The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace is the story of “a brilliant young man who left Newark for the Ivy League.” This is as much as the cover of the book tells you. What the cover does not tell you, but you learn while and after reading a little over 400 pages, is that Newark never left the young man.
This is the story of Robert Peace, a black man who through sheer brilliance, willpower, the kindness of a few, the generosity of one, and his mother’s multiple sacrifices attended Yale University. It is also what happened after he obtained his college degree.
But mostly it is a story about poverty, how it not only robs people of physical comfort and security, but also how it robs them of their dreams, opportunities, and eventually their soul.
As I was reading this book, I was wondering how many brilliant boys and young men are out there who are not given access to the kind of education that they deserve, to which every child living in the #1 economy in the world should have access. I kept thinking of one of my favorite advertising slogans, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” even though in my opinion it comes from one of the worst-named organizations: The United Negro College Fund.
But if a mind is a terrible thing to waste, so is a soul. Robert Peace’s mind was not wasted. But his soul was fractured, made up of broken pieces of repressed anger and shattered dreams, the most important ones having to do with the lives of his parents. It can be argued that it was his choices that led to his short life, there is validity in that conclusion. But it’s not that simple. One’s choices are made by what one believes is possible, perhaps more by what one believes is not. Robert Peace’s short and tragic life was a direct result of poverty and all that comes with it.
Even though he was a Yale graduate, even though he “made it” to that level, that fact was weaker than his deep-rooted belief that he couldn’t make it. A belief that was perhaps felt to varying degrees by the generation who graduated during the Great Recession, and even more so by those who came from poor families with a long history of struggle and hardship, regardless of their accomplishments.
The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace is written by Jeff Hobbs, one of Robert’s three roommates at Yale and his friend. Although it is clear that he doesn’t blame himself for his friend’s short life, it is also clear that he feels some guilt, some responsibility as is usually the case of those who are left behind and who always wonder if they could have done more.
The book is in some ways Jeff’s apology to Robert, but it is much more than that. It is a remembrance of a dear friend, a dedication to his devoted mother, a window into an America that most of us don’t know, and a study of what poverty does to a woman, to a man, to a child, to a community.
I am glad that I read the book even as I am heartbroken for Robert Peace and for his mom. I am sad to think of the potential that is being ignored, of the minds and souls that are being wasted every time a poor child is denied the right to live safely and to get a good education.
The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace points us to that tragedy. It would bode well for us not to ignore it, unless we don’t mind that our own souls go to waste.