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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Summary

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace tells the life story of Robert Peace, a young man who grows up in the rough and tumble neighborhood of East Orange right outside of Newark, New Jersey and goes on to attend Yale University. Rob’s neighborhood isn’t very far from some pretty fancy areas in New Jersey. But, despite the short geographic distance, these neighborhoods are socioeconomically worlds apart. The differences in these worlds become even more apparent when Rob arrives on campus at Yale and in his life after graduation.

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Show Notes

Rob’s Parents

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace starts off telling the story of Rob’s parents, Jackie Peace and Robert “Skeet” Douglas. At the time of Rob’s birth, his parents are both in their early thirties so they’re not kids. They’re excited about his birth but not as prepared for his life as one would hope.

Jackie is by all appearances pretty normal. She comes from a family that certainly isn’t wealthy and probably wouldn’t even be considered middle class but is relatively stable. They’ve been living in the community for quite a number of years. They live in a house that’s not great or anything spectacular, but they own the home. She comes from a two parent household and has several siblings that are also leading relatively normal lives.

I believe Skeet is also from the area and he ends up coming into a property that was owned by his family. But, not as much is known or at least discussed about Skeet’s family.

Jackie and Skeet meet at a club, begin dating and Rob is conceived because his mom wants a baby. His mom is smitten with him from birth but there’s no real plan for raising and providing for Rob. Jackie is very hard-working but it sounds like she was making just enough to support herself before Rob’s birth. I believe she is a high school graduate and works consistently but earns a very limited income. She sacrifices to provide for herself and Rob but struggles along the way.

Skeet, on the other hand, is described as being an incredibly intelligent person. But, for reasons that aren’t explained, he’s working a regular day job and selling weed on the side. It’s not really discussed as to why someone of this intellect hasn’t done more with their life. I don’t say that to be judgemental but rather that given the course of his life and the course of his son’s life, it’s very relevant.

In a lot of these situations, it seems like the mother wants to get married and settle down while the father is resistant. Yet, in this case, when Jackie becomes pregnant Skeet wants to get married or at least live together and form a family unit. But, Jackie refuses.

Based on the relationships that Jackie has seen, she believes that the reality of marriage and children and the expectations of responsibility placed on men causes them to abandon their families.

That might be true for some men to some degree. But, in this instance, she makes the choice to have a child with Skeet and then pushes him away without really giving the relationship a chance. For example, Jackie uses Skeet’s weed selling as a reason for them to not live together due to safety concerns. But, he was selling weed before they met and continued while they were dating. Quite honestly, it seems like she wanted a baby but not a husband or even a boyfriend. Jackie operates with the expectation that Skeet will leave her and Rob one way or another and shields herself by placing barriers in the relationship. That doesn’t mean that there’s no blame on Skeet’s part as he is smart enough to understand the potential risks but continues to sell weed even after Rob’s birth. The romantic relationship between Jackie and Skeet seemed to pretty much end once Rob was born.

There are definitely some questionable choices and decisions made prior to and at the start of Rob’s life. And I feel that to some degree the instability, lack of planning, and lack of structure definitely played a role in Rob’s development. Both in the way that he handles relationships in the future and also how he lives his life when there’s no structured guidance.

I’m not downplaying or denying that some children are abandoned by their fathers and husbands leave their wives. But, instead of looking for a man that she felt could offer her different, it seems she in some ways settled for Skeet.

Jackie internalizes the dysfunctional relationships around her and it becomes her idea of normal. It’s, therefore, a foregone conclusion that regardless of the individual man she might be dealing with she should expect for her and her child to be abandoned by him. By all means, Skeet didn’t seem like a bad guy but also didn’t sound like an ideal mate. Why bother even dating him? And then why have a child with him?

I didn’t dislike Jackie or Skeet, but I thought from the beginning that Rob was kind of starting off on shaky ground just based on the nature of his parents’ relationship.

