Phillip often gives Cedric a hard time in the Ballou hallway. It is because he himself is smart but is afraid to show it. Instead, he becomes the class clown and tries to deflate Cedric. Phillip is a talented tap dancer and comedian and would like to get into the entertainment business. He ends up as a clerk in a mailroom, influenced by his father’s “aim low” philosophy.
Ms. Shirley Briscoe
Shirley Briscoe is Cedric’s high school English teacher at Ballou, who helps him with his graduation speech.
Rob Burton is Cedric’s roommate at Brown during his freshman year. At first friendly to one another, their relationship deteriorates during the year until they are hardly speaking. Rob is white and privileged, the son of two doctors, and used to an easy upper-class life where he has wanted for nothing. He is expected to do well and is an excellent student. The other students like Rob, who is easy-going, fun and likes to party. This disgusts Cedric who neither drinks nor goes out on dates. Rob is sloppy, and Cedric is neat. They come from different backgrounds and have trouble communicating. They finally make up in their sophomore year.
Delante or “Head” runs one of Ballou’s largest gangs, the Trenton Park Crew. He manages a drug dealing and protection ring and drives a Lexus. Cedric tries to steer clear of him.
Cornelia or “Mother Cunningham” is an elder woman at Scripture Cathedral who had died two weeks before Cedric went to MIT. When he is failing, he feels her spirit in his bedroom telling him he has not yet begun to fight. He takes courage and studies harder.
James Davis is a twin brother to Jack who sometimes hangs out with gang members. James is an athlete at Ballou, one of the few well-rounded young men, who is both studious and athletic and respected. He sees Cedric trying to play the tough guy and tells him he doesn’t need to do that. James drops out of college and sells drugs.
The mother of Zayd Dohrn, Bernadine was a political activist in the 1960s with her husband, Billy Ayers. They were part of the Underground Weathermen and on the FBI’s most wanted list. Bernadine actually went to jail for a time, and they hid out for seven years when their son, Zayd, was little. Now a lawyer at Northwestern University she is part of the mainstream but still dreams of her politically active youth and wonders why her son’s generation is not more interested in principles.
Zayd Dohrn is Cedric’s best friend in his freshman year at Brown. Zayd is white, the son of two former political students from the 1960s who were part of the Underground Weathermen. Now both parents are college professors. Their young son saw some radical scenes before his parents became respectable, such as attending a school near Harlem, the only white boy among blacks. Zayd gets along well with everyone and is independent and confident. He and Cedric become friends because they like the same black rap music. Zayd surprises him by knowing all the groups and records intimately. Zayd respects black culture and defers to Cedric as an authority. Zayd is fascinated by Cedric’s strict moral code and inner city background. Cedric feels comfortable confiding in Zayd.
Jenica Dover is a middle-class black student in the summer MIT program. Her parents are both high school teachers from Newton, Massachusetts. She befriends Cedric in his physics class.
Mr. Fleming is the white math teacher for the 8th grade at Slater Junior High School in Providence, Rhode Island. Cedric goes to this black inner city school during his Brown freshman year to observe a class for his education seminar. He does not like Mr. Fleming’s method of treating the children and writes a poem about it: “Let the Colors Run.”
Cedric Gilliam is Cedric Jennings’ father, who did not want him, but pops in and out of his life trying to establish some relationship with his son. Gilliam is intelligent, and in prison he earns three bachelor’s degrees in business, urban affairs, and environmental studies. He is in his profession, however, a drug dealer and spends most of his time in prison. Addicted to drugs, he spends his paroles on drugs and dealing drugs, thus landing in prison in an endless cycle. Gilliam himself came from a troubled home without a father, and his mother, unlike Barbara, is not supportive. He got into a life of drugs and crime in high school. At times quite rich from dealing drugs, he tries to make an impression on his young son, but is too weak and unstable to be a good parent. He leaves Cedric junior angry and confused by his visits. Barbara is so disgusted with his behavior she calls her son by his middle name, Lavar, rather than Cedric. The narrative goes inside Gilliam’s mind to show that he does care for his son and wishes he could express his affection. He does not know how. He is confused by his son’s focus and will to reject his father’s life of the street. Barbara is so fiercely protective she will not allow the boy to go to concerts with his father, though he would like to. After Cedric’s freshman year at Brown, he visits his father in prison, anxious to learn more about him. He asks his father if he loved his mother, but his father us unable to say yes. Gilliam finally gets admitted to a drug rehabilitation program and establishes a friendly relationship with his grown son.
