One can’t talk about The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace without talking about a word: “fronting.” Robert Peace, the protagonist, uses this slang word many times; in a nutshell, it means concealing or exaggerating certain aspects of one’s personality in order to fit in with different kinds of people. (It’s worth noting that fronting is similar to code-switching, a better-known term. However, “fronting” covers a wider range of behavior than “code-switching,” which most often describes linguistic behaviors.) While Robert uses the word critically, the central irony of the book is that Robert himself is a master of fronting, and in fact has been doing so for his entire life. Growing up in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Newark, New Jersey, Robert quickly learns how to alter his behavior for different kinds of people. He’s tough around his peers, kind and respectful around his mother, Jackie Peace, and brilliant in front of his teachers. Robert becomes even more adept at fronting after his beloved father, Skeet, is jailed for double homicide: he learns how to conceal his anger and loneliness, even from his best friends. By the time Robert arrives at Yale University in 1998, he’s learned how to hide his feelings from other people. Even his own roommate, Jeff Hobbs (the author of the book), know almost nothing Robert’s troubled past. Later, when Robert moves back to Newark, he continues to pretend to be calmer, tougher, and more capable than he really is. In short, Robert Peace’s short, tragic life is structured around the practice of fronting for different people—appearing to be one thing when, in fact, he’s something else.
For much of the book, Robert’s fronting doesn’t interfere with his success, and in fact, it’s the key to his success. Growing up without a father in the house forces Robert to learn to take care of himself and, just as importantly, take care of his mother. He refuses to exhibit any signs of reluctance or weakness, and quickly becomes a master of fronting, showing enormous self-control. As a result, Robert becomes a great, charismatic leader. Hobbs suggests that he develops leadership skills partly because he’s highly conscious of the way other people perceive him. Furthermore, fronting allows Robert to succeed academically without being perceived as a “nerd,” and losing his friendships with his peers; it allows him to “be all things to all people,” and thrive as an athlete, a stoner, and a student. At Yale, Robert’s fronting allows him to succeed where many of his friends from a similar racial or socioeconomic background struggle. In the book, many students of color struggle with the oppressively white, preppy atmosphere at Yale, and they allow their frustrations to take a toll on their grades. Robert shares his friends’ feelings about Yale, but doesn’t let those feelings get in the way of getting good grades and departmental honors. Years of fronting have given him the self-control to swallow hard, go to class, and get his degree—reasoning that, even if Yale is a prejudiced place, it’s better to graduate than not.
In the end, however, fronting proves to be Robert’s downfall. After returning to Newark following his graduation, Robert chooses to make a living selling marijuana in his old neighborhood. He takes on lots of responsibility and assumes a lot of unnecessary risk. And yet, because he always projects an image of being totally in control, nobody calls him out on his choices. Even Robert’s closest friends and family members don’t feel comfortable telling him to get out of the drug business. Using the skills he’s had since his father went to jail, Robert “fronts,” and convinces his peers that he knows what he’s doing, even after he makes a series of incredibly risky decisions that anger rival gangs in the neighborhood and ultimately lead to his murder. In the end, then, Robert Peace is a tragic character, in the original sense of the word: fronting, the source of his greatest achievements in life, is also the source of his sudden downfall.
“Fronting” Quotes in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
But still she saw the anger in him, a gradually thickening shade just behind the sometimes impenetrable veil of his eyes. She knew that any anger could be dangerous, and that this particular variety, seeded so deeply during Skeet's three years in jail awaiting trial—nearly a third of her son's life by the time it was finished—was especially destructive.
'Wait, wait, wait, hold up," Rob said. 'You're getting served steak and lobster, getting to sleep in your own bedroom with your own bathroom and a maid—and you're starting shit over some words about shoes?" Rob made psha sound. "Don't be such a bitch, T."
After Rob called a faculty coordinator back in Newark to let him know they were okay, the homeowner asked if the boys wanted to stay in his garage until the storm let up. Rob declined; now that no one was going to be struck by lightning or washed down a mountainside, he wanted his group to get through this on their own.
