On The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Rob Peace since I tearfully made my way through the last few pages of Jeff Hobbs’ book chronicling his life. Although the title indicates, before even opening to the first page, that Peace’s life is somehow tragically cut short, the pain of how it plays out was still highly palpable in me when I reached the book’s end. The rise and fall of this promising young African American man makes for a heartbreaking journey throughout.

Raised by a single mother and son of a drug dealing father, Rob’s story started out not too dissimilar from that of most young men born to poverty-stricken families in the greater Newark, New Jersey area. But as Rob grew, his inherent intelligence was unmistakable. This promise led the young man to St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School and eventually Yale University. It drove Peace all over the world, starting with a trip to Rio de Janeiro after receiving his undergraduate degree. But like far too many young black men with great potential, Rob’s life was cut short by the kind of violence that can ultimately be attributed to the conditions of a life lived in desperate poverty.

Writer Jeff Hobbs, who mid-way through the book is revealed to be one of Peace’s randomly-assigned freshmen roommates at Yale, offers a heartfelt, well-written portrait of his friend while paying due attention to the larger social structure within which Peace existed. He covers Peace’s childhood and family life, including the many sacrifices Rob’s incredibly strong mother Jackie made in order to send her son to a prep school that would match his educational potential. Largely because Rob’s father, Skeet, was a known drug dealer, she made the conscious decision not to marry the man nor have him live in her home as a traditional father figure to Rob. In Hobbs’ efforts to carefully contextualize Rob’s family, a more empathetic and compassionate side of Skeet emerges, an image of a father who helped his son with homework, visited often, and protected the boy’s innocence as best he could. Hobbs demonstrates how hard Jackie worked just so that her son could attend a high school where he would have a fighting chance of being seen by a four year university, the efforts she took to keep her son separate from the drug culture rampant around them. This was a woman who did everything she could in an effort to help her son succeed despite an array of obstacles, from the color of his skin to his family’s income tax bracket to the town where he was born.

This background on Peace pre-Yale was easily my favorite section of the book. The culture at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, the way that Rob positively blossomed there, the group of lifelong friends he developed who fondly donned themselves the Burger Boyz. It was a treat to see this young man defy the odds and flourish in an academic environment, knowing that soon the world would be at his feet when he stepped onto Yale’s campus. It was encouraging to hear about a subculture within the Newark environment where teenage boys were formed into true men. It was inspiring to behold one man cashing in on so much promise despite the odds.

Once Rob moves on to Yale, I yearned for him to again construct the type of community he created during his high school years. It was a slow process, one that initially made me feel immensely wary, worried Rob would lead a friendless, solitary existence in the Ivy League. But in due time, Rob’s caring nature and easy way of connecting with others gave way to an ever-widening social circle until ultimately he became a friend to many on Yale’s campus, a standout student, an initiate into one of the university’s secret societies, and a known source for grade A pot. Since the time he first tried marijuana in high school, Rob smoked nearly every day. And at Yale, trafficking low level drugs to his fellow upper-class students was an easy way to turn a quick buck, build a generous financial cushion, and even direct some money toward his mom’s household without raising suspicion. Again Hobbs emphasized context, how Yale was a safe place for this kind of drug trade, how it helped to widen the scope of people with whom Rob interacted, how it was never detrimental to his academic performance (in fact, Rob proclaimed that the high he got from pot enabled him to complete his schoolwork). Rob seemed to be at the height of his game during his Yale years, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, saving for highly-anticipated travel and the future, set to accomplish something few people from his station in life thought possible.

Unfortunately this four year high was followed by a slow decay in Rob’s ambition after graduation. I hated to read about this seemingly-aimless portion of Rob’s life, but I also found it to be the most compelling. The beginning of this downfall came with the loss of Rob’s drug money. He had saved $100,000 from his dealing days at Yale, all in cash. When Rob traveled to Rio de Janeiro after graduation, he stored this money with a close family friend, the type of man who would accept and store a large box for two months’ time without question. When Rob came home, however, he found the lock on his box busted and every last cent gone. Instead of having a nice financial cushion to fall back on while figuring out what comes next, Rob was put in a position of desperation not at all dissimilar to that of anyone existing in poverty without any savings to speak of. Even though he was fresh out of Yale, Peace began to put off graduate school applications in favor of first teaching high school science at his alma mater, then pursing harebrained real estate schemes just as the housing bubble burst, eventually performing manual labor at Newark International, and ultimately drug dealing again. But dealing marijuana at Yale was a completely different ballgame than contending with the gangs and powerfully competing drug interests of Newark.

