Is it possible to reinvent yourself? To rise above or descend below to a place of equilibrium where you are fulfilled and satisfied in your life’s choices to attain a level of peace, prosperity, and even happiness to yourself and to those who matter to you?
If this is the consummate American question, then this book, sadly, does not offer a resounding answer in the affirmative. Because what we find in the story of Robert Peace is an unsettling and sad commentary of personal traits so deeply ingrained from one generation to another and reinforced by social constructs that seemingly overpower the best of intentions and actions.
“During Rob’s early childhood,” notes Hobbs, “East Orange represented the second-highest concentration of African-Americans living below the poverty line in America, behind East St. Louis.” A neighborhood rife with crime and steeped in poverty and segregation is the only life that Rob “Shawn” Peace has known, and yet he struggles mightily to rise above his circumstances to make his mother — whom he calls “my heart” — proud, by being the brightest of bright students excelling in his private Catholic high school in both academics and athletics, gaining admission to an Ivy League school, attracting the eye of a wealthy man who offers to become his benefactor, and yet despite all of this, it is almost as if Rob is unable to make something of himself.
Is that his fault? Or that of his environment? What is the pull to the world of drugs and crime? When is it a losing battle?
It is not possible to overstate just how completely Rob’s personal choices were shaped and governed by his environment. There is no doubt that he was a product of his neighborhood.
Inasmuch we enter Rob’s world of segregated poverty and fractured home dynamics, we do learn of some of his peers who are able to ward off succumbing to the life that Rob chooses for himself after graduating with a science degree from Yale University.
Which makes it even more saddening to accept that such a brilliant mind and able body is a most terrible thing to waste.