"A Hope in the Unseen" by Ron Suskind

(2007 selection)

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Discussion Questions

Cover of Hope in the Unseen

The page numbers in parentheses show where the issue prompting the question is raised in the text.

1.What is the significance of Barbara Jennings’s purchase of a 19-inch color television for $1,500 (p. 12)?

2.What does an unnamed kid’s act of violence help Cedric to understand? Why would it be acceptable to Cedric to be “scared to death” but not acceptable to be embarrassed (pp. 22, 23)?

3.“A boy, if he’s lucky, discovers his limitations across a leisurely passage of years, with self-awareness arriving slowly. That way, at least he has plenty of time to heroically imagine himself first. Most boys unfold in this natural, measured way, growing up with at least one adult on the scene who can convincingly fake being all-powerful, omniscient, and unfailingly protective for a kid’s first decade or so, providing an invaluable canopy of reachable stars and monsters that are comfortably make-believe” (pp. 30, 31). Do you agree or disagree with Suskind’s ideas about boys’ self-awareness? How does it apply to your life? How does it apply to most of the boys’ lives of which you are aware? How does it apply to girls’ coming-of-age? Do you think it had more relevance in Cedric’s time than in yours, or was it (is it) always wrong (or right)?

4.To the news that Cedric cannot return to Jefferson Junior High School, Barbara and Cedric react with “nothing left to say” (p. 40). How might your parents have reacted? How might an upper-middle-class parent have reacted? Why do you think Barbara and Cedric reacted the way they did?

5.How are Cedric’s anxieties about being at a crossroads typical of all college-bound high school juniors? How are his anxieties different (p. 44)?

6.Explain LaTisha’s ideas about “staying local” versus trying to “go somewhere he ain’t even seen or has no idea about” (p. 48). Is there anything about her view that is accurate? Is there anything about her view that is wrong?

7.What are Ramsey’s concerns about having a white director for an enrichment program for minority students? Are his concerns valid or not? Are his concerns racist (p. 92)?

8.What is meant by “racial authenticity” on page 93? How do you see this happening today?

9.After Cedric hears Trilling tell him he is not MIT material, Cedric calls Trilling a racist. How is Cedric right? How is he wrong (p. 97)?

10.Why is Cedric’s SAT score such a barrier? What options for improving his score are not available to him? Why (p. 105)?

11.Respond to Justice Thomas’s advice to Cedric to “say to yourself, I’m not a black person, I’m just a person” (p. 121). How is this advice helpful? How is it harmful? How is it unrealistic?

12.Explain Cedric’s classmates’ reactions to his acceptance to Brown. Can you think of a current example of a similarly mixed reaction to accomplishment (p. 125)?

13.Why do you think the code at Ballou allows girls more traditional success than boys? Is that true in your school or family or community? Why or why not (p. 127)?

14.Why must the receptionist at the accounting firm use a “Vanna White” voice on the phone? Why must she hide that she is really a “ghetto girl?” How does this support the idea of white privilege? (p. 142)?

15.Consider Barbara’s definition of a man on page 145. Is this a realistic definition? Explain. At what point, if any, does Cedric become a man?

16.Must worldly and spiritual success conflict, as Suskind reports that Bishop Long believes they do (pp. 148 — 153)?

17.How does the description of Cedric’s first days at Brown exemplify white privilege (pp. 168 — 170)?

18.Consider the discussion on identity in which Cedric was a participant during his first days at Brown. Formulate your own definition of identity and include your response to Ira’s point (p. 176); to Cedric’s point (pp. 176, 177); and to Vida’s attempt to restate Cedric’s point.

19.What is the source of the conflict between Rob and Cedric? Why can’t they get along (pp. 180, 196, 204 — 208, 217, 243, 245, 289 — 290, 294 — 295, 320, 338 - 342)?

20.Suskind’s coverage of Elie Wiesel’s speech to Brown students is almost dismissive. Indeed, there is no comment from Cedric at all. What are possible reasons why Cedric could be unimpressed and unmoved by Wiesel (p. 187)?

21.How would Cedric agree and/or disagree with the professor’s opinion (voiced on p. 192) about affirmative action in the Ivy League? Based on his comments on page 193, how would Stephen Wheelock respond? Offer solutions for leveling the playing field for people like Professor Wheelock.

22.Explain what happens during and after the discussion of Richard Wright’s essay. Why does Cedric put his head in his hands? How does this scene relate to the ideas expressed on page 193?

23.Based on Cedric’s early days at Brown, what would you say Cedric believes about white people?

24.Part of the affirmative action from which Chiniqua benefited came in the form of years of academic and social counseling/tutoring. Brainstorm about what social counseling/tutoring she might need to be comfortable at a place like Brown. Explain the weaknesses inherent in such a program. For example, did Chiniqua learn to be “white?” If so, what does that mean? Consider the effect of giving “typical” Brown students social counseling in order to enter/embrace/accept Chiniqua’s culture/society.

25. On page 203, Suskind describes Chiniqua’s relationship with whites: “Close contact with whites is no novelty for her. She’s been a passing friend and fierce competitor of white kids for years. She knows some are nice, some are not — just like blacks — and they’re no more gifted or graced. It was she, after all, who wrecked the grading curves in high school. White kids? There’s a lot about her that they can never, ever understand and not much hope of any breakthroughs anytime soon.” Explain what is meant by the last sentence. What specifically about Chiniqua’s life cannot be understood by whites? Why? Do you believe Chiniqua’s belief is realistic in twenty-first−century America?

26.What ideas from the 1960s social and political movements do you see as influential in today’s society? How are these ideas influential today? Or, do you agree with Zayd’s mother that very little of it has survived (p. 226)?

27. Was Barbara wise or foolish to make the trip to Brown for parents’ weekend (p. 227)?

28.Why was Cedric uncomfortable at Donald Korb’s house (p. 249)?

29.What does Professor James mean when he says Cedric is “not accommodationist” and is “culturally fixed”? Would you agree or disagree? Are these descriptions negative or positive (p. 260)?

30.Read Cedric’s musings on pages 274 and 275. What is the difference between pride and confidence? Which does Cedric possess?

31.Why is it harder for Cedric to be friend with Zayd than it is for Zayd to be friends with Cedric (pp. 277 — 280)?

32.What is your response to Mr. Fleming of Slater Junior High School (p. 282)?

33.How does Barbara Jennings come to owe $1,352 in back rent and to be threatened with eviction? What changed in her life to cause her not to pay her rent on time (p. 288)?

34.On pages 292 — 293, Suskind describes the groups at Brown. How are such divisions positive? How are they negative?

35.What is your opinion of Mr. Wakeford’s assessment and grading of Cedric’s poem? What does finding “some distance from yourself” mean? What does it enable one to do? What does it prevent one from doing (p. 296 — 303)?

36.Chiniqua says, in reference to music and culture, “You have to have grown up with it like us, to really know it” (p. 315). Do you agree or disagree? If this is true, what does it tell us about cross-cultural relationships?

37.Cedric writes in his paper for his education class that “The first step is to agree that most people share the goal of true diversity, with many races competing freely and successfully” (p. 338). Is this true in your experience? Why would some people be against true diversity? What will true diversity cost some groups?

Courtesy of Random House, Inc.

Funding for "One Book, Everybody Reads" is made possible by Friends of the Wilmette Public Library.

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