Rob’s Intelligence

Beginning around the time that Rob was a toddler he began showing signs of being quite smart. By the time he got to preschool, teachers had recognized his intelligence and referred to him as “The Professor”. Obviously, some of that was his natural intellect but his mother helped to develop and encourage his intelligence by reading to him from a very early age. While his dad is also smart, Skeet pooh-poohs some of Jackie’s early interventions in fear that Rob will be soft or a nerd.

What I found ironic was that Jackie isn’t referred to as being particularly intelligent. But, when she chooses, she can hold her own in a discussion with Skeet and has the foresight to try to guide Rob towards a path of academic achievement. A large part of that is based on her wanting more and a better life for Rob than she had. A big deal isn’t made of her intelligence, but Jackie obviously is not stupid.

Skeet knows a lot of facts, has gone out of his way to learn and is a great communicator. He’s had an opportunity to develop his intelligence but doesn’t seem to have made much professional or financial use of it. But, as I mentioned before, the reasons are unknown.

As Rob develops, both parents recognize his intelligence but Jackie starts the push to make sure his intelligence is nurtured and fully developed. She works really long hours and tries to move her way up at work just to earn a little bit more to give Rob a bit more. She uses her resources throughout his childhood to expose him to better schools, programs, resources, etc. When Rob is young, Skeet focuses more on trying to teach him rap lyrics and his definition of manhood which had more to do making rounds of the neighborhood to get to know people and be known.

Skeet and The Streets

At least initially, Skeet places more importance on streets smarts rather than book smarts. He wants Rob to know how to handle himself in the street, not necessarily being a bully but not be regarded as a pushover. He begins teaching Rob how to survive in the streets rather than how to use his intelligence to escape the streets. Skeet isn’t ashamed of Rob or his intelligence but basically teaches him that within their world in East Orange, it’s not the top priority.

Meanwhile, Jackie is setting a path for Rob to move beyond the neighborhood. To strive for and achieve more than the limited opportunities that are presented within what’s an underserved and let’s be honest, poor community. She wants Rob to take pride in his intelligence and do all that he can with it and to build upon it.

When Rob gets older, Skeet takes a deep interest in his education and actually takes over working with him on homework after school. He spends afternoons drilling Rob on discipline, communicating clearly, and putting in the effort to not just get his work done but to do it right.

Yet, he teaches him in a way where it’s implied that this is something you do in the house and try not to mention out in the neighborhood. There could be some legitimacy to that where some people in the community might not take kindly to Rob being perceived as showboating about his intelligence and the opportunities that might become available to him.

But in doing so, it teaches Rob that he has to present himself in a way that conforms to the expectations of the neighborhood despite its dysfunction. And also that the neighborhood is not something to necessarily escape and the obstacles aren’t to be avoided. Instead, you should try to figure out how to survive within this world rather than how to overcome it.

Unfortunately, events occur where Skeet is accused and convicted of murder. There are some questionable details both in favor of and against Skeet’s innocence but I’ll leave it up to you to decide. At the time of Skeet’s arrest, Rob is about seven or eight years old, so still very young. Skeet certainly was not perfect, but there’s no denying that he was there for Rob and very involved in his life. The two remained in contact as best as they could through visits but it wasn’t quite the same. Rob’s father was taken away at a very pivotal point in his life.

But, I viewed this as Skeet has been kind of running towards this moment or accepting the risk of having to deal with such a moment. If I’m not mistaken, Jackie kind of expects to receive, not this specific call, but something along these lines. In selling marijuana Skeet could have eventually found himself facing charges for dealing or being seriously harmed or killed. Skeet’s arrest wasn’t unexpected but the details were unexpected based on the description of Skeet’s character up to that point in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

Adolescence

When Rob was growing up, his dad was very well known in the neighborhood and took great pride in knowing and being known to everyone. Skeet shared that with Rob by taking him around the neighborhood and introducing him to his friends. Rob started playing football on the streets and began building his own rep as being a tough kid. People sympathized with Rob and the loss of Skeet and tried to look out for him in a way, but some of their methods weren’t in Rob’s long-term best interest. For example, during a celebration, Rob is exposed to drinking and later starts smoking weed at about the age of 13.

