Remembering The 'Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace'

Remembering The 'Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace'

10:59pm Sep 25, 2014

On a May night in 2011, a man was murdered — shot — in a basement just outside Newark, N.J. Cash and marijuana were found at the scene.

Given the circumstances, it might be easy to make assumptions about that man.

Reality, however, is more complex.

Robert Peace, a 30-year-old African-American, was a Yale University graduate and an almost straight-A student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He also dealt marijuana.

Peace's death and life is the subject of a new book, the result of over 300 hours of interviews with the people who knew him best.

Author Jeff Hobbs, who was Peace's roommate in college, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace started as a way for him to make sense of the many different sides of his friend.


Interview Highlights

On what he knew about where Robert Peace came from while in college

He didn't talk much about that. Over time I began to understand that he did not come from abject poverty. His family owned the home he grew up in. But there were very little means, and I knew that his father was in prison, Rob said for manslaughter. In fact, it was for the murder of two women when Rob was 7 years old. He was imprisoned for life.

On Robert Peace's mother

I could go on and on about Jackie. I think she's the only perfect person in this story. She was a working mother. She worked very hard, and then she came home and spent as much time with her son as possible. She took him to the library, took him to the park. When he was about 3 [years old] in day care, the lady there told Jackie they were calling him "the professor." And she thought they were making fun of her, or, worse, they were making fun of her son, before she realized they were calling him that earnestly in reference to his intelligence and curiosity.

On how the imprisonment of Robert's father affected him

The father-son bond is big stuff, of course, and particularly here. Rob really revered his father, who was sort of the "mayor" of the neighborhood, as I gathered — had a kind word to say about everyone. They would leave the house and go eat full meals at seven different friends' houses over the course of a day. He was very active in Rob's academic life — drilled him with good penmanship, the importance of memory, and continued to do so from prison using the prison phones once or twice a week.

I think it made him a leader. Also, I think that experience really built his incredible capacity for friendship, particularly with friends in his school and around his neighborhood, many of whom shared this plight of fatherlessness. And that's how they processed together.

On Robert's attachment to his neighborhood

He went to Yale, and then he came back. But that's a bigger question: Why does the country seem to demand that if you come from a certain socioeconomic level, in order to succeed, you have to leave your home behind? You know, he came back from Yale and he taught high school, other young men like himself, many of them from broken homes. And he was really great at that.

On what made him want to figure out the life of this man he had known who had been killed in this way

That's an important question. I was brushing my teeth next to my wife when I learned he had died violently and pointlessly a mile from where he'd grown up. And the funeral — 400 people — [was] very painful, also beautiful — people from all over the world in downtown Newark. But, outside that church, it seemed like a lot of people were almost eagerly condemning him as this cliche of potential squandered.

We were there; it was sort of a reunion aspect to it with mutual friends. We just knew Rob Peace was not a cliche. We write about what conflicts us, whatever medium. And nothing's ever conflicted me more than this loss.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Jeff Hobbs had a roommate at Yale University.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

He considered him his best friend, a student from New Jersey with a poetic name, Robert Peace.

JEFF HOBBS: He was funny and very bright, smiled a lot. Which is not to say he was totally agreeable because he had opinions and, you know, if he disagreed with you or thought you were acting like an idiot he would certainly let you know it. But he would also tell you if he was proud of you, which is very rare for a man, and particularly a young man.

CORNISH: Robert Peace was a great student with tremendous potential. He also sold marijuana in college. After graduation, he returned to his hometown, eventually to teach high school.

INSKEEP: Nine years after the graduation in 2011, Jeff Hobbs got the news - his former roommate had been murdered, shot while dealing drugs just outside Newark, New Jersey. The shooting drove Hobbs to make sense, if he could, of what happened to his friend. His interviews with the roommate's family turned into a book, "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace." And you hear the emotion in Hobbs's voice as he describes what he found. Peace was African-American, born to a working single mom, in a tough neighborhood during the crack epidemic of the 80s.

HOBBS: He didn't talk much about that, you know, over time I began to understand that he did not come from abject poverty, his family owned the home he grew up in. But there were very little means and I knew that his father was in prison, Rob said for manslaughter. In fact it was for the murder of two women when Rob was seven years old - he was imprisoned for life.