Hobbs doesn’t paint Peace out to be a saint, especially as the years progress and Rob Peace the Yale undergrad begins to seem incongruous with Rob Peace the marijuana-dealing Continental Airlines luggage handler. Certainly the choices Peace made placed him in a position where drug-related crime and violence threatened, and ultimately ended, his life. But under Hobbs’ deft hand, you can’t help but recognize the forces beyond Peace’s control which lead him to do the type of manual labor and illegal activity that most college-educated people attain a university degree in order to avoid. Rob put off his grad school applications, he got overly comfortable with the Burger Boyz, he fell prey to one too many bad ideas that promised him a quick financial fix. Were he to have been a white, upper-middle-class Yale graduate, the kind of person with a strong web of connections built up over the whole of his and his family’s lives, maybe Rob would have made out better professionally. If he was able to be supported by mom and dad in the transition after college graduation, instead of being expected to become the family’s prime source of financial support, maybe Rob would not have fallen so far.

The sad reality is that these were not the conditions of Rob’s life after Yale. Looking at the post-St. Benedict’s trajectories of all five of the Burger Boyz really drives this point home. These were all prep school educated boys, four of who headed to college upon their high school graduation. Other than Rob, only one of his friends from this group successfully completed college. And their careers in adulthood were not the type of white collar, professional jobs a prep school or four year university graduate would likely aim to attain. That’s not to say that these men led unhappy or unfulfilling lives; it just goes to show that the pressure of existence in a place like Newark makes it near impossible for anyone, even the area’s brightest young people, to ever get much further than where they started from, let alone to the achievement of even their more modest dreams.

While this book is undeniably about a certain person’s life set within a very specific set of circumstances, it is irrevocably tangled with the social, economic, cultural, and political history of a notoriously rough neighborhood. If someone with all the god-given natural ability in the world can’t make it out of Newark alive, is there much hope for anyone? Not that getting out of Newark should be the goal. Rob was so deeply embedded in the lives of everyone he loved from Newark, finding a life that took him away from that place was never the goal. The fact that areas like Newark exist, where so many people don’t feel safe in their own homes but don’t have the means to leave and set up homes elsewhere, isn’t the problem but rather just one symptom of a dysfunctional society that fails to care for its own, that fails to make dangerous communities more livable again. I worry that too many of Hobbs’ readers will decry Peace for returning to Newark, that they would measure Rob’s success, were he still alive today, based upon his ultimate remove from the place where he grew up. Applying this kind of litmus test to success only reinforces the idea that places like Newark are inescapable, an idea I want so badly to believe is untrue. Unfortunately I also can’t shed the nagging suspicion that, if the place were Rob was born to were just ten minutes up the I-280, staying there would not have been so inextricably tied to his downfall and untimely death.

Most of the book’s critics cite the gaping difference in the life circumstances of the author and his subject as reason to avoid Hobbs’ work. What right does a privileged white Yale legacy novelist have to write about the life of a black man from Newark? Some, maybe even Hobbs himself, would answer very little. He is fully cognizant of his shortcomings as Peace’s biographer. Hobbs profiled his friend’s life with a thorough recognition that he, a Yale-educated white male from a long line of Yale-educated white males, could never fully comprehend what it was like to grow up as Rob did. I find it actually lends a certain compassion and insight to this biography of Peace that I appreciated. There’s an acknowledgement underlying every paragraph that we as readers and Hobbs as our narrator cannot truly understand what Rob was thinking or feeling, how he was holding it all together, why he made the decisions he made. In Hobbs’ fond portrait, Rob is treated as a remarkably kind, loving, intelligent, determined, and gifted human being, but also a flawed and unknowable one, as we all ultimately are.

Other critics argue that Hobbs is just profiting off the death of a young black man, one that he was barely even friends with. Admittedly, Hobbs was struggling to get his second novel published after the first was received with little fanfare. But a story as compelling as this one begged to be told and the very fact that Hobbs had ambitions of becoming a successful published author made him a prime candidate for writing this book. He was interested in the subject but also separate enough from him that he could do some investigative journalism, recount events in Rob’s life for which he was not present without the taint of foggy memory or his own subjective perspective. Hobbs obviously worked arduously to get the facts straight, to uncover the gritty minutiae of Rob’s life, to get to the anecdotes that would belie what meaning Rob made of his own existence. It would require a lot of trust and confidence from Rob’s closest friends and family, a very wide circle of people indeed, to write this book, let alone to do so this well. The faith that Rob’s loved ones demonstrate in Hobbs by opening up to him about their beloved friend speaks for itself.

Hobbs doesn’t treat his book as a mission to seek justice for his friend nor as an account of Peace at Yale, the only time in Peace’s life that Hobbs can truly speak to. The author makes his best effort to remove himself from the picture of Rob’s life to the point that I spent the first hundred pages wondering how Hobbs had ever come to learn about Rob in the first place. He speaks to his perceptions and understanding of Peace’s life as his roommate when he can, but this doesn’t color the narrative throughout. Clear and concise, Hobbs’ prose captured both the facts and the unanswerable in his friend’s short life. He elucidates the sadness of losing a remarkable friend, inseparable from the much larger problems that led to that lost. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is an important book, a timely one, and the type to encourage discussions about race and class that we can’t afford not to have.