At the same time, Jackie is making sacrifices to offer Rob better educational opportunities. She gets him into a private junior high school where he continues to excel.

Being older and attending a school that’s farther away from home means commuting back and forth on his own through the neighborhood. He was more sheltered earlier or at least navigated the neighborhood with at least one of his parents present. But, Rob is now out in the neighborhood on his own. And when put into positions where he has to make decisions for himself without his parents being present, Rob doesn’t always make the right choice.

It’s at that stage that the two “Robs” or rather “Rob” and “Shawn” emerge. Rob is “Rob” in school and at home around his mom and family. Rob is “Shawn” around his school friends and in the neighborhood. From that point forward, the two personas tend to get in the way of the other achieving its full potential. (To keep things simple, I’m going to continue referring to Rob as “Rob” regardless of the activity or persona on display.)

High School

Rob is eventually admitted to a fairly prestigious prep school for high school, St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. The school’s curriculum is challenging and designed to prepare students for college or at least life after high school. But, it’s also highly regimented and designed to instill a sense of discipline in the students as a means of helping them to deal with the issues and possible dysfunction they might be dealing with outside of school. The school makes it a point to pretty much occupy their students’ time so there’s less opportunity for them to get into trouble or to get wrapped up in nonsense.

St. Benedict’s is closely tied to the community and was predominantly white before the time of white flight. But, by the time Rob gets there the surrounding area had changed and so had the school’s composition. Newark was now predominantly Black and Hispanic and the school admitted boys from the surrounding neighborhoods. It presented an opportunity for a lot of these kids from fairly poor neighborhoods to prepare for their journey into higher education.

For some of the kids the school is a culture shock because the schools that they previously attended weren’t as challenging and didn’t cover the same curriculum. Due to his physical appearance and persona, it surprises many classmates that Rob had already read some of the required books on his own. They were also impressed that he had memorized the lyrics to several Bone Thugs and Harmony songs. He didn’t put his intelligence on front-street but came to be well-respected for his high grades and academic ranking.

There’s a lot of responsibility placed on Rob from a young age. He gets up early in the morning works as a lifeguard before school, attends classes, attends practice, studies after school, has a bit of a commute, and tries to power nap in between. It didn’t sound like he was getting enough sleep at night because he was going to sleep late and waking up early.

While there Rob initially continues playing football but eventually joins the school’s water polo team. Playing water polo presents opportunities within the school but also the chance to travel and compete in tournaments. Rob shares alcohol with his teammates and starts to develop a rep as the guy with the hookup.

The Burger Boyz

In high school Rob became close friends with some other boys from the area and St. Benedict’s and they came to refer to themselves as the Burger Boyz. They would hang out and study together and Rob became if not the overall de facto leader then the academic leader. Rob got the best grades in the group, would offer the others advice and tried to help them do well in school. Most of them had experienced similar hardships in their lives and while the details differed had all lost their fathers by the time they graduated from high school. Their close relationships and shared experiences bonded them so that while they went their own ways after high school, they still remained in touch.

One of these friends was also experiencing financial issues and began selling weed in high school. Wanting to help without the embarrassment of offering a handout, Rob began steering customers his way and received small commissions as a thank you.

Self-Medicating

Rob excels at the school but it’s noticed that there are little hints that Rob has some issues. Below the surface, there’s a lot of anger, resentment, and probably confusion within Rob. But, he keeps a lot of things bottled up within himself and it affects the way that he moves through life. Rob is very intelligent but hasn’t learned how to deal with his emotions in a productive way.

Rob’s feelings are certainly understandable given his father’s imprisonment and his mother’s financial issues.

The loss of the freedom to interact with his father and missing his daily presence is hard on Rob. Also, seeing Jackie carry the world on her shoulders with no real path in sight for getting out of it or overcoming it obviously affected Rob. Jackie worked hard and was on her feet all day but didn’t have very much to show for it. There often wasn’t enough food in the house and she struggled to keep up with her bills.

