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You’ve probably heard about the Dana Shutz painting of Emmett Till that the Whitney hung, and the ensuing (and I think justified) uproar. A white lady painted a picture that explicitly depicted and capitalized on black suffering. I’m not sure if she acknowledged this or not (and frankly, I don’t really care), and then a famous and influential museum hung it, catapulting her to even more fame. Should she have painted the painting? Sure, we should all write and paint what we want. Should she have hung the painting? Meh, I’m not sure, without context and appreciation for what exactly she was doing vis a vis appropriating the very real pain of both individual and group pain of people of color. Should the Whitney have hung the painting? No.
But this isn’t a piece about Shutz and a painting. It’s a piece about “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs. You can probably guess from the title that Robert Peace died young (no spoilers here), and you tell from the picture that he’s a black man, and you can tell from the subtitle “A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” that this is a story of a person of color who had and lost a “promising” life. What you learn not far into this book is that it’s written by Peace’s Yale roommate- a privileged white man who is essentially pulling a Shutz. I can’t count how many times he says that his writing was stalling out- his first novel didn’t sell well and his second novel didn’t find a home at all. He is even more blatant (but perhaps even less self-aware) than Shutz that he is literally profiting from black suffering.
I’m mad about this book on so many levels. On a personal level, I find the premise infuriating. Rob Peace was, in Hobbs’ account, a genius. He worked very hard, and his parents worked very hard, to make sure that his intelligence was nourished, not stifled, in very hard circumstances. He went to Yale. And then, after Yale, he didn’t “do anything” with his life. He travelled. He went home. He tried various schemes. He dealt drugs (which he did in college, too). I didn’t go to Yale. I went to a nearby private school. But I spent a lot of time at Yale, and I understand why Hobbs sees this particular narrative as a tragedy: a YALE life was wasted. A Yaley went to school, wasted a rich white man’s resources (a private citizen financed his time there), was a good friend to many, and then just didn’t do anything with his life. He didn’t become a doctor, he didn’t write books, he didn’t pursue his science interests. How dare he? He was a Yaley! After detailing Peace’s life basically from birth, this is such a shortsighted narrative that I can’t believe Hobbs couldn’t see past how the four years of Peace’s life were the only four that mattered, but I can: I was there, and I was at an elite private school, and an elite university, and I scooped poop for 10 years. I was happy with my life, and I understood there was more than six figure salaries. But Hobbs is stuck in that mentality.
On another level, Hobbs, while detailing the minutia of Peace’s day to day (often in a style that sounds like he’s just stringing together quotes from interviews), misses the big picture context entirely. Yes, he explains the poverty in Newark and East Orange. Yes, he notes the turning points in Peace’s life, including his father going to jail, and eventually dying there. He follows his mom through 16 hour workdays and 20,000 salaries. But there is no tying this together, no sense that this is all systemic. No societal awareness of why Peace’s life is not tragic, but amazing. That the fact that Peace actually lived out his father’s life (Hobbs never mentions the parallels, which is a stark omission) falls into a statistical bell curve: Rob may have gotten out for Yale, but the societal injustices that pulled him right back into New Jersey are left out, and key to this story. Why wasn’t Rob prepared for “life after Yale” (the only way Hobbs can see Rob’s life)? Why were drugs the default money making scheme for Rob? Maybe Hobbs is trying to avoid seeming racist by avoiding what might seem trite, but in doing so, he removes any sense of understanding about systemic racism, of how poverty affects a person, of the criminal justice system, etc. This is a biography more of Hobbs’ privilege than of Rob’s life and and death.
Do not read this book. And when reading books about people of color (or looking at art works about them), think critically about their origin. The creators certainly have a right to create these works, but the works might not have the insight we would grant the works on first reading.