Jeff Hobbs walks into his new home, Lanman-Wright Hall, with his parents. He meets Robert, who’s carrying a single duffel bag. The two freshmen shake hands, and Robert respectfully greets Jeff’s parents. Jeff’s father, Chuck Hobbs, a successful surgeon, tries to make conversation with Jackie, but Jackie seems unwilling to engage. It never occurs to Jeff to wonder where Robert’s father is.
When Robert and Jeff meet for the first time, they don’t exactly hit it off. Robert, and Jackie even more so, seems uncomfortable with being in such a different place—a place where a significant portion of the students are white and affluent, and don’t share many of their experiences.
Jeff and Chuck make many trips to their car to bring Jeff’s things into his dorm room. Every time Jeff returns to the dorm, he sees Robert and Jackie sitting there, silent. Then, Jeff says a slightly tearful goodbye to his parents, and they head home.
Robert and Jackie don’t seem to fit in during move-in day. While Hobbs doesn’t say why, he implies that it’s because of their background and their sense of alienation from the Yale atmosphere.
Jeff finds Jackie still sitting in the dorm room. He feels a little uncomfortable, and wants to prove to her that he’s not just another “wealthy legacy,” even though he is, in fact, both wealthy and a Yale legacy. He offers to get Jackie water, but Jackie says she’s fine.
Jeff is highly conscious of the way others—especially those who aren’t white and affluent—perceive him. He seems more than a little guilty about his status as a rich Yale legacy.
Meanwhile, Jeff and Robert’s other two roommates arrive: Dan Murray, a preppy “white guy from Seattle,” and Ty Cantey, half-black, half-Asian, and like Jeff, a track star. Ty and Jeff end up sharing a bedroom, reasoning that they’ll be waking up early for track practice. Dan and Robert take the other room. There’s an unspoken acknowledgment that “mixing the races” was the right thing to do.
The roommates feel that they have a duty to get to know each other and become friendly with people with different types of backgrounds than their own—and also there seems to be a purposeful aversion to seeming “segregated.”
The first week of college, at least in Jeff’s memory, is a big “celebration of freedom.” Teenagers binge drink, dance, and have sex. Jeff notices that Robert is very neat and doesn’t talk much.
Jeff continues to notice Robert’s alienation from the university: he doesn’t seem to be willing to open up to others, perhaps because he feels he and the other students have little in common.
Jeff thinks about having two black suite-mates, and thinks he’s lucky. Jeff thinks of himself as an “honorary black man,” since he likes rap and since, as a national-caliber hurdler, many of his teammates are black. Jeff tells Robert that he’s grown up “near Philly,” even though this is a big exaggeration. He makes a point of not bringing up that he’s gone to private school, grew up in an 18th century farmhouse, and goes to Florida for summer vacation.
Jeff’s thoughts about his roommates reflect his privilege, ignorance, and immaturity—he seems to think of blackness as a combination of music, athletic prowess, and having “black friends.” And as before, he seems to feel guilty about his privileged background, hence his desire to hide details of his life from Robert. Jeff, too, is fronting.
Early on in his relationship with Robert, Jeff asks him what his father does. Robert calmly replies that his father is in jail for manslaughter. Jeff doesn’t ask anything else. Robert never mentions that he appealed Skeet’s decision, or that the hearing is coming up.
This is one of the many scenes in the book during which Jeff isn’t sure what to say to Robert: Robert’s situation is so far outside Jeff’s own experiences that he falls silent.
Jeff’s older brother has told him about the racial dynamics at Yale: black students spend all their time with each other. Jeff’s early months at Yale confirm this—the black students tend to sit with each other. White students also eat with each other, and they spend their free time going to frat houses and bars, always with a vague sense that “black students did something else.”
In this rather tragic section, Hobbs suggests that, instead of bringing different kinds of people together, Yale University reflects the racial differences common in American society as a whole. White students—or at least those like Jeff Hobbs—seem clueless about black culture and black student activity, and seem uncomfortable making any effort to learn more.
Jeff and the other Yale freshmen spend their first semester taking classes, joining clubs, partying, and generally trying to create experiences worthy of remembering at a tenth anniversary reunion. The students feel a sense of excitement at being able to reinvent themselves.
Self-reinvention is one of the central themes of the book. But while the self-reinvention Jeff is talking about is fairly modest (e.g., a high school nerd reinventing herself as a stoner), Robert’s self-reinvention at Yale is much more sweeping.
Twelve percent of the Yale freshman population is black, and of that group, a fifth grew up below the poverty line. Throughout freshman year, Jeff’s impression of Robert is that he’s very quiet and very good at concealing details about his life back in Newark.
Hobbs gives the impression that the pervading atmosphere at Yale is overwhelmingly white and upper-class. He allows that a significant portion of Yale students are neither white nor affluent, but also makes statements suggesting that these students feel marginalized on campus.