Those circumstances combined with the ideas of masculinity that Rob had been exposed to taught him to keep his feelings bottled up. And to deal with his problems by self-medicating with weed and alcohol. Later in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Rob describes himself as being a functioning addict. Granted, at points in the book Rob is able to abstain from using alcohol and weed for periods of time but he never quits completely.

Masculinity & Responsibility

Even if Skeet hadn’t been imprisoned, there’s no guarantee that Rob wouldn’t have developed some of these habits. As a young child, Skeet had been encouraging Rob on a path that included some aspects of toxic masculinity. Looming large was the idea of needing everyone else to know that he isn’t a punk.

On the other hand, you have Jackie who struggles to provide Rob with the resources that he needs. From a relatively young age, Rob begins various little hustles and makes a point of giving some of the money to his mom for the household. To be clear, Jackie never tells Rob that he needs to go out and earn some money. But, she doesn’t turn it away and Rob essentially becomes the man of the house. Not necessarily the breadwinner but he isn’t quite a child.

I understand the reality of when you’re struggling you might accept assistance from any source. And there is nothing wrong with teaching a child responsibility. But, there’s a line. It can be hazy. But, there is a line. A child shouldn’t feel obligated to provide for themselves and/or their family. That’s too much responsibility for a child. Rob had his entire life past the age of 18 (at the youngest) to deal with the responsibility of providing for himself and his future. It was his parents’ obligation to figure out how they were going to provide for him prior to him reaching adulthood.

This goes back to the beginning of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace where it’s obvious that there was no real plan for this child’s life beyond its creation.

Yale

When the time came for Rob to apply to college, he applied for several and was accepted to at least a few. I don’t remember the exact details but I do know that he applied and was accepted to Yale University. Then came the quandary of figuring out paying the tuition.

Some of St. Benedict’s alumni had gone on to achieve great success after graduation. One such alumnus, Charles Cawley, became the CEO of a bank and was doing quite well financially. Having been told Rob’s story and hearing Rob give a speech at an alumni event, Cawley wrote Rob a blank check for him to attend college making it possible for him to attend Yale.

I don’t believe The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace delved into the details of what exactly the check covered or how Rob chose to use the money. But, it seems like at least the full amount of his tuition was covered, which was probably a large sum.

St. Benedict’s provided a great education but it was still located in Newark and was attended by young men from nearby neighborhoods. Yale, on the other hand, was a completely different world. Located on a sprawling campus in New Haven, Connecticut the school is an Ivy League institution that has incredible resources and generally attracts students from comfortable, if not wealthy families.

Up to this point, Rob had spent about 18 years of his life in an environment where most of the people looked like him and had similar household incomes. Growing up in Newark and East Orange didn’t offer many chances to interact with wealthy people. Yale was definitely a culture shock for Rob given the drastic disparity in income and differences in terms of race, culture, etc. Rob had no problems with the coursework and was obviously admitted for his abilities but was different from many of his classmates because he was able to attend because of a financial scholarship.

Over the course of his time at the school, Rob works in the dining hall, lab, and janitor team. But along the way, he graduates from collecting finders fees to selling weed on his own. And through that, he became the weed man on campus amassing about $100,000 in savings by the time he graduated.

Post College

Rob graduates from Yale with a double major in biophysics and biochemistry. This is cause for celebration but the good times are short-lived as things start going off track for Rob. The first issue is that Rob doesn’t have a solid plan for after college. He certainly has some different career avenues to explore but one would think that in the four years of attending college you’d have at least a rough idea of what you’re going to do after.

Instead, Rob just has plans to take some time to travel. Wanting a break is certainly understandable as Rob has been working hard for years at this point. But it was concerning that he didn’t put anything in place for after his return. He had some loose plans to put his savings towards helping his mom, helping Skeet, and using the rest to possibly attend grad school or do something else. But, he didn’t give the money to his mom or otherwise take action on any of his other ideas.

Listen, I’ve never seen $100,000 cash. I’ve never touched $100,000. It might not be a lot of money to some but I consider that a lot of money. And I am sure that whether I had plans or didn’t have plans, I would be heartbroken at this point in my life over losing $100,000. I would cry. I could only imagine how heartbreaking and devastating it must have been for Rob to lose that money. He didn’t have a concrete plan but whatever plan he developed would need to make use of that money.

