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Books

'The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace' Will Make You Think

This real-world account of an ill-fated Yale student's life will be haunting me for many months.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Publisher: Scribner
Length: 416 pages
Author: Jeff Hobbs
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09
Amazon

In the place where I work, there is a saying that goes with any discussion of diversity: “Be raggedy.” In other words, risk discomfort and irresolution. So I will try that here. I’m going to talk about some upsetting things, and I may not do it in a consistently eloquent way.

Like Robert Peace, I attended Yale University. In fact, our time there overlapped. In 1998, he lived on the fourth floor of Lanman-Wright, in Yale’s Old Campus. In 2000, I lived in the same building. But we never met. Naturally, when Jeff Hobbs’s book came out, it called to me.

I had been reading a bit about race and education at the time. There’s a non-fiction book, Multiplication Is for White People, which talks about the experience of minorities in America’s schools (New Press, 2013). Its author, Lisa Delpit, is a scholar who feels understandably enraged by the neglect many impoverished children endure when they should be receiving an education.

Delpit makes a few eye-opening points right away. She observes that politicians who describe a “culture of poverty” are being crazily offensive. Drugs are not a part of culture. They are a response to oppression, an oppression that has resulted, in part, from the actions of the same paternalistic (and mostly white) people society which coined the term “culture of poverty”. Delpit also observes that it’s wrong to view minority children as in need of some kind of supplemental coaching to “enter the mainstream”. Instead, the “mainstream” must do the work to meet and understand minority children.

The world is changing, ever so slowly. James Baldwin once wrote that it was a good thing there were so many churches in Harlem to act as behavioral monitors because, without the churches, the streets would run with the blood of foolish, cruel, white people.

Delpit also quotes a scholar who has observed that racism is like smog in America. You’re breathing it in, whether you know it or not.

Peace's story diverges from me almost immediately after you get past the Yale connection. He grew up near Newark, in poverty. His father was accused of murdering two women, and spent almost the entirety of Robert’s life in jail. Robert’s, mother, Jackie, worked in food services, and recognized that her son had academic talent. And so she sent him to St. Benedict’s, an extremely strict, rigorous, private school in Newark. At St. Benedict’s, you are kept continuously occupied. You sing quietly as you march down the halls. You may play water polo. You go on a daunting hiking trip in the mountains

Peace did very well, though he was not the valedictorian, because of a low grade in art. (One is tempted to read things into this art grade. Art requires self-knowledge and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. These traits were not among Peace’s great strengths.)

A wealthy benefactor happened to hear a speech Peace gave and, like Father Christmas, he showered Peace with gifts. “Go to any school you want for college,” he said, “and I’ll cover the expenses.” And so Peace chose Johns Hopkins. However, his mother couldn’t get his letter of confirmation in the mail on time, because she was harshly disciplined by her boss for a minor infraction. So Peace settled for his second choice: Yale.

At Yale, Peace surveyed the racism. People would cross the street if he walked behind them. The white crew team left their dining-hall trays on the table, rather than clearing them up, and they ignored Peace’s request that they correct their error. The Af-Am House lacked the glamorous aura that surrounded other institutions, such as Skull and Bones.

Racism took subtler forms, as well. The charismatic white supervisor of Peace’s dorm (“Pierson College”) was fully aware that Peace very actively maintained a drug-dealing business during his time at Yale. However, the supervisor merely gave Peace one mild talking-to. There were no real consequences. One suspects that, if Peace were the supervisor’s son, or if Peace more closely reminded the supervisor of himself, the “talking-to” would have been a bit more urgent and serious.

In any case, Peace graduated with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He didn’t really know what to do next. He worked in a lab for a while, then accepted a science teaching post at his old high school. This was mentally easy and academically exhausting, and he committed himself to the work for a few years. But then he grew disengaged.

Perhaps he had become addicted to compliments and praise, and the work he had chosen left him feeling unduly ignored. Perhaps the rage of having watched one’s father die, untreated, in jail, of brain cancer, simply became too much. Peace stopped teaching. He began doing menial work for an airport. One day, carelessly, he crashed a vehicle into a plane. He of course refused to take the drug test his employer then required, because marijuana had become a daily crutch for him. He was now dishonorably dismissed.

Increasingly desperate attempts at money-making characterized these years: flipping houses, an effort that coincided, unfortunately, with the 2009 recession; selling guns; selling pot.

Someone in the drug “business” became envious of Peace’s illustrious pedigree and brains. This someone may have alerted a neighboring gang that Peace was encroaching on Gang Territory. In any case, Peace was shot twice in a basement by an unknown man, and his intellectual promise died with him.

As I read this book, I thought often of a teacher of mine at Yale, the writer Amy Bloom. Bloom is fond of saying that actions do not determine your character; actions merely reveal who you are. You can get hit by a bus and remain the life of the party. Or: you can get hit by a bus and become an embittered recluse. You get to choose. The actual bus incident has little or nothing to do with who you are.

I wonder. What if the bus hits you day after day after day? And when you’re not getting hit, you’re fretting about the next hour, in which you inevitably will get hit again? How much can any person take? Peace’s father was imprisoned for life without a fair trial. All the money Peace made was then stolen by a surrogate father. And Peace felt obligated to care, financially, for his family, at a very early age, when many of his peers were taking on “amusing” jobs in publishing or the paralegal offices of law firms. (I was one of the publishing-job kids.) Surely, a large portion of Peace’s ultimate misfortune cannot be attributed to the make-up of his character.

I also thought a great deal about another Yale teacher of mine, Leslie Brisman. When I was a senior in college, I was severely depressed, because I knew that my family both could not and would not tolerate my sexual orientation. I walked around with a permanent scowl. None of my advisors or teachers acted on the quite-glaring evidence of my depression, except for Brisman, who reached out to me. Ten years later, I remember him.I don’t remember many of the intellectual and social attractions that surrounded him on that particular campus. Character is everything.

Why weren’t any of Peace’s Yale counselors more active in his life? Why did no one choose to see suffering that was very clearly under the surface—clearly indicated by the constant drug use? What is a university’s obligation to its students?

Who is Jackie Peace? Does she have any regrets? Was she really fully unaware of Peace’s years of drug-dealing, as she says she was?

Lastly, I’d like to point out an obligation that Yale did not fulfill for the writer of this book, Jeff Hobbs. Though Hobbs has an English degree from the storied Yale department housed in Linsly-Chittenden, his writing is full of dangling participles and misuses of the word “due”. There’s also some cheap reliance on a cliffhanger chapter-ending,which seems disrespectful to Hobbs’s friend, Peace. And the final paragraph is a bit of pretentious F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish fluff. Hobbs can do better. But he’s still young.

Overlook these small flaws, however, and pick up this book.

7

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