A Success Story With Uncertain New Chapters
Saturday, July 26, 2008
A hot yet breezy evening at McPherson Square. Vagrants spread over the park's neat grass as a business-casual crowd spills onto the sidewalk. Two threads of Washington begin to intersect. And Cedric Jennings sits in the middle, sipping a smoothie, at an outdoor table on K Street.
His fitted Express polo stretches crisp and flat across his slim torso, in contrast to the dangling rags of a nearby bag lady, who takes a seat by the table and leans in to eavesdrop. Jennings flinches slightly and looks askance before moving to a bench up the street. "I'm at a crossroads," he says, ruminating aloud as he often does, looking you straight in the eye. "I'm at a crossroads."
Ten years ago, that steady gaze drew in America, on the cover of "A Hope in the Unseen," an account of his ascent from Ballou Senior High to Brown University. Ron Suskind, expanding two Pulitzer-winning articles in the Wall Street Journal, had tracked Jennings's every move, as the boy clawed out of a Southeast Washington ghetto and over the Ivy gates.
In the decade since, Jennings has spoken on college campuses and talk shows as a literal poster boy for affirmative action, his blown-up face plastered across even his own college bookstore. In June, 5,000 copies of the book were distributed to libraries and high schools as part of the One Maryland One Book reading project. Entire universities, such as Texas Tech last year, read "A Hope in the Unseen" as a mandatory project each summer.
He is called the Boy Who Survived. Escaped. Succeeded.
Then readers find out from the updated edition where he is: back in the area, torn between helping himself and helping others. He turns 31 this month.
"I used to say that there was no pressure," he says, "but I feel it more so now, especially when I'm at a crossroads. People are asking what you do now, and you say, 'Social work -- I'm a case manager.' People are like, 'That's it?' I'm like, 'It's so much more than what you think.'
"I've had colleagues recently tell me, 'Cedric, it's admirable that you're doing what you're doing, but you should be doing something else. You should be doing greater things.' I feel that way. But I feel what I'm doing now is great in its own way."
Jennings lives in Alexandria but travels into the District's impoverished neighborhoods regularly for his job with D.C. Child and Family Services. This year marks his second in government social work (he was previously with a private firm) and the longest continuous time he has been back in the area since graduation from Brown.
He still looks almost exactly as he did on the original book cover. A round, nearly circular face and high smooth cheeks that bulge when he breaks into a big grin and chuckles. He does that a lot, just as he did in the book, only now it seems easier, calmer, without a dark hint of sublimated anger. But something still lingers, rooted, inevitably, in the chronicle of his adolescence.
It was a scene noted in every review, pairing the rising black student with the only black Supreme Court justice. Clarence Thomas had read the Journal articles about Jennings and met with him in his office, under the paintings of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.
"When you get on that plane, or train, at the end of the summer and leave home, you won't ever really be able to go back," Thomas said, waving an unlit cigar. "But you may find you're never really fully accepted up ahead, either, that you've landed between worlds. That's the way I feel sometimes, even now, and it can make you angry."