It’s not just the loss of the money, but what that money represented. The amount that Rob sacrificed having probably dealt with some shady people to acquire weed over the years. At one point while attending Yale, the administration found out that he was selling weed and he almost got kicked out. The possibility of having been arrested or robbed/killed by someone that wanted the weed or his money. I completely understand how upsetting the loss must have been.

The problems actualized and potential that selling weed brought in a relatively safe environment like Yale should have given Rob pause. But, desperation or hubris, depending on how you choose to look at it, won out.

In some ways Rob’s intelligence is a gift and a curse. It denoted potential, provided opportunities, and also the burden of expectations. Rob was willing to give help. We see this time and time again that he offers assistance to friends along the way. But, he wasn’t willing to ask for help. He would offer advice to friends. But, would not heed advice unless it supported his ideas.

Some of the people around him deferred to his opinion or gave up arguing with him because they saw that he was unwilling to listen. And this gave him an overinflated sense of his decision-making skills. While Rob was intelligent, he lacked life experience and many of his decisions outside of school were poor choices.

This plays out throughout The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace and compounds and becomes more devastating with each occurrence.

Despite losing his money, Rob doesn’t just sit down and cry. Instead, he teaches, gets into real estate, and works as a baggage handler. He is not lazy and he’s also not stupid. But, he flounders for several years following college graduation. And unfortunately, he continues selling weed for much of his post-college life.

The Tragedy

Reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a bit like watching someone you care for in an abusive relationship. You want better for them. You want them to leave and know that the longer they stay in this relationship, the greater the possibility that things won’t just get worse for them, but might end in their death. Yet, they make excuses and even become defensive when you try to talk to them and tell them that they should leave the situation. And eventually, it gets to a point where you can see where things are going. But, there’s nothing that you can do to stop it.

How could someone die in such a way despite having so much potential? If we buy into the idea that we should all be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. If you would just work hard enough. If you were smarter. If you went to a better school. That lives for young Black men from poor and/or high crime communities would be so much better.

And in some cases that’s true. At least that could be true for the potential for a better life.

But, as we see with The Short and Tragic Life of Rob Peace, that potential can often lose out to the realities and learned behaviors of growing up in such a community. Where what you see, experience, learn, and are exposed to can tether and stifle that potential.

There’s a thread that runs through The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace about masculinity and it’s presentation and perception. Quite often Black boys are pressured to act like men before their time and in all the unhealthy hypermasculine ways. Yet, they’re offered no guidance on how to be responsible and honest providers or in a healthy intimate relationship.

We see this in Rob as he pretty much navigates his development into a man without hands-on male guidance. He certainly has coaches and teachers along the way, especially in high school that tried to reach out and guide him. But, he’s very resistant to accepting their help. Some of it is pride and arrogance but some of it is that the men offering help aren’t exactly from his world and that assistance probably felt like it was coming from a place of pity.

How might things have played out if Skeet hadn’t been arrested? You could argue that he would have been better able to guide Rob. But, guide Rob to what? Rob’s personas to some degree developed from what he’d been taught by Skeet. He was obviously proud of Rob’s accomplishments but would he have pushed Rob to strive beyond the confines of the neighborhood? Or would he have continued to push Rob to learn how to survive within the neighborhood?

About The Author

The author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs, was Rob’s roommate at Yale for all four years that they attended. Jeff comes from a fairly comfortable family where his dad was a doctor and I think his mother was a stay-at-home mom. He and Rob became friends during college and stayed in touch to varying degrees after graduation. But, it didn’t sound to me like they were super close.

I tend to feel conflicted about books like this where you have a White author telling a Black person’s story. Especially in instances where it’s a poor Black person or they’ve experienced some hardship in their life. I realize that Black stories are certainly underrepresented in mainstream media. But, there’s a nuance in telling Black people’s stories and quite often it seems that the White person ends up becoming the hero of the story. The Black person’s story is really just a vehicle for them to subtly tell their own story. So I always wonder about the motivation. Is it truly to tell this person’s story or are you profiting from this person’s pain and misery?