INSKEEP: It's clear you spent a lot of time with Robert Peace's mother - Jackie. What was she like?

HOBBS: You know, I could go on and on about Jackie. I think she's the only perfect person in this story. She was a working mother - she worked very hard and then she came home and spent as much time with her son as possible. And she took him to the library, took him to the park. When he was about three, in daycare, the lady there told Jackie they were calling him the professor and she thought they were making fun of her or worse they were making fun of her son. Before she realized that they were calling him that earnestly in reference to his intelligence and curiosity.

INSKEEP: Now how did it affect Robert Peace? Still well under the age of 10 when his father was arrested for a double murder and eventually after a long delay put on trial and convicted?

HOBBS: You know, the father-son bond is big stuff of course and particularly here. Rob really revered his father, who was sort of the mayor of the neighborhood as I gathered. Had a kind word to say about everyone, they would leave the house and go eat full meals at seven different friends' houses over the course of a day. And he was very active in Rob's academic life, drilled him with good penmanship, the importance of memory and continued to do so from prison. You know, using the prison phones, once or twice a week.

INSKEEP: I wonder if I could get you to read from page 57, a passage that describes the way that Robert Peace behaved after his father went away.

HOBBS: Sure. (Reading) Despite the attachment he felt to his father, Rob came to scorn abandonment above all things. And as he turned 11 and fifth grade began he aggressively assumed the role of husband to his mother. She would find dinner plates covered with foil in the fridge when she got home late. Leftovers of whatever Rob had cooked for himself that night. Sometimes she would wake up around midnight, after a few hours of sleep and he would be in the rocking chair beside her bed reading. He began working odd jobs on weekends for people he knew through his father. Raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting - for a few dollars per gig. Always he divided these earnings and left half on the counter for his mother. If he made $6.50 over a weekend of helping move furniture and his employer gave him an extra 15 cents for a candy bar on the way home. Rob factored the tip into his wages, rounded up one cent and left $3.33 for Jackie.

INSKEEP: That rounded up cent

HOBBS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did this experience somehow make him a better person?

HOBBS: That's really hard to say. Life is so messy. I think it made him a leader and also I think that experience really built his incredible capacity for friendship, particularly with friends in his school and around his neighborhood. Many of whom shared this plight of fatherlessness.

INSKEEP: Did that difficult experience also contain the seeds of his eventual downfall?

HOBBS: Perhaps, in that, you know, it really soldered his attachment to his neighborhood, you know, he went to Yale and then he came back. But that's a bigger question, you know, why does the country seem to demand that if you come from a certain socioeconomic level, in order to succeed you have to leave your home behind. You know, he came back from Yale and he taught high school - other young men like himself, many of them from broken homes and he was really great at that.

INSKEEP: And that side of him was inspiring, but then there was the other side that was involved with drug gangs.

HOBBS: Yeah. And this - he was never involved with gangs. He placed himself in that - that particular orbit where violence is not uncommon. Also, you know, he liked the feeling of being the man, I think, be his own boss I suppose.

INSKEEP: Did you ask yourself, after you learned that he had been killed as part of a drug deal, whether anything could have changed his course?

HOBBS: I did and you know, there is the question in this book, in the story about whether you can save people. I'm sure that Rob asked himself that same question. He worked most of his life to try to free his father from prison. You know, tried to pull his friends sort of forward in life along with him. And I think he probably decided near the end that you can't really save people.

INSKEEP: What made you want to figure out the life of this man you had known, who had been killed in this way?

HOBBS: You know, I was brushing my teeth next to my wife when I learned he had died violently and pointlessly, you know, a mile from where he'd grown up. And the funeral, 400 people, you know, very painful also beautiful, people from all over the world and downtown Newark. But outside that church it seemed like a lot of people were almost eagerly condemning him as this cliche of potential squandered. You know, we were there, it was sort of a reunion aspect to it with mutual friends and you know, we just knew he wasn't - Rob Peace was not a cliche. We write about what conflicts us, whatever medium and nothings ever conflicted me more than this loss.

INSKEEP: Jeff Hobbs is the author of, "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace." Thanks very much.

HOBBS: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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