Education as a Race, Battle, or Drowning
The metaphors used for Cedric Jennings’s attempt to get into an Ivy League school convey the feeling of dealing with almost insurmountable odds to “win” a place in a privileged society. Stuck in an inner-city school where students are hostile to achievement, where teachers teach to empty classrooms, Cedric is coming from behind. He is told by his chemistry teacher, Clarence Taylor, “you’re in a race, a long race” (Chpt. 1, p. 6). He cannot afford to listen to his fellow students because they are on the sidelines, and he is “still on the track” (Chpt. 1, p. 7). He compares Cedric’s challenge to the Boston Marathon and cautions against quitting (Chpt. 5, p. 131). His mother tells him that the race goes to “he who endureth until the end” (Chpt. 1, p. 15). Bill Ramsey, his MIT summer program director, wishes he could encourage Cedric about how much distance he has covered already, but the fact is that “Cedric had to run three more laps than the other kids, but he’s still two laps behind, so he loses” (Chpt. 4, p. 92). Supreme Court Justice and role model, Clarence Thomas, tells Cedric that he cannot afford to stop or party in his studying. The others may be ahead of him, but he can work harder. There is no safety net: any failure is complete failure. Cedric finally gets to Brown University through “adrenaline and faith” (Chpt. 7, p. 186).
Cedric is also caught up in a literal battle to get out of the inner city. Bishop Long tells him “the battle is not yours, the battle is God’s” (Chpt. 6, p.150), so that he will ask God for help. Cedric tells the other students at his high school graduation, “ There’s nothing me and my God cannot do” (Chpt. 5, p. 137). Cedric’s religion keeps him living like a monk to keep him away from temptation and in top shape for his daily exhausting schedule. His mother locks him in the apartment after school to keep him from getting killed on the streets. All around there is gunfire and drugs. At Brown, Cedric compares inner-city kids to Vietnam combat veterans (Chpt. 12, p. 300). Cedric’s sponsor, Donald Korb, tells him at Brown he will need tutoring to get conditioned “like a fighter might prepare for a fight” (Chpt. 10, p. 251). He lives in fear his freshman year and thinks of his courses as “dire warfare” in which he has to “surrender” in Discrete Math, face an “imminent rout” in psychology, and prepare for a “titanic assault on his last stronghold” in education (Chpt. 13, p. 310).
Cedric is not prepared to compete academically with his poor training and frequently finds himself “slipping below the water line” (Chpt. 4, p. 84). He is another “drowning minority student” (Chpt. 8, p. 191). Cedric overhears professors talking about the “laissez-faire, sink or swim” policy (Chpt. 8, p. 192) towards affirmative action students. It’s too late to help them, they imply. A calculus professor seems to Cedric to have the teeth of “a great white shark” (Chpt. 7, p. 171). Cedric has always had to brace himself “to push against a fierce headwind” (Chpt. 5, p. 127). In a recurring nightmare, he finds himself in a deep gulch, alone, shouting for help. As he begins to succeed, other less violent metaphors for education come up, including references to Cedric’s “journey” which has made him strong (Chpt. 8, p.192) Cedric finally sees all the students, including himself, as plants in an educational “greenhouse” (Chpt. 14, p. 337).
The Urban Inferno
The Southeast black ghetto of Washington, D.C. is known as one of the worst and most violent of the country. It is described as explosive, with children and adults being shot down suddenly. Every day there is news of someone the Jennings know coming to a violent end or going to jail. A walk through a school corridor can end in a knife fight, as evidenced by the dried blood on the steps. When he returns to Ballou, Cedric is jarred by the “very ruin of the place” with the smell of despair that “makes his nostrils burn” (Chpt. 11, p. 267). Cedric makes it through “the urban inferno” without “armor” (Chpt. 8, p. 206). Although he appears an “open and transparent” person at Brown, attractive and likeable (Chpt. 8, p. 206), his friend from Ballou, La Tisha, is used to uncovering “his young, black, male minefields—the array of buried explosives” (Chpt. 11, p. 269) from his unstable home life and a father in prison. He is described as a young man with “white hot” yearning (Chpt. 1, p. 7). Whenever someone challenges his desire to better himself, he becomes aggressive, as when a teacher gives him a lower grade than he deserves. The grinding poverty means the young Cedric goes without food sometimes or without heat in the apartment. He and his mother have moved often, been evicted and thrown on the street. His mother “has been working like a slave” (Chpt. 2, p. 42) her whole life, and even she erupts in anger at her son from the constant stress. She has had to harden herself to be both mother and father to him. At school there are frequently days when “anarchy is loosed” and “no one is even remotely in charge” (Chpt. 1, p. 16). The abundance of details makes it clear that every day Cedric’s life is in danger. His mother doesn’t want him to wear a leather jacket to school because “kids are sometimes killed over leather jackets” (Chpt. 5, p. 101). The ghetto Cedric survives is literally hell on earth.
White Marble and the Supreme Court
When Cedric visits African American Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas in his chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington, he is stunned by the “outsized and incredibly white” marble busts “of dead chief justices” and the marble ceiling eighty feet high (Chpt. 5, p.117). It makes him feel “conspicuously black.” Everything is in “shades of white” making him think of heaven (Chpt. 5, p.117). By contrast, the office of Justice Thomas is “cozy and warm” with walls of oak. In the reception area are paintings of “black workers in the rural south” (Chpt. 5, p.117) and a painting of slaves picking cotton. Symbolically the setting makes the contrast between black and white origins. The classic marble busts of the men of power, the founding fathers of American justice, appear in the public corridors, while the more humble paintings of the black slaves hang in Thomas’s office.
Cedric is aware of the controversy surrounding Thomas’s appointment that the Justice will never be free of. These are the charges made by Anita Hill that he was guilty of sexual harassment. Once Cedric meets Thomas, however, he forgets the stereotypes. Thomas is built like a football player and has had to battle a difficult fate, as Cedric has. He gives the boy advice as Cedric looks at the paintings of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, historical black heroes. The paintings in Thomas’s chambers thus compress the history of blacks in America, from their slavery and physical labor to their intellectual achievement. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were men of talent and integrity, who fought their way to fame and respectability against all odds, just as Cedric aspires to do. Thomas tells his own story symbolically with another statue: the statue of St. Jude who represents “hope for the hopeless” (Chpt. 5, p.119). This statue records Thomas’s struggle with its broken off head that was glued back again and again every time someone broke it off to harass him. He has the broken statue with him still as a reminder and inspiration. Thomas’s broken statue is another contrast with the pristine marble in the lobby. He has made it to the top but he has carried the history of his people with him. The Supreme Court is itself an ironic symbol of the justice that African Americans have been so often denied, with its motto carved in marble above the doors: “Equal Justice Under the Law.”
Education as a Race, Battle, or Drowning