Suskind traces inner city plight in new book

by Jeremy Skog | 11/16/00 6:00am

Ron Suskind wrote a book about hard work and determination, but also about crossing the divides that we, as a people, impose on ourselves. Whether based on race, class or intellectual bigotry, Suskind challenges us to open our minds and discover that we have much to learn from other people.

Tuesday night, to a standing-room-only crowd in Moore's Filene Auditorium, he spoke about his experiences while researching his book, "Hope in the Unseen: Discovering Stories that Bridge Divides." The book itself traces the efforts of Cedric Jennings to escape the culture of defeat in the inner city and make his way to Brown University. Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winner, described his process, from his first day in "the worst high school in America," to Jennings' first day at Brown before the watching students. He vividly explained the troubles he encountered with the school administration, who described Jennings as a boy "with a quick tongue" who was "too proud" and his intimate conversations with Jennings and his mother about his absentee father and the importance of faith in his life.

He told of the experiences that he had with Jennings, including times when Jennings would be working after class or arguing with a student who wanted to copy his homework. The audience learned of the "dogma of laying-low challenged by heretic Cedric."

Jennings' "adolescent rebellion was getting As," Suskind said.

He also discussed how the research experience changed his own beliefs in the American meritocracy and his early feelings that "if you go to the right college and do well, then you are better than others." Suskind said that many times he had felt as though, since he had previously taught at Harvard, he "had nothing to learn" from inner city people. He spoke of how through talking to people and living with them he discovered his own errors of belief -- that simply because someone has a degree, does not necessarily make him a better or wiser person.

At times, Suskind tended to resort to the liberal rhetoric of class warfare. Railing against individualism, he claimed "no one in this country gets anything on their own, ever."

Suskind did, however, also say that America was the true "country of Abraham," the country where children were encouraged to go forth and "seek ... fortune in the land of self-invention."

From his experiences Suskind has identified three factors that he finds in everybody who succeeds beyond their backgrounds: a strong element of faith that teaches people they are worthy of love, a teacher who inspires them to succeed and most importantly a mother who drives the student to do well every day.

Suskind also said he feels that Americans must get away from championing their differences and overcome the concept of "you can't get it."

As an example, Suskind talked of many blacks, having read his book, being shocked to learn that a white man could so accurately understand the racial divide, and write about it so eloquently.

Americans, according to Suskind, must broaden their notions of human value and hold conversations of race and diversity, which must take place in small groups. "The aquifer of what we share is so deep," he said.

For Suskind, Jennings is a Gatsby, a prototypical American who is always chasing the unseen dream, the green light just across the water.

In an anecdote about one of Jennings' teachers Suskind explained for the audience: "Maybe the unseen isn't a place, but a place in your heart."

According to Suskind, Jennings achieved his goals in the end. He is currently working for a high-tech company in Northern Virginia and has disappeared into the firmament of America, becoming part of the America which had so long eluded him, becoming part of "the main."