When Tre’Quan, a student of mine, threw hands at a student in the cafeteria of the repurposed William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore this fall and then resisted police—getting cuffed and put in the squad car—most in the school shrugged. After all, he was coming back this year after some time in the juvenile system and wore his street persona without affectation, irony, or wannabe-ness. He self-identified as a “Real Nigga.”
It was a different story a couple weeks later when Stephen, another student, got caught in the school bathroom with ziplocks and dime bags of Blueberry Kush. Everybody knew how good at math he was and, though he got bored with the education on offer, neither adults nor students saw him getting caught up in the life. The story of his arrest in the school was shared in hushed tones, with an air of the too-familiar tragic narrative of Baltimore life taking a young man’s promise. “Not Stephen!”
The literary attempt to articulate this narrative of conflict between the demands of post-civil rights, post-industrial, urban-apartheid living and the fantasy of an American promise that plays out in the souls of young, black men like Tre’Quan and Stephen, in places like Baltimore, has become its own 21st-century genre. Dressed up mostly as memoir and occasionally biography, these stories are spiritual testimonies, sociological Rosetta Stones translating the struggle to even exist in this contemporary land of inalienable rights and white supremacy. These are stories of young black men trying to just to be in this world—Ellison’s invisible men rendered in the hip-hop flesh.
For example, it was precisely here at Lemmel that Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his attempt to obtain Knowledge and Consciousness in “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.” And not far from Lemmel is the West Baltimore that provides the setting for the combined memoir/biography, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name Two Fates,” a story of existential epiphany, where a but-for-the-grace-of-God doppelgänger seems to measure the spectrum of possibility for a young black man coming up in urban America. Morgan State University’s MK Asante has “Buck: A Memoir,” which is a pure example of the genre in its successful-ending incarnation.
“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs is the far-more-common version of this story. It is tragic in the classical sense, a story of the impossibility of living whole in the two Americas.
Robert Peace grew up in East Orange, known as Illtown, near Newark, New Jersey. Hobbs writes that in Robert Peace’s youth, “East Orange represented the second-highest concentration of African Americans living below the poverty line in America, behind East St. Louis.” Peace’s father, Skeet—like Coates’ father—tries to guide his son to manhood and a survivable place in the struggle. But in this version, dad is convicted of murder and dies of cancer in prison. His devoted son burrows into case law and the legal system.
Despite, or because of, his father—and his heroic mother, Jackie, scraping a living in hospital food service—Peace made it up and out of Illtown. He got out of the public school system, graduated from a Catholic high school, and with the help of benefactors, hard work, and a prodigious intellect, he went off to Yale, where he graduated with a degree in molecular biochemistry. This is the classic American tale, “Dreams of My Father” and all.
But Robert Peace never stopped hustling, never really left the streets. In just one example of the double consciousness that defined his life, Peace, the excellent Ivy League student, sold over $100,000 worth of marijuana to rich, white kids at Yale. The book’s author, a self-described rich, white kid, met Peace when they became roommates there.
After graduating, traveling the world, and teaching school, Robert Peace put together a hustle growing high-end marijuana in hopes of financing graduate school. But the hustle went bad and Peace was killed in the basement of a Newark house where he set up his operation. He was 30 years old.
You can hear the narrative of Robert Peace in our public battles over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and others like them. Were they young men of promise or were they going for the gun? What was Tre’Quan doing? Not Stephen. Molecular biologist or drug-dealer? We look for expiation, meaning. We take intellectual, ideological, emotional solace in how we answer. Jeff Hobbs leaves readers looking for the solace.
“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” finds its literary family not in “The Great Gatsby” or “Breaking Bad” with their individual tragedies of failed double lives. Instead, it belongs beside works like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man,”or his “Benito Cereno.” As in these tales of American shapeshifting and the con game of equality, we are all participants in the charade along with the protagonist and we share in their ineluctable tragedy.
“Yeah, I think he influenced a lot of people; I really do believe that,” Jeff Hobbs quotes Rob Peace’s mom reflecting after his death, trying to find meaning in its absurdity.
“I would hope that Rob would continue to influence people in his death as in his life,” Hobbs says in his video trailer for his book: “[M]ore broadly there are social issues at play in Rob’s personal experiences, very specific, very surprising, very illusive manifestations of certain socio-econonomic dynamics . . . if there is a way to fix it, it is to be aware . . .” He trails off.
Hobbs lets us know we are all participants in the racial charade that pervades America today. Occasionally the beauty and poignancy of an individual life comes into focus and confronts our consciousness with complicity, with awareness. Read closely, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” allows you to see a young American life in focus.