Gloria Hobbs is Barbara Jennings’ oldest friend at Scripture Cathedral. Cedric turns to her when he is worried about his mother’s health. She helps to mediate the distance between them.
Dr. Tom James is the professor of Cedric’s History of American Education course. He has had many minority students and has studied various ethnic groups in American history.
Barbara Jennings is Cedric’s single mother, herself a child of poverty, made to work hard at home with many other children and little affection. Very bright, she enjoys high school but has to drop out when she gets pregnant. She has two illegitimate daughters, and then meets Cedric Gilliam, with whom she has Cedric. He does not want her to have the child and threatens to leave if she does not have an abortion, but Barbara wants the child. When her son is born, she devotes her whole life to saving him from the ghetto. She goes on welfare to care for him at home until he is five, and then she gets a job to support him through school. Her church is her support system for her and her son, and it keeps him on the straight and narrow path so that he doesn’t get taken into one of the street gangs. Barbara is strict with Cedric, having to be both mother and father. He has to do his part at home, cleaning and cooking dinner. Barbara is always exhausted from her work and church schedule and in poverty. Sometimes they go without food or heat in the winter time. She does not tell Cedric about the unpaid bills and they are constantly being evicted and being thrown in the street. She never does anything for herself, living a life of self-denial and sacrifice. Her only life is in the church where she attends services several times a week. Once Cedric gets into Brown, Barbara gets into debt, is evicted again and moves back to her childhood home to live rent-free and repay her debts. Cedric begins to resent her martyrdom as he grows up but knows he could not have made it without her strong support.
Cedric Jennings is the main subject through whose eyes we see the struggle to get a good education. His story begins in Ballou High School in the black ghetto of southeast Washington D.C. Cedric is the youngest and illegitimate child of Barbara Jennings and Cedric Gilliam, a drug dealer who has spent a good part of his life in jail. Barbara and Cedric live in poverty, moving from one place to another. Barbara is a single parent and vows to keep her son off the streets by getting him involved in church and his studies. She has ingrained in Cedric the idea that if he studies hard, he can go to an Ivy League school. Cedric comes home from school and locks himself in the apartment to be safe from the crime all around him. Misbehaving at the magnet school, Jefferson Junior High where he was able to take advanced classes with other minority kids, he was sent to Ballou, the worst inner city school. He is an “A” student but persecuted by the other kids for studying. Cedric is proud and aloof and has few friends. In his junior year, he gets a summer scholarship to MIT where he learns how behind he is compared to the middle-class minority students. Nevertheless, he applies to Brown University, even with low SAT scores, and is accepted under their affirmative action plan. At Brown, Cedric struggles with grades and with social acceptance but learns how to adapt. It is difficult for him to come back the to ghetto afterwards. He is not as interested in his acquaintances there or the church as he once was. He is one of the lucky ones who has made it out of the ghetto for a chance at a professional life. He has to learn how to forge a new identity by both embracing his ethnic heritage while learning to broaden out and make friends among other groups.
Dr. Donald Korb
Donald Korb is the wealthy optometrist who hears about Cedric’s quest through the newspaper articles and becomes his sponsor at Brown. He likes to commit himself to poor urban blacks who are smart. He gives Cedric a monthly allowance and pays for a tutor to help him. Cedric spends Thanksgiving with the Korb family in Boston, feeling out of place at first, but he feels the genuine warmth and encouragement from the family members, especially the old grandmother. Cedric overhears Korb telling someone that the boy should pay less attention to religion and more attention to using reason to succeed.
