What is Success? (Part 2)
Sometimes the best stories have no easy endings.
It can be surprising how often people have high expectations of other people–sometimes their expectations for others is higher than those they have for themselves. For example, at my post-college graduation party, one of my aunts appeared shocked to discover that I, a Political Science major, was not going to continue on to law school. Not that she’s a lawyer, mind you; just that she assumed that was the way I was heading. I suppose for some of the people with whom I graduated my staying in Baltimore and working for the library proves me to be an underachiever. Perhaps they’re right. Or perhaps I just had different priorities than they did, and a different measure of success.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit after reading the recent Washington Post profile of Cedric Jennings, the subject of Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, this year’s One Maryland One Book project selection. Both the book and the article raise interesting questions about the meaning of success in America.
A Hope in the Unseen covers Jennings’ transition from Washington DC’s Ballou Senior High School to Brown University, a riveting, hope-filled account of his journey from the ghetto to the Ivy League. If the book were a novel or a film or made-for-cable movie, Jennings’ next move would have been to Wall Street, financial success, and a large happy family living in a house in the suburbs.
As the Post reveals, the real story did not turn out that way. Cedric Jennings returned to the Washington area, and now works as a case manager for DC Child and Family Services. He is a success, he has “gotten out”—he just doesn’t fit the expected model of success.
To my mind, that he hasn’t followed some pre-set plan doesn’t matter. One of the first African American science fiction writers, Samuel R. Delany, once said in an interview that what young black kids need more than anything else is “the possibility of possibilities.” One has to imagine a world outside the confines of the “expected,” to be able to imagine a way to “make it” that does not involve being a sports or music star, or being on one side or the other of the legal system. One sees such a limited range of achievement in struggling neighborhoods that any and all avenues of possibility need to be opened to the young people there. Underachieving teens suffer as much from an inability to imagine themselves elsewhere as they do anything else.
Adults, too, need to reconsider what their notions of success are as well. As was pointed out in the online comments about the Post article (one of which appears to be written by Jennings himself), the tone of the piece from the start is muted, negative, and vaguely condescending toward its subject. And there’s little understanding of the pressures African Americans in particular face to “give back,” and not repudiate the people and places one came from as you rise to the top. People want you to leave, but also want you to return, to help bring others up and out with you, which appears to be part of what Mr. Jennings is doing.
As Marylanders read A Hope in the Unseen this summer, I hope we keep these themes and ideas in mind. What does success mean to us and to our children? As we rise, how do we bring others with us, or at the very least, keep them from falling further behind?
Librarian and author Reginald Harris has received Individual Artist Awards for both poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council, and is Help Desk and Training Manager for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. He can be found at reggieh.blogspot.com.