Asians and people from other backgrounds to put out a book or an article. It would be like me patting myself on the back for being able to understand White male angst as presented by Pearl Jam, Live or Nirvana. Gimme a break!
I’ve known White males for years who’ve “gotten it.” Poverty, racism, ostracism — even at the individual level — isn’t all that difficult to understand. Especially if a writer or journalist, researcher or a friend simply follows one simple rule — to keep an open mind. If you have to say that your great success in writing a book about someone else’s life is that you’ve proven that you can understand something about that person’s life, then you shouldn’t really say anything at all. Now, I know Suskind is known for much more than his account on Jennings, including his even-handed coverage of the Bush 43 Administration and his look at American foreign policy post-9/11. But as an author writing a book that I expect my audience — affluent Whites included — to get, it’s strange to see those words after reading such a wonderful account.
So I went back through A Hope in the Unseen a second time in ’02. I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s depressing but well-written Random Family a few months later. Hers is the story of a Latino family in the Bronx struggling through crime, drugs, loves, and poverty and finding out how hard life can be when people consistently choose to make the wrong decisions. LeBlanc spent fourteen years observing, interacting with and writing about this family and the people they encountered or fell in love with. Despite the family’s many flaws and LeBlanc’s occasional need to distance herself as a writer, it’s a great book for anyone unfamiliar with the deficits in decision-making that poverty can bring.
After reading Random Family, I realized what bothered me about Suskind’s book. With Jennings there throughout, Suskind never asked the most important “Why?” questions. Oh, Suskind asked a lot of general “How?” questions, asked “Why?” questions about Cedric Jennings’ family and their struggles through welfare poverty, frequent evictions, lack of food or stylish clothes and so on. But not too many important “Why?” questions. Especially about why Jennings was doing what he was doing when he was doing it. About why Jennings kept pushing to go to Brown after eleventh grade when all he had to look forward to at school was getting clowned on. Don’t get me wrong — I think that many of the answers here are almost completely self-evident. I’m sure from Jennings’ perspective that he saw himself having little choice other than getting out of DC and going to college, getting a degree and making something of his life. The fact that Jennings never talked about — nor was asked by Suskind — about his sense of isolation and his near ostracism by almost all of his classmates is a bit puzzling.
If you peer deeply enough into A Hope in the Unseen, you can find quite a few holes in Suskind’s treatment of Jennings’ story. Although the absence of Jennings’ father does come up — frequently I might add — little about what Jennings thinks of himself as a young man or Black male shows up in the book. Maybe Suskind didn’t think it important. Maybe Jennings didn’t think that it was important either. But given the geographical, psychological and social context of the book, for this subject to have not been addressed is another disappointment. Readers Black, White, Yellow and Brown could’ve related to Jennings’ struggles to define himself beyond being the resident nerd in nearly the poorest high school in the second or third worst urban school district in the US. It would’ve given readers further insight into Jennings’ dreams and aspirations, his coping strategies for dealing with the slights and rejections he received from his peers, his intestinal fortitude to carry on to Brown and successfully transition to an Ivy League university.
This is as important — if not more important — than what Jennings actually did as a student, a mother’s child or as a Southeast DC resident before attending Brown in the fall of ’95. For sure, anyone, including yours truly, can point to handfuls of examples of people with next to no supports becoming successful as high school students, going on to college, and then graduating with honors. That message, I guess, is “I did it. So can you.” Or as one young businessman put it an assembly I was forced to attend my sophomore year at Mount Vernon High School, “I got mine! Now you go on and get yours!”
True that. Except that so much gets lost in the concentration on the achievement, the end result. Like understanding the mechanics of how someone separates themselves from the violence and poverty in their community. Or how one cuts themselves off emotionally from the ostracism and loneliness that results from their overachieving at school. Or their thought-process about making their academic dreams a reality. Or even how they see themselves beyond their burdens at home and their need to achieve academically at school. That may involve race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the application of their aspirations to how they want to live their lives. All important and all near-absent from Suskind’s work.
So maybe Suskind was being tongue-in-cheek when he made that statement in his Acknowledgement section eleven years ago. I doubt it. He would’ve followed up with something to show that his wasn’t a statement to take literally. Unless of course, there was another message here. That Suskind wanted to let his peeps in the publishing and journalism world know that despite their socioeconomic, geographical and educational distance from the world of Cedric Jennings, they too could “get it.” At least enough to publish books that are bestsellers. Don’t get me wrong. I want to see Boy At The Window do that well. But I want readers to see the mechanics that made me who I was in doing so.