Jennings '99, a concentrator in applied mathematics and educational studies, is spending this semester as an exchange student at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He recently spoke with reporter Linda J.P. Mahdesian about the experience of being the center of attention for a book.
How do you think Ron Suskind did in writing about your experiences at Brown?
I think he pulled it off really well. There were no big disagreements between us. He would read excerpts of chapters to me as he wrote them, so we had the opportunity to tackle some of the disagreements before the book was actually final.
What were some of those issues?
One main issue involved me and another Brown student going on a date. Ron and I had two different ideas of what a date is. In this case, Ron invited both of us to go, so I didn't even initiate it. Sometimes this friend of mine and I would go out, but I never considered it a date. But Ron explained that sometimes just getting together and having fun is considered a date in college.
What was it like being under a microscope on top of being a freshman?
During the process it was annoying at times, at other times it was fun. Now I feel naked, like I bared my soul to the world. But it's a good feeling, I'm not ashamed of anything. I'm confident that it will help people. Personally, sometimes you just don't want somebody following you around. Other times it was good to have him around.
How did you and Ron meet?
We met at Ballou High School [Jennings' alma mater]. He was looking for honor students at Ballou who weren't necessarily ashamed or shy about it. In that environment, achievement was not valued by the students. He wanted to find students who excelled despite that peer pressure. He claims that one day I came into the office, and I went to one of the assistant principals and told him this teacher gave me a B+ and I deserve an A, that I have a 4.0 GPA to maintain - I don't remember ever doing that. But I probably did say that. I actually could see myself saying that. I had to be hard in that type of environment. They didn't want me to be on top and be an in-your-face black male, and I wanted to achieve - I had to achieve. My mother knew my potential and wouldn't accept anything less, so and I had to, not just for her, but for me.
So Ron asked the assistant principal, "Who is that?" The assistant principal told him to stay away from me, "He's nothing but trouble." So Ron goes looking for me and finds me in the physics class. A student has just tried to copy off of me and so she and I were having a "discussion" about that. The teacher called me into the lab and introduced me to Ron. I didn't know if I could trust him - this stranger coming into my territory - this white man. I did invite him to the house to meet my mother. We went out to a nice restaurant in Georgetown, and we really hit it off. My mother always had this distrust, always cautious, she wasn't as confident as I was at first. But she grew to understand what he was about and what he was trying to do. It definitely took time for us to evolve.
Were there moments that really bonded you two?
My mother and I had some evictions - Ron was there for one of them. One of the troubles being in a single-parent home is that one income is not enough to support you. In the summer of '96, there were eviction proceedings. The marshal was there with a gun. They wanted us out of there. I called Ron and he was there in less than 30 minutes. He held the process up, until we could reach a minister who was going to put the money up for us. Ron said he would've called his brother and stored the stuff himself - he's definitely a good guy. My mom trusts him now, but he's like a brother to me. I've had personal problems, and I've gone to him and talked to him, he's always given me sound, good advice. It helped us evolve as good friends. Our friendship will continue even after everything dies down. I have faith it will continue.
Did you get criticized from blacks about having a close white friend?
In terms of the book, we always talked about the criticism we'll get from the black community. People still don't understand our relationship - a black guy, a white guy, the two don't mix. How can this white guy understand these issues? But he comes really close to understanding, and should be given credit for that, for even trying, for putting himself out there, learning about the black community, finding out what we go through - he should be applauded for that. He realizes he could never totally understand, because he's not black. He couldn't live it, so he couldn't fully understand, but he put himself out there in some tricky situations, like being a white spot in my all-black church, and the whole Brown situation. And meeting my family - that took a lot of guts - we black folk can be pretty critical. But everybody grew to love him. ... I'm grateful to have him in my life.
What did you learn through this process?
I learned more about the other characters than myself. ... The hardest part for me is to read about Cedric Gilliam - people call him my father, but I consider him the sperm donor. I don't look at him as a father. From the book I got a sense of how other people felt, how my actions influenced them. I learned a great deal about myself. I learned I am a stronger person now than I was back then. My freshman year seems very distant right now. When I read the book, I say I was that person then, I am this person now. I've grown - I'm more laid back now.
What are you planning for this summer?
I'll be taking a class at Brown, doing interviews for the book tour, traveling. Next year, since I want to go to business school, part of my senior year will be spent preparing for and taking the GMATs, doing two thesis papers - one in applied math and one for education - I want to go out for honors for that. Then I'll be applying to Boston University business school, and finding a job. I want to defer grad school for at least a year.
Has your new-found celebrity changed you?
I refuse to be a celebrity. But I'm not going to refuse the royalties. I still see myself as an ordinary college kid who happens to have a lot of people know about [his] life's story, and who's seeking a job.
How do you think you changed Ron?
I consider every interaction with Ron and with Brown students as a cultural exchange. Even among the African-American students, we're different. We've had different experiences in life. I'm different, in terms of how I talk, how I dress. They learn more about me and I learn more about them.
The biggest criticism I get is that by coming to a white university I'm being a sell-out. How is spreading black culture being a sell-out? Being in a predominantly black high school, I decided it was time for a change. When you subject yourself to change, you grow. I was looking to grow. And I'm glad I made the decision to go to Brown. Not because it was a white school, but because it was an Ivy League school, with a high academic reputation. But a lot of people in D.C. resented me. They wanted me to go to a black college. We didn't have the money for a place like Brown, but God made a way. I've experienced a lot of rejection back home - people just don't understand. I hope the book helps them to understand, that it takes us getting lost in the world to help us find out who we are. I was lost for a while at Brown, until I found common ground with students, and when I decided what was right for me in the world. Brown is an accurate picture of how different people are in the world. That's why I chose Brown over all the other Ivies. I wouldn't get that anywhere else. Everybody's trying to be different, be their own person. That's why I came, but narrow-minded people can't see that.