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Community Relations' Tatia Harris Connects Rob Peace Biography with Knoxville Sons 
Mayor Rogero and several City staff members showed up to support Tatia Harris as she presented for the Knox County Public Library’s Books Sandwiched In series on Wednesday.

Tatia Harris Books Sandwiched In

Harris, TCCRP Grant Manager and Title VI Coordinator for the City of Knoxville, lead a discussion of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: a Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs for a group of about 40 gathered in the East Tennessee History Center ballroom. 

The 2014 biography tells the story of Rob, born to a single mother in a poor neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Rob’s charming father is involved in his son’s life for a while, and although he encourages his young son’s early thirst for reading and learning, he’s a flawed role model: marginally and, sometimes, not-so-legally employed. Rob’s mother Jackie is proud of her son but doesn’t quite know how to adequately support his achievement. She does, however, know it’s important for her son to have a man in his life, so—for better or worse—his father stays in the picture (although she never marries him). 

As a young African-American student with a brilliant mind and fierce ambition, Rob gets mixed signals from his family, neighbors, teachers and private-school classmates about his abilities and future prospects. This state of conflict resonates with Harris, who is a coordinator of the City’s Save Our Sons initiative. 

“There are many pieces of the puzzle,” she said. Throughout her life, she says, she’s observed smiling, happy young black boys, but “somewhere between fifth and seventh grade, the smiles fall away,” and she wonders what goes wrong and how can we—as a community—make it better. 

Harris presented several questions to the audience, about half of whom had read the book. 

Can anyone replace the father as a role model if the father isn’t available (or is a bad example)? 

“Not 100 percent,” said Reggie Jenkins, founder of UUNIK Academy, a non-profit in Knoxville dedicated to helping young African-American males become successful. He said that although every individual’s experience is different, young black men have a particular connection to their fathers, whether they’re involved in their upbringing or not. Jenkins allowed that if Rob Peace had had a larger family network of role models—with supportive uncles, aunts, etc—he may have avoided following so much in his father’s path and fulfilled his promise as a Yale graduate with a 4.0 GPA. 

Mayor Rogero chimed in with the local example of Project Grad Knoxville, which provides academic support services to students in 14 elementary, middle and high schools. Those counselors and coaches, who are predominantly Africa-American, serve as role models and mentors—guiding forces toward educational success. 

Executive Director of Project GRAD Knoxville Ronni Chandler addressed Harris’ earlier “what happens” question by pointing out that as black boys hit adolescence, they’re challenged by the three Bs: Body, Background and Burden. In the eyes of the white community “they go from being cute little boys to dangerous black men,” Chandler said. Mix in a young man’s complicated family history and racial oppression, and it’s a complicated recipe at best. 

How does a young black man deal with the conflicting feedback he gets from neighborhood friends, white schoolmates, teachers, his father’s drug-dealing cohorts, etc?

Harris says that Rob exhibited the situational multiple personalities and social skills known as code switching, or as he called it “Newark-proofing.” Several African-American audience members shared their personal experiences of code switching to fit in to different groups and circumstances. 

“My philosophy has always been: I’ll learn the rules of the game and then decide how I want to play them,” said Sam Harris. In the game of code switching, he said, “You lose yourself. It takes a toll.” 

“You can’t be your whole self in any particular space,” a woman added. “You feel like you’re going against your ideals.” 

The audience agreed that mental health care would have helped Rob better manage his anxiety and depression, which he instead treated with marijuana and alcohol. They also agreed that destigmatizing mental health care and teaching self-care and coping strategies would help all students find healthy ways to manage stress in all its incarnations. 

When is it time to leave the neighborhood? 

Although he studied at Yale for four years and traveled around the world, Rob Peace returned to his East Orange neighborhood and his childhood friends, who were dramatically less motivated than he to pursue legitimate money-making careers. Several readers expressed frustrated with Rob’s seeming inability to extricate himself from his trifling friends, drug dealing and poorly conceived real estate investments. On the other hand, they also identified with Rob’s desire to help the place he came from. 

Harris thinks Rob’s ultimate weakness was his loyalty: taking care of his mother, grandmother and friends above himself, by whatever means possible and despite the alternative opportunities provided to him. She said she wanted Rob to have the courage to be different, to embrace his intelligence and ambition, regardless of the negative or lack of motivation from his inner circle. 

And now for the spoiler alert: Rob Peace died at age 30 in what Newark police called a “drug-motivated shooting.” Although his story has a tragic ending, Harris concludes that there are lessons to learn and be applied to our own city’s youth. 

For more information about Save Our Sons, visit http://www.knoxvilletn.gov/saveoursons
Posted by ptravis On 23 February, 2017 at 4:29 PM