In the fall semester, Robert meets a young woman named Zina. She’s a senior from Jamaica, and she and Robert begin dating. From Jeff’s perspective, they spend almost all their time together. Robert and Zina seem to fight a lot, sometimes about small things and sometimes about bigger issues. Once, Jeff overhears Zina accusing Robert of eating and smoking too much. Robert tells Zina to shut up so that he can concentrate on studying. The argument goes on for hours. Once, Robert tells Jeff that Zina is “a real woman, not like these Yalie bitches.”
Robert and Zina have a pretty stereotypical freshman-year relationship, full of arguing, passion, and passionate arguing. Notice that Robert makes a distinction between people who are “real” and the average Yale person, suggesting that he finds Yale culture superficial, “soft,” and not worth his time.
The infamous “Freshman Screw” dance is rapidly approaching. As part of this Yale tradition, each freshman’s roommates arrange a date for the evening. Robert, much to Jeff’s relief, has taken his responsibility very seriously. He goes over some options with Jeff, all of whom Jeff finds attractive.
Although Robert has some problems with the Yale culture of white affluence, he apparently gets along with Jeff, and takes his “Freshman Screw” duties seriously.
Robert also confesses that he’s trying to “screw” Ty by setting him up with an unattractive date. Robert and Ty generally get along well: they’re both hard-working and brilliant, although Ty is more competitive than Robert. But Robert dislikes Ty’s “thug” persona. Ty comes from an affluent suburban family. As a result, Robert often tells Ty to “quit fronting,” meaning that Ty is pretending to be tougher and “harder” than he is. At the time, Jeff has no idea that Robert himself is a master of “fronting”—of exaggerating or masking aspects of his personality.
This passage gives a name to one of the book’s most important concepts: fronting. Robert, who hails from an underprivileged black neighborhood, has no problem seeing through Ty’s affectations of realness and ruggedness: he suggests that Ty is fronting because of the social reward of being perceived as having these “exotic” qualities.
Just before Thanksgiving, it’s time for Yale Parents’ Weekend. Robert has plans to head back to Newark for a few days. During his time back at home, Robert smokes marijuana with Julius. Julius has been enjoying his lifeguarding job, and he’s rented an apartment with his girlfriend. Robert tells Julius that he finds Yalies “hard to take.” It’s also difficult for him to adjust to having so much free time. Julius tells Robert that he’s been making extra money by selling marijuana. He suggests that Robert make some money by selling marijuana to his classmates.
For the time being, Robert is still holding Yale at arm’s length (much the way he did with St. Benedict’s during his freshman year). He’s skeptical of Yale students, whom he finds trivial and superficial. It’s also in this passage that Robert first begins thinking about selling drugs at Yale—a decision that will influence the direction his life takes.
That evening, Robert walks home. He passes by Valisburg Park, one of the city’s main sites for buying and selling drugs. At home, Robert eats dinner with Jackie. Jackie has found it difficult to adjust to Robert being away from home, and Robert has called her from Yale almost every night. The next day, Robert visits Skeet in prison and gets up-to-date on the appeal process.
Robert remains a devoted son, and also probably finds comfort in remaining close with his mother and his familiar world of Newark. He remains in close contact with his father as well, recognizing that Skeet still needs to win his appeal to get out of jail for good.
During his freshman year, Jeff enjoys getting letters from his father. These letters calm him and remind him that, even if the world is big and complex, his own life is simple and secure. For Robert, marijuana plays a similar role: it allows him to relax and understand that nothing has changed.
Jeff sees Robert’s drug use as playing an important psychological purpose: it calms him and reminds him that he’s secure in his existence.
Robert spends at least four hours a day getting high with his friends off-campus. He likes to hang out in a building called the Weed Shack, where a junior named Sherman Feerick is the lease-holder. Robert and Sherman get along well, and Robert feels comfortable asking Sherman about selling marijuana on campus. Sherman gives Robert advice about how to deal without attracting unwanted attention.
Robert begins to consider more seriously the possibility of selling marijuana to his classmates.
Robert values his time in the Weed Shack partly because it allows him to air his grievances about Yale University with like-minded students, most of whom are black. He argues that Yale is designed for wealthy white students. He also finds it racist that the university doesn’t sponsor the annual Af-Am Week, an annual party and convention for black students and lecturers. However, Robert is often more moderate than the other students in the Weed Shack. Instead of “bitching about” the oppressive atmosphere at Yale, he suggests, black students should work hard “and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they’ll ever get from us.”
Robert’s time at the Weed Shack provides him with a culture of people who, like him, go to Yale but remain skeptical of the Yale administration and other Yale students. However, Robert wants to use his Yale education to empower himself, rather than dismissing it altogether. The passage is very similar to the earlier passage in which he encourages Tavarus to stop “being a bitch” and work his way through St. Benedict’s, concentrating on the “big picture.”
As final exam season begins, Robert begins selling weed to his classmates.
Robert becomes a drug dealer at Yale, partly to make money and partly as a sign of his “rebel” status. Yet this decision will have important consequences for his future.