Now, in the spring of 1997, they were young men, leaders who had earned the right to strut the way they did. And three, ten, twenty years from now? On that night, they were confident, even arrogant, that they would rule the city of Newark.
As Coach Ridley learned that early winter morning of 1998, Rob Peace was one of those students. All the anger Rob felt—at his father's imprisonment, his mother's weariness, his own poverty that tasted like ketchup packets—only seemed to fuel his merits as a scholar and leader, and hide itself behind those ever-rising attributes.
I told him I'd grown up “near Philly,” when in fact I had grown up in an eighteenth-century farmhouse on fifteen acres of rolling rural hills in Chester County, thirty miles from the city. I consciously failed to mention that I'd attended private school beginning in prekindergarten, and that my parents, who had been married for almost thirty years, had invested their entire lives (not to mention their finances) into taking care of their four children, removing all uncertainty from our formative years.
This word "fronting" was important to Rob. A coward who acted tough was fronting. A nerd who acted dumb was fronting. A rich kid who acted poor was fronting. Rob found the instinct very offensive, and in college he saw it all around. He felt as though people were in a constant state of role-play before teachers, before each other […]
So what if it's annoying as hell? Instead of sitting around here bitching about it, maybe we just accept that it is what it is, and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they’ll ever get from us.
I was still struggling to equate the irritating but unremarkable encounter he'd described (I had doubtlessly forgotten to bus my own tray once or twice, though I didn't admit that now) with the profound anger still coursing through him, a few hours and a few joints later. I felt guilty for being unable to do so, for lacking the empathy required to connect a careless prep school slight to a fundamental flaw in the social construct in which we lived. All I said was, "That sucks, dude."
Though he hid that anger well behind the grin and the laughter and the marijuana, Arthur felt it in the jokes Rob made to Laurel and others about their privileged upbringings, in his heavy quietude whenever socioeconomic topics came up in conversation, and in his general disdain of Yale and Yalies. Arthur saw a closed-mindedness that was, he felt, self-propagating and innately limiting. More broadly, he believed these qualities explained precisely how an intelligent guy like Rob would always make life harder on himself than it needed to be.
Whenever that word, “Yale,” was uttered, even in the lightest way possible, Rob did what he could to undermine its connotation. An exchange might begin with someone saying, "I still don't believe a punkass like you went to no Yale; you're just lying" and Rob would shake his head with a doleful smile and say, “Yeah. I did that shit.”
As a financial master, Mr. Cawley looked at the world in terms of investments, of risk and reward. In 1998, the "investment" in Rob had struck him on paper as one of the lowest-risk and the highest-return; he saw no possible downside in giving this rare boy the slight push (Yale's four-year tuition of $140,000 being slight for a bank CEO worth nine figures) he needed to reach the pinnacle for which he was already headed. Almost a decade later, as Rob broke off eye contact to gaze down at the floor as if there were a pit between them, Mr. Cawley understood that a life wasn't lived on paper.
And Rob left, rolling his eyes like this scene was just part of a comedy in which he was the focal point of the farcical behavior of those around him. And Oswaldo understood now with a clarity he'd never had before that all of Rob's troubles were self-inflicted—that on Yale graduation day Rob had stood within reach of everything he now didn't have.
Her son made sense with numbers. He always had. And now he was thirty years old, taking her through the tiers of retirement benefits. She wished that these calculations hadn't always been so challenging, not in terms of the math but its implications. She knew that he wished the same thing. But she didn't fix any anger, as her son did, to that wish. She'd entertained many such wishes during the course of her life and had long since accepted the reality that very few of them would come true. She'd wished that Skeet had been innocent. She'd wished for jackpots with each crank of an Atlantic City slot machine.
At a certain point, the lights disappeared from view beyond the trees and eaves of the neighboring homes, leaving the Burger Boyz to sit down once again in the plastic fold-out chairs and wonder how long it would be before the flames flickered out and the lanterns began their descent. And once that happened, they wondered where each would fall.