Bishop Long is the pastor of Scripture Cathedral in the ghetto, offering, he says, an alternative to the streets for young people. He is particularly fond of Cedric Jennings and his mother, Barbara. Barbara, like all the church members, tithes to the church (gives 10 percent of her earnings), though she cannot afford it. Bishop Long, on the other hand, appears to be rich, lives in the suburbs and drives a Rolls Royce. In services he is inspirational and mesmerizing, able to convert people by bringing the Holy Spirit to them. He is Cedric’s spiritual advisor, warning him to stay away from temptation, especially when he goes off to college. He knows that is when he loses young people. He tells Cedric to avoid pride and put all his faith in God. Cedric is very religious until he goes to Brown where he gradually loses interest in the church. It is no doubt due to the Bishop’s influence, however, that Cedric lives the life of a monk and pursues his studies.
Chiniqua Milligan is an African-American student at Brown who goes to parties at the all-black dorm, Harambee House. She is always trying to get Cedric to hang out with the other black students. She is a middle-class black, confident and at home in the world, having attended a white school. She becomes Cedric’s friend and he begins to date her at the end of his freshman year. He feels comfortable with her and learns how to let go with the other African-American students.
Torrence Parks is one of Cedric’s black friends from Jefferson Junior High. When Cedric tells him how badly he is doing at MIT, Torrence tries to make him feel guilt for betraying his race by going to a white school. Torrence has become a Muslim.
Andrew Parker is the top student at the summer program at MIT. He is from Hawaii, part Asian and part black and brilliant. Cedric feels the calculus teacher is speaking only to Andrew.
Bill Ramsey is the retired black engineer and businessman who runs the summer minority program at MIT. Cedric likes him because he looks both successful and tough, yet wise. He finds gifted minority students for MIT, but Ramsey feels sad because he knows the affirmative action cards are stacked against Cedric. Affirmative action favors the middle-class minority kids who are already on their way up. Ghetto kids are already too far behind to catch up.
Helaine Schupack is a friend of Donald Korb and agrees to tutor Cedric on writing. She helps him with his essays, understanding that affirmative action can be woven into grading. She encourages him to write about his background. Her husband is an emeritus professor of economics.
LaCountiss is Cedric’s only rival for grades at Ballou. She becomes the valedictorian, while he is the salutatorian. Girls are not hazed as much for getting good grades.
Clarence Taylor is the chemistry teacher at Ballou High School. He becomes Cedric’s mentor and friend, encouraging him to achieve and giving him extra projects. He takes Cedric on field trips. A devout Christian, he and Cedric have their religion in common and quote the Bible to one another. Taylor is the one who misquotes the Bible verse that becomes the book’s title: “A Hope in the Unseen.”
Clarence Thomas is the black Supreme Court Justice who has an interview with the young Cedric before he goes to Brown. He gives Cedric some crucial advice on not getting caught up in any group in college. He should try to be himself and find his own way. He shares with Cedric his own difficult upbringing and moments of discouragement but tells him he must keep on and never quit because there won’t be a second chance.
Leon Trilling is the Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT who reviews the work of the summer students in Ramsey’s minority program. He is white, with a Polish accent. He tells Cedric he is not MIT material and should apply to lesser institutions.
Larry Wakeford is Cedric’s teacher for Fieldwork and Seminar in High School Education at Brown. He is an ex-high school teacher, who has a temporary appointment at Brown. He likes Cedric’s poem, “Let the Colors Run,” but warns him to write a regular academic paper next time. He explains to Cedric that he needs to be more objective and gain distance from his background.
La Tisha Williams
La Tisha is Cedric’s friend from Ballou, one of the few students who encourages him. Smart herself, she understands Cedric’s need to achieve and is there for him when the other students make fun of him. She is an outcast like he is, weighing 250 pounds. It is clear she is more romantically attracted to him than he is to her. He just wants her for a friend. When he comes home from Brown, he sees there is now a great distance between them. She tries to relate to Cedric by being interested in the church, just when he is giving it up. At first she attends the University of D.C. but drops out for religious work.
Stephan Wheelock is Cedric’s young black professor in his Richard Wright class who faces some of the same problems as Cedric in the white world. He is not up to speed in terms of scholarship. He is not rigorous enough in his class or research, softening his expectations of the students based on his own background.