On a warm June night in 1980, a woman named Jackie Peace carries a new baby boy named Robert DeShaun Peace. Jackie has just left the hospital, and she and her baby, along with her mother, Frances, are headed back to their home on Chapman Street in Newark, New Jersey. Chapman is a quiet block, compared with some of the others in the neighborhood, which are usually crowded with drug dealers after dark.
The first part of the book (before Jeff Hobbs himself becomes a character) is set in Newark, at a time when the city was quickly becoming one of the poorest and most violent parts of the country. Jackie is a devoted mother who’s trying to keep her child safe in the midst of a vast, dangerous city.
Jackie lives at home with her eight siblings, her mother Frances, and her father Horace. At home, she passes the baby around to her parents and siblings. She wonders where Skeet, the baby’s father, might be.
Jackie, who comes from an impoverished family, lives with her parents and siblings to save money. Jackie’s partner Skeet also seems to be something of an “absentee” father, who doesn’t even show up for the birth of his child.
Jackie has lived on Chapman Street, in Newark’s Orange Park neighborhood, since she was eleven. Nearby, there are federal housing projects, first built in the 1950s to accommodate the influx of Southerners coming to Newark in search of work. Horace works in a General Motors factory near the house.
The presence of housing projects in the neighborhood suggests that the government is (ostensibly) trying to improve the poverty crisis in Newark. However, Jackie hails from a relatively stable family, since her father has a reliable job.
Although Jackie grows up in a big family, she decided early on that she didn’t want more than two children of her own. She spent much of her twenties taking care of children who aren’t hers.
Jackie is portrayed as being very practical and forward-thinking, and has seen first-hand the dangers of having more children than she can support.
In 1979, Jackie—aged thirty—meets Skeet. Jackie has just lost her job and moved back in with her parents. She first meets Robert “Skeet” Douglas through her family friend, Carl. Carl introduces Jackie to his friend Skeet—a fast-talking, charming guy. Jackie is skeptical of Skeet’s charms, but she changes her mind after Skeet asks her about little brother, who’s working on a homework assignment on the life of Frederick Douglass. Skeet proceeds to rattle off facts about Douglass’s life, and Jackie, in spite of herself, is impressed with Skeet’s intellect.
Jackie admires men for their intelligence, not just for their looks or charisma. She also seems to appreciate that Skeet is interested in the rest of her family; he strikes her as an unusually thoughtful and attentive person.
After Jackie gives birth to Robert, Skeet complains that Jackie spoils her baby. Skeet is also frustrated with Jackie for not marrying him. Jackie’s reasoning is that marriage, contrary to what others say, is the best way to end a relationship. Married couples make each other miserable—the best way for Jackie to remain close with Skeet, she concludes, is not to marry him. Jackie is also reluctant to marry Skeet because Skeet sells drugs.
Again, Jackie shows herself to be a thoughtful person who’s always considering the long term. The passage shows two further things about Jackie. First, she’s willing to sacrifice her own short-term happiness (presumably, marrying Skeet would make her happy, at least at first) to achieve a long term goal. Second, she disapproves of the drug market that represents a basic component of life in her neighborhood.
Jackie grows up in Newark at an important time in the city’s history. In 1967, the violent Newark riots occur, incited by an altercation between a black cabdriver and white police officers. As a teenager, Jackie often witnesses fights between black and white people on the streets. In the 1970s, much of the white population in Newark leaves the city and moves to suburbs. Horace often complains that the real estate market in Newark is openly racist; however, he counts himself lucky to have a stable factory job.
In Robert’s lifetime, Newark underwent a series of rapid changes that reflected the growing racial polarization of the city. One major consequence of these changes was that Newark became a predominately black city for the first time in its history. However, many authorities in the city, such as police officers and landlords, remained predominately white, leading to a pattern of exploitation. (Readers are encouraged to read the sociologist Robert J. Sampson’s book Great American City for more information on the racism of the American real estate and credit systems.)
In the late 1970s, the factories of Newark begin to shut down or relocate. Unemployment and crime rise. These trends continue throughout the 1980s, when Robert is born. While Robert is growing up, East Orange contains the second-highest concentration of black people living below the poverty line in the country. Violent crime is alarmingly high, and crack cocaine use rises. Skeet continues to ask Jackie to marry him, but she refuses, partly because she’s afraid of living in the same house as a drug dealer.
The absence of stable factory jobs in Newark creates a need for working-class people to find job opportunities. When none present themselves, many impoverished people in Newark turn to selling drugs—one of the few reliable ways of making money left to them. But there are also many, such as Jackie, who despise the drug trade and refuse to allow it to play any part in their own lives.
Jackie takes great care to raise Robert right. She reads books to him, and notices that he excels at reading when he’s only two years old. Skeet is appalled that Jackie spends so much time reading to Robert. He thinks that his son needs to learn how to be tough. Jackie notices that Robert is a lot like his father: he has an incredible memory. In daycare, Jackie learns, the adults call Robert “professor” because of his intelligence. On Sundays, Jackie is careful to keep Robert away from the south side of Orange Park, because she knows that drug dealers work there.
As Robert gets older, it becomes clear that he’s brilliant. This makes Jackie even more concerned about raising her child the right way: she wants to make sure he gets the education and support he deserves, and this means keeping him far away from drug dealers.
By the time Robert is four years old, Jackie has decided that she wants to move to a new house. She manages to rent an apartment in East Orange, the only part of town she can afford. Jackie resolves to send Robert to a private school one day. This will be very expensive, meaning that she’ll need to save money now.
Jackie makes enormous sacrifices for her child. Again and again, she places his short- and long-term needs ahead of her own.
To save money, Jackie finally begins to consider moving in with Skeet. Skeet is thirty-eight years old at the time, and has never been involved in any kind of violence, despite being a drug dealer. Skeet is a cautious man who never flaunts the money he makes dealing crack. But before Jackie can accept or reject Skeet’s offer, Skeet’s home burns down.
It’s a sign of Jackie’s love for Robert that she considers moving in with Skeet, something she clearly didn’t want to do. Jackie is so committed to educating her child that she’s willing to make sacrifices like this (even if it will mean Robert being closer to Skeet, something that Jackie seemingly has wanted to avoid).
Robert begins kindergarten at the local elementary school. Jackie wanted to send him to a private elementary school, but her parents refused to help her out, insisting that Robert will be fine. Jackie finds affordable Catholic schools in the city, and suggests that she and Skeet split the tuition. Skeet agrees.
Skeet’s agreement to pay for half of Robert’s education proves that, in spite of some of his past behavior, he’s committed to raising his son right, and he admires his son’s intelligence.
As Robert grows older, he spends more time with Skeet. Robert clearly worships Skeet, and Skeet introduces him to boxing and rap music, neither of which Jackie approves of. However, Skeet is an intelligent man, and he’s genuinely excited when he sees signs of his son’s intelligence.
Jackie seems to interpret rap and sports as reflections of a lifestyle that she despises. (This was the era of N.W.A. and other rappers who seemed to glorify violence and selling drugs.) Jackie wants her son to be ambitious and successful instead of spending his life selling drugs in Newark.
On August 9, 1987, Jackie gets a call from Frances, explaining that the police are looking for Skeet. Jackie becomes nervous. But that evening, she proceeds to take care of her child as usual. Late at night, after Robert falls asleep, she gets a call explaining that Skeet has been arrested for killing two women.
Jackie is so devoted to her child that, even when she’s clearly distraught about her partner, she continues taking care of Robert as usual. However, she won’t be able to pretend that everything is normal for much longer.