Reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace sparked a surprising gut reaction inside of me. Given the recent civil riots in Baltimore, I found author Jeff Hobb’s novella timely. Reading today’s news, one can’t help but be depressed by the steady stream of economic challenges faced by today’s African-American community. Robert Peace, while born in the depressed area of Newark, New Jersey, seemed destined for a fulfilling life, far different from the cast of characters who inhabited his neighborhood. His death, however, made me realize that even as a product of white American privilege, the economic hardships faced by many blacks in this country’s inner cities also pits this ethnic group against one another. In other words, while Peace was exceedingly bright and black, and graduated from one of the best Ivy League universities, it didn’t matter to the black thugs who murdered him. All those drug dealers saw was someone who encroached upon their territory and needed to be snuffed out.
Jeff remained on the outside of Rob’s inner circle of close friends. But he still spent four years of Yale college life getting to know Rob and how this man was able to earn straight As while at the same time running a marijuana operation. Rob sold weed to students, professors, and anyone else who would pony up (eventually earning him $100,000 in cash), which in turn made him a campus legend among his classmates.
The social/economic issues at play within Rob’s life fascinated me. Upon graduating, Rob didn’t like promoting his Yale education among his peeps. He knew how much he stood out among his peers. But one issue, in particular, caught my attention. A large number of African-American men at Yale began talking behind Rob’s back, calling him arrogant, cheap, or even calling him the N word. Rob had a simple but cogent response to Jeff about what the N word exactly meant.
“There are niggers, and there are brothers,” said Rob. “Niggers just like to start shit,” he said. “They don’t value human interaction, let alone human life. They’re just stupid, period. They walk around, trying to act hard, trying to be bangers. That’s all a nigger cares about: acting hard. Fronting.”
What about the brothers? “A brother’s like me. He just wants to take care of his own and chill.”
I felt that Rob’s analysis of the n/brother dynamic touched upon a complex problem within the African-American community. The legacy of slavery and reconstruction still hurts the African-American of today. Those African-Americans who remain poor only seethe with anger and frustration and vent it out by rioting. Thanks to the continued segregation of black people along racial lines by cities across the United States, many African-Americans get preyed upon by real estate speculators. This tragic state of affairs acts as a lightening rod to those blacks who find themselves trapped. Rob Peace also found himself trapped and thought he could get out of it by selling marijuana.
The N word
When I take the bus to work every day, I see some of the same black kids, ages 10 – 15, at the back of the bus (on their way to school). These kids refer to themselves using the N word. And they use it constantly. There is no hesitation on the part of any of the kids in using the N word. It’s akin to an insignia, or a right of passage.
But why are these kids using the N word to begin with? Why does it make me so uncomfortable? Why does it seem to reinforce a white stereotype about African-Americans who come across as ignorant and stupid when using such a denigrating word about themselves? If young blacks are attempting to reclaim the N word by using it then they are purposefully separating themselves from the rest of non-black society. In some ways, I see them as rejecting the idea of co-mingling and wanting to stay uniquely part of their own black culture.
Have African-Americans taken back this most vial of racist words? What would Martin Luther King Jr. say if he got on board the #22 Fillmore bus with me today and headed towards the back to sit down and listen to these black kids? Would he lecture them on their use of the N word? Would he shame them? Tell them how ignorant and stupid they sound describing themselves in that way? Or would he approach it differently, not wanting to shame the kids but more understand their economic/social upbringing and come to terms with why they refer to themselves using this racist terminology?
As a white man, it bothers me deeply to hear African-American kids describe themselves with this racial epithet. I value history. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me to judge people by the content of their character and not by their skin color. I believe that if these young black kids were better educated, they wouldn’t take such delight in using the N word. It wouldn’t become so commonplace. But then I’m viewing this from the lens of white privilege. The world I sprang from is nothing like the world these black kids come from. I feel excluded and these African-American kids are purposefully keeping me outside their sphere of influence.
Riots and the roots of despair
Then I think of the riots that took place in Baltimore. The majority of these kids were black. While the majority of black kids marched peacefully, a small segment behaved violently. What did they expect to achieve by destroying and looting businesses and other private property? What good would ultimately come from this act of violence? Whether or not the police spurred on this atrocious behavior, were these African-Americans behaving as brothers? Or were these young African-Americans feeling economically shut out, and fighting back by looting a store because it’s the only way they know how to gain satisfaction? I’m asking lots of questions because when I think of riots in the United States these days, the only color that comes to mind is black. I don’t read about Asians or Latinos rioting and destroying private property.
I wonder if any of these black kids heard about the life of Robert Peace? Would they care to? Would Rob’s life matter to them? A black drug gang murdered Rob Peace; a gang that could have cared less about Rob’s intelligence, his Yale education, or that he was simply chilling and trying to take care of his own. I think Rob’s life speaks to the black youth of today. I would recommend those black kids who speak the N word to read Hobbs’ book. From some of the chat boards I’ve reviewed, the majority of the African-American population do not use the N word when referring to themselves and would never consider doing so. In my white privilege lens, I view it as a willful and demonstrative act by those young blacks who seek camaraderie by using a word that only they can use.
I actually think their attempt at taking back the N word has succeeded. I speak as an outsider, of course. But the use of the N word remains troubling to me. I believe the economic disenfranchisement of many African-Americans remains a disturbing development that caters to the use of the N word.
The Short and Tragic Life of the American-American
The short and tragic life of the African-American is an essay in response to Jeff Hobbs book about the life of Robert Peace. It raises questions about the nature of African-American oppression and how being economically deprived contributes to use of the N word by African-Americans when referring to themselves.