Calling this a tragic story is an understatement. What happened to Robert DeShaun Peace is inexcusable. Society failed him even though he was afforded advantages other victims of poverty are not, even though his intelligence was far and above the average student, because society dropped him into an ocean and demanded that he swim without the skills to survive in that milieu. Oh yes, on the surface, he was able to deceive those around him. Everyone thought he was doing well. He had it all under control at all times, but he couldn’t control his heritage, not without some serious help. Just paying for an education doesn’t solve the problem of how to put that education to good use. When you see a picture of Robert Peace, you see immediately that his ready smile and demeanor have the look of success. An excellent student, he was not only smart, he was handsome, he was athletic, he was charismatic, he was confident, and he was kind and compassionate. If anyone needed anything, he was ready to offer it up, sacrificing his own needs. He was devoted to his mother. He adored his father. But, he took on too much responsibility for others.
Robert Peace, “the professor”, had it all, but he didn’t have a support system that could keep him on the straight and narrow. Born to Jackie Peace and Skeet Douglas in 1980, he spent most of his life with absentee parents. His parents never married. His mom worked several jobs to make ends meet and provided for him as best she could, but as a result, she was often not at home. His dad dealt drugs and was eventually arrested for murder and sentenced to a long prison term. Although he protested his innocence until the end, and the possibility of his having been framed hung in the air like a cloud, the only person who could prove the innocence he claimed, had died in the three years it took for his case to come to trial. Although he encouraged Robert to study and work hard, in other ways his influence was detrimental. Robert spent years trying to get his father out of jail. He spent hours trying to obtain adequate health care for him when he became ill in prison. After ten years, the appeal was eventually successful, and his father was released. But, it was soon overturned. He had to watch his dad return to jail where he eventually succumbed to cancer just before his 60th birthday. His illness provided them an opportunity to be face to face, not separated by Plexiglas, for the first time in just under two decades.
When he was a boy, his mom realized the dreadful situation that existed in Orange, NJ public schools. She worked extra hours to send him to St. Benedicts, a private school. There, he excelled in academics. Still, to make ends meet, and to help his mom, he began to dabble in dealing drugs as his father had. The money was good. He was well liked and respected because he was smart, had an easy way about him, rarely losing his temper, and he always offered calm counsel to others. He had a coach at school who tried to mentor him. He had a benefactor that he met through St. Benedicts. The man paid for his entire education at Yale. He had friends who discouraged his bad behavior. He did not take advice well. When he had to stop dealing and taking drugs, he actually did. He was disciplined, but he always reverted back to dealing drugs when he needed ready cash. He was brilliant, usually scoring “A’s” and he graduated at the top of his class with a degree in molecular biology. He could have done great things. Where, or why, did he choose the wrong path in life? Was it the confluence of certain events that robbed him of his dreams or was it a culture he could not escape?
After visiting Rio de Janeiro, Rob decided that he would go there after graduation and chill out for a year. He loved it. He had saved quite a bit from his drug dealing and odd jobs. He had always worked legitimate jobs as well, even in research labs. He entrusted his suitcase full of cash to someone close to him, asking him to watch it while he was gone. That was a mistake. That someone stole his money. His dreams of living in Rio, of traveling, were over. Still, he did not lose his temper. He understood that people did what they had to, to survive. He eventually took a job as a teacher at St. Benedict’s to earn some money. He coached water polo which he had played, but he was not happy or fulfilled. His dreams were on hold. He still yearned to travel. Finally, to that end, he took a job as a baggage handler so he could hop a plane and see the world. His background, though, kept catching up to him, and he was soon dealing in designer gourmet marijuana which he created. His luck held, and although he was caught and reprimanded, even fired, he managed to avoid the legal consequences of his dealing. It wasn’t the law that caught up to him, it was life, the life he couldn’t escape, the life that poverty kept him bound to, the life that his mom had hoped he would avoid. He was simply his father’s son in more ways than one.
I felt a visceral pain reading about this promising young man’s short life. He suffered so unnecessarily. Had he just been given more than just enough to survive, he might not have turned to dealing drugs. Had he not had a father who dealt drugs, he might not have had the contacts. Had he not lived in Orange at a time when it was changing, he might have had a better chance. But might haves will not bring Robert Peace back. He survived just under 30 years, and the world was robbed of a man with a mind that might have developed cures for disease rather than designer marijuana. Jackie had such high hopes for him but she never took him out of the Newark area, and the area had changed from the time of her early childhood to the time of the birth of her son. After the riots in 1967, the community gradually became a ghetto. Before that, peace existed in that community. There were no drive-by shootings, there was no real gang situation and drugs were not rampant. Boys didn’t have to prove their bravery by showing how violent they could be. It wasn’t embarrassing to be smart and to succeed; that was actuallly considered admirable.
The poverty, the environment, society were all to blame but so was the culture in the community which perpetuated ignorance and violence, which worshiped sloppy dress and sloppy speech and an image of power, but not an image of strength of character. The culture has to change so that people like Robert Peace do not always get the short end of the stick, make the wrong choices. The community is filled with thugs. These children, these gang members are not, figuratively speaking, “dressing for success”, but rather for failure.
The author was Rob’s roommate at Yale for the entire 4 years they both attended, and yet, Jeff Hobbs never really got to know the real Robert Peace. They came from two different worlds and Jeff never fully understood Rob’s, while Rob knew full well what Jeff’s world encompassed. Jeff didn’t have to scrounge up money, he didn’t have to work or help his mom, he just had to ask for what he wanted; still Rob never outwardly showed anger or jealousy about that, but inside he seethed with resentment for the way society had treated his dad and now him.
When he was murdered, it wasn’t the police who gunned him down, it was his community. He was missed and eulogized by many, but he also brought down his friends because his stash was in their basement. They were “bros” and they protected each other, they had each other’s backs, literally. The cycle of violence and failure was perpetuated. The author did a fantastic job of ferreting out the circumstances of Rob’s life. The book is hard to put down, and the experience of reading it is heartbreaking. It feels like such a waste of a human being who could have contributed so much. He was murdered by a thug because he dealt with thugs, thugs who needed to prove their importance using violence, disrespecting life, because they couldn’t achieve success using their brains. That would not gain them the respect they desired; that would gain them ridicule. Rob was doomed to failure, because he lived in two different worlds, the world of Yale and the world of Newark. His world was schizophrenic!