On the one hand, I thought Hobbs was pretty fair in his telling of Rob’s life story. He was honest about his background and didn’t really interject himself into the story until Rob actually meets him in college. He also doesn’t go overboard in trying to make their relationship seem closer than it might’ve been. But, generally speaking, when I read a book about the subject, I’m usually not very interested in hearing about the author’s life. And that’s not to be mean but I just don’t like authors interjecting themselves into a story. Write a separate book about your life and if it sounds interesting, I might read it. But, please don’t add it to the book. (Unless it’s specifically about how you gathered info for the book and you can put that in the foreword and acknowledgments.)

I raised an eyebrow at a few points in the book where Hobbs is explaining aspects of Black slang and culture. I’m guessing that the assumed or intended audience is predominantly White. And as a Black person, I couldn’t understand what he was describing. For example, there’s a point in the book where he spends some time explaining a head covering that Rob wears. I had no idea what he was talking about and was thinking to myself, “What the hell is this thing?” Turns out he was trying to explain a du-rag (aka do-rag).

Then there’s his description and analysis of Rob. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and lived in Queens for about a decade. I had family that lived in Harlem and The Bronx a few times, I’ve been to Staten Island like two times. Looking at Rob’s pictures he looked like a regular-degular guy from around the way.

The physical description of him and the way that he carried himself sounded incredibly normal to me where I wouldn’t give him a second look. Maybe his demeanor was different in action but he doesn’t look particularly threatening in photos. Granted, you can’t really judge someone based solely on their appearance.

But, it says a lot that I’ve never met Rob and think he looks like a regular East Coast guy. Yet, Hobbs seemed to be in awe of Rob’s physical size and found him imposing. There are explanations of him being perceived by people at Yale and in other environments as physically threatening or a thug. He sold and smoked weed and was from a rough neighborhood but he didn’t sound like a tough guy.

There’s also a part of the book where Hobbs is talking about the music that they listened to in college. And he refers to Nelly along the lines of being a pop rapper while Ludacris is described as a gangster rapper. I paused while reading like, “Are you talking about Chris Bridges, Ludacris, you think he’s a gangsta rapper”?

There were these weird little cultural references in the book that made me pause. Rob is a thug, Ludacris is a gangster rapper, and they’re both these big menacing men. First of all, Rob sounded like a mama’s boy. He wasn’t a saint because he certainly had issues with women and relationships. But he wasn’t a tough guy. He got involved with some dangerous business that he just wasn’t built for.

I couldn’t help but wonder how different this book might have been if it was written by a different author. Someone who wasn’t so awestruck by Rob’s physical appearance and was able to delve more deeply into his mind and inner feelings. Because it doesn’t really sound like Rob fully opened up and shared his inner feelings with Hobbs. And I would venture to guess that some of Rob’s friends and associates probably didn’t share their deepest, darkest feelings with him either.

Don’t get me wrong, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is still a great book. But, I felt like I walked away from the book feeling like I knew about the life of Robert Peace. But, I didn’t really get to know Robert Peace as a person. Then again maybe Rob was just the kind of person that everyone had contact with but nobody quite knew.

Recommendation

Something that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace makes clear is that the path we take in life isn’t necessarily determined by one big event. It can certainly be altered by a drastic event. But quite often life consists of the many small decisions and choices we make along the way.

If you choose to approach it from a surface level, it can certainly be a simple book. But if you choose to read it and look at your life and the life of people around you in your community it can certainly be a very complex book. Or can spark some very complex conversations.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a great conversation piece for a myriad of topics regarding race, opportunity, decisions, manhood, and what all of that means in a community. It’s not a long book, but it’s a book that I think you read and spend more time thinking about and analyzing. There’s also a lot here about relationships, romantic and otherwise. How they can affect your life, your children’s lives, and the people around you. I highly recommend reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. This is a great book for Black people as a whole to read but especially for Black males.

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