Summary of Chapter Seven: Good-Bye to Yesterday
Barbara rents a 1995 Dodge Caravan and takes Cedric and his belongings to Providence, Rhode Island. She has withdrawn all her cash to do this. and to stay the night there in a Holiday Inn. On the way, Cedric says, “I don’t know when I’m coming back” (p. 161). She says the Bishop will send money for him to come at Thanksgiving. He insists he can’t, nor at Christmas. He also says he won’t be calling, and she argues with him. She finally puts her foot down and says she is coming for Parents’ Weekend. They end their trip with singing together to a church choir cassette.
Cedric has a room in Andrews Hall with a white roommate, Rob Burton. Barbara sees that Cedric feels happy and is making himself at home, but when she sees the other parents bringing their children, she feels out of place and worries that her son will become a stranger to her. Cedric unpacks his CDs and checks out Rob’s collection. Barbara and Cedric meet Rob, a short boy in sandals, and then hug good-by. She tells him to “Trust in God” (p. 165). Giving him the rest of her cash, she leaves with tears in her eyes.
Cedric and Rob become acquainted by organizing their room and sharing their music. The Freshman Orientation program lasts for six days, which they will share with thirty-one students from their dorm. Cedric’s dorm group is like the university: more than half are white, and the rest are Asian, Hispanic, Indian, black, Arab. Despite the diversity, however, most have come from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds and thus share certain social and intellectual knowledge that Cedric lacks. He feels afraid and decides he will get his feet wet by taking advantage of pass/fail option. He also takes easier lower level courses. He thinks he needs to buy time to fill in his gaps.
Cedric finds that he can make friends, however. He has a good sense of humor and a beautiful singing voice, revealed during a dorm karaoke party. He uses his knowledge of television to type each person at breakfast as a sitcom character and makes people laugh. His roommate Rob is “Wally” in “Leave it to Beaver.”
With classes starting, Cedric goes to the bookstore to get books for calculus, Spanish, and the Richard Wright literature course. While looking through books to select a fourth course, he sees a picture of Winston Churchill and thinks he should know who it is, but he doesn’t. Next he sees a picture of Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead and memorizes his name and face, realizing that he has so much information to absorb, and he must do it quickly. He decides to take a course on the History of American Education from the Education Department, thinking it will be easy.
The orientation period has made it clear to Cedric that his background does not match his classmates’, and he will have to work hard. On the other hand, he loves his new stimulating environment and freedom.
Commentary on Chapter Seven: Good-Bye to Yesterday
Both Barbara and Cedric feel out of place at Brown, though they both want this and have worked hard for it. Barbara feels that she will be left behind. Cedric doesn’t seem to want to come home or to call, and perhaps he is embarrassed when she wants to come for Parents’ Weekend. He clearly wants to move on with his life and not hang on to his mother’s world any longer. The physical distance between Providence and Washington is symbolic of the distance opening between them and their lives. Barbara speculates that the typical Brown parents “went to college and on to some professional status” (p. 163). When she sees a house with an orchard, she remarks that the fruit could feed a lot of hungry people. Her poverty is too ingrained to be shaken off, whereas Cedric feels the world he aspires to is the one to which he naturally belongs.
Cedric begins measuring himself by his new roommate, Rob. Rob lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a seaside suburb, and his family has a place on Cape Cod. His father is a doctor and his sister is at Harvard. When they compare their music, they do not recognize each other’s musical groups. Rob does not know that SWV stands for “Sisters With Voices,” meaning black women singers. The boys decide to share each other’s possessions, but they do not share values, and this becomes more and more of a problem. Rob is “casual and nonconfrontational,” (p. 179) and has many friends, unlike Cedric with his intensity and privacy. Neither has been close to someone of another race before. Cedric cannot understand Rob’s habit of being messy and going barefoot, which are signs of filth to him.
As Cedric settles in, he puts on different faces as he sometimes does to test the waters. He does more listening than talking, “taking mental notes” on everything he observes (p. 168). Already he is working twice as hard as anyone else, filling in knowledge and cultural gaps. Exhausted, he has to retreat to his room for down time.
When, at breakfast, each student reveals his or her SAT score, Cedric feels scared of being exposed. The scores vary from 1430 to 1200. Cedric admits his was 930, and “a preemptive panic sets in” (p. 170), as though they are reciting their IQs. Immediately, Cedric forms his plan to avoid flunking out by taking easy courses but not for letter grades. Brown offers “student autonomy” with its “open curriculum” (p. 173). Cedric takes a class in the black author, Richard Wright, on whom he has already written book reports.
A major theme of the book is sounded with the Pluralism and Diversity seminar during orientation, a discussion to help students accept one another. The students have to recognize stereotypes and discuss what constitutes identity. Cedric says identity has to do with pride, for that is what has kept him going. He also thinks that identity has to do with shared values rather than the differences. This does not hit home to the other students, but it goes back to what Justice Thomas had said about not thinking he was a black, but a person. Personhood is something everyone shares, though it is different in each case.
One cultural shock has to do with how nothing in this new world is exempt from questioning, not even religion, but Cedric is “drunk with freedom” for the first time in his life (p. 188).