The vast majority of his Rider classmates were still in elementary or middle school on September 11, 2001, when terrorists staggered the United States with a series of attacks, but Rance Robeson ’11 was just three days from enlisting in the U.S. Army reserves. Sure enough, Robeson would soon see combat in Iraq, but in reality, the graduating English major was fighting for his own future.
A native of the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Robeson never had it easy in his struggle for stability. Following his graduation from high school, Robeson waited a year before enrolling at LaGuardia Community College in 1998. At the same time, however, he was living in an embattled home, contending with his drug-abusing father and the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty he created. In the end, it was a war not worth fighting. Just months into his college career, Robeson was homeless.
“I slept in an alcove underneath some stairs there in the same clothes I had gone to school with,” he said. “I knew what days the janitors would clean, so I moved around that. Then, I’d sleep on the train or in the park. I kept some clothes at my friends’ houses, but they never really knew what was going on.”
After three months, Robeson’s grandmother took him in, but it wasn’t long before credit card bills and loans started piling up. Forced to drop out of LaGuardia, Robeson began performing at competitive spoken word and poetry slams in Brooklyn to earn prize money.
“For a year and a half, I paid my grandmother rent like that. She had no idea I had no job, but that covered my food and transportation,” he said. “I knew I had to have a certain amount of victories in a four-week stretch.”
Robeson actually attempted to sue his parents for child support at the age of 19 – students are unable to claim independence until age 24 – but to no avail. “My dad was educated, smart and good-looking, and I lost the case,” he said. “I couldn’t prove he was on crack.”
At that point, Robeson was running out of options. “After I met that defeat in court, I knew it was on me” to survive, he said. “I knew I wanted to finish school. I don’t like to start anything and not finish,” he said. “Those attacks made me look at myself and ask, ‘are you not going to chase your dream?’ So I swore in to the Army.”
Six-and-a-half years later, Robeson was discharged for medical cause and purchased a home in Willingboro, N.J., with his wife, Jamila. He entered the Army’s Vocation Rehabilitation program, which would cover the cost of his college degree, and enrolled at Rider.
“I went to war for my education,” declared Robeson, who will graduate magna cum laude from Rider on May 13. “I’ve seen people die fighting for the same thing. I’d say a majority of the soldiers there are looking for the same thing I was – stability – and with stability, for me, comes education.”
His chance to resume that education was hard-earned, and Robeson, who will pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing at Queens College in the fall, has made the very best of it. He has excelled in the classroom, but also leaves an indelible mark on the campus literary community. After enrolling as a sophomore, Robeson worked to establish On Fire!! A Literary Journal of the African Diaspora, which debuted in April 2008.
On Fire!! is a compilation of poetry, narratives, photography, interviews and fiction that details the African-American experience through the perspectives of the authors, composed of Rider students, New York-based performance artists and community leaders. It is a journal Robeson says has given a new voice to people of color at Rider and well beyond campus.
“I want students to leave here and do great things,” he said. “That’s the goal, and that’s what On Fire!! is really all about.”
It didn’t take long for On Fire!! to gain traction, thanks in part to the instant credibility lent to it by renowned feminist playwright and poet Hattie Gossett, a co-founding editor of Essence magazine and former Yip Harburg Fellow at New York University, who was the featured artist in the journal’s fall 2008 issue.
“When Hattie Gossett asks if she can publish work in your journal, you say ‘yes!’” he said.
Since then, On Fire!! has become a unifying force among students at Rider, with capacity audiences showing up for the performances and readings that accompany the debut of each issue.
“I felt like we needed that sort of thing here, and that it would be a draw for the University, another reason to come here,” he said, noting that the journal will continue next year in his absence.
Along the way, Robeson has also maximized his educational experience in other ways, too. He spent two weeks in July 2009 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for the annual Playwriting Intensive, a highly selective “drama boot camp” of writing workshops and discussions of the art, craft and business of playwriting. He followed that up by spending last summer at the prestigious Summer Institute for Literary and Cultural Studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
Most recently, Robeson debuted his play, A Damn Fool, a drama he originally wrote as a short, one-act assignment for a class with Rebecca Basham, assistant professor of English, at Rider.
“It deals with the trials and tribulations soldiers experience in Iraq, the more human, personal side,” Robeson said. “I was there, but a lot of the ‘everyday’ isn’t really known by people here.” While the material is frank, it isn’t an anti-military piece, he said. “A lot of people dislike the military, but it did a lot for me,” he explained. “It is paying for my education, and I came back that much more focused.”