Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture

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A pitch-perfect account of how hip-hop culture drew in the author and how his father drew him out again-with love, perseverance, and fifteen thousand books.

Into Williams's childhood home-a one-story ranch house-his father crammed more books than the local library could hold. "Pappy" used some of these volumes to run an academic prep service; the rest he used in his unending pursuit of wisdom. His son's pursuits were quite different-"money, hoes, and clothes." The teenage ...

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Overview

A pitch-perfect account of how hip-hop culture drew in the author and how his father drew him out again-with love, perseverance, and fifteen thousand books.

Into Williams's childhood home-a one-story ranch house-his father crammed more books than the local library could hold. "Pappy" used some of these volumes to run an academic prep service; the rest he used in his unending pursuit of wisdom. His son's pursuits were quite different-"money, hoes, and clothes." The teenage Williams wore Medusa- faced Versace sunglasses and a hefty gold medallion, dumbed down and thugged up his speech, and did whatever else he could to fit into the intoxicating hip-hop culture that surrounded him. Like all his friends, he knew exactly where he was the day Biggie Smalls died, he could recite the lyrics to any Nas or Tupac song, and he kept his woman in line, with force if necessary.

But Pappy, who grew up in the segregated South and hid in closets so he could read Aesop and Plato, had a different destiny in mind for his son. For years, Williams managed to juggle two disparate lifestyles- "keeping it real" in his friends' eyes and studying for the SATs under his father's strict tutelage. As college approached and the stakes of the thug lifestyle escalated, the revolving door between Williams's street life and home life threatened to spin out of control. Ultimately, Williams would have to decide between hip-hop and his future. Would he choose "street dreams" or a radically different dream- the one Martin Luther King spoke of or the one Pappy held out to him now?

Williams is the first of his generation to measure the seductive power of hip-hop against its restrictive worldview, which ultimately leaves those who live it powerless. Losing My Cool portrays the allure and the danger of hip-hop culture like no book has before. Even more remarkably, Williams evokes the subtle salvation that literature offers and recounts with breathtaking clarity a burgeoning bond between father and son.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Williams' debut, he offers a memoir that focuses on his upbringing, primarily credited to a father who instilled in him a value of education and mature study habits over sports and recreation. Williams recalls that he spent many summer days growing up pouring over flash cards or his seemingly never-ending stack of books, while his peers swam and played outside. What little free time he had he spent at a local park playing basketball and idolizing the older boys, one in particular who loved Hip-Hop and had gained the street cred that came from violence when defending one's honor. Williams credits Hip-Hop and its legends for his ever-growing curiosity of what it means to be black, and initially considered popular rappers to be historians of African American culture. As Williams enters adulthood and begins his first semester at Georgetown, he meets people of many different ethnicities and cultures and his opinions of the black identity begin to change . Williams' innate respect for knowledge and analysis emerges, and he discovers the value of the people around him and real experience over image.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
First-time author Williams offers a revealing memoir on a par with James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (1996) and Bakari Kitwana's more scholarly The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture (2002). Losing My Cool is the story of a mixed-race young man's intellectual journey, in which he examines the impact of cultural forces on today's youth. Williams effectively conveys the convergences and dichotomies that his life comes to reflect: frontin' with his boyz vs. mandated study with his taciturn father. As the story unfolds and Williams takes to philosophical self-examination, this juxtaposition highlights the tenuous balance today's youth face in traversing the path between peer/cultural pressure and intellectual success, while examining the negative effect one's cultural identification can have both on the individual and the collective. VERDICT Recommended for YA readers, undergraduates, and readers in sociology or urban studies.—Jewell Anderson, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ. Lib, Savannah, GA
Jabari Asim
It would be a shame if Williams's thoughtful comments about hip-hop, which deserve and undoubtedly will receive articulate response, detract attention from other equally engaging portions of Losing My Cool. For example, his portrait of his dad, an intensely private man, contains some of the most compelling writing about black fathers in recent literature on the subject. There is much to admire in Losing My Cool, and more to anticipate from Williams.
—The Washington Post
Tara McKelvey
Fanwood, N.J., does not have a literary pedigree, or even a downtown bookstore, and yet it has produced a very talented writer.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202636
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/29/2010
  • Pages: 225
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Chatterton Williams holds a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Georgetown University and a Master’s degree from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. In 2007, he wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Yes, Blame Hip-Hop” for the Washington Post which generated a record-breaking number of comments. He writes for the literary magazine n+1 and currently lives in Brooklyn.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Discovery of What It Means to Be a Black Boy

It was wintertime, early in the morning. I was in the third grade, standing on the rectangular asphalt playground behind Holy Trinity Interparochial School in Westfield, New Jersey, palming a tennis ball, waiting. Ned, nearsighted and infamous for licking the dusty soles of his penny loafers in the back of social studies class, was splayed against the cold orange brick wall of the school building. He had his head down and hands up, legs akimbo with his butt out, like a South American mule bracing herself to be searched by border patrol. “Not so hard!” he cried, glancing back over his shoulder through smudged Coke-bottle lenses.

“Put your head down!” another boy yelled.

“Fine, just do it and get it over with, then,” Ned muttered.

“Head down!” the boy said. I wound my arm back and let fly a fastball that seemed to hang in the air for a second before rico- cheting from the small of Ned’s back like a Pete Sampras ace off some hapless ball boy at Wimbledon. Ned jerked upright and howled in pain. All my classmates screamed and high-fived me as the bell rang and we rushed to grab our book bags and line up in size order before our teachers came to lead us indoors. I was still the undisputed king of Butts-Up, I thought to myself as I pulled my Chicago Bulls Starter jacket over my uniform. Standing in line, waiting for the younger grades to file past, I began mumbling to myself bits of a song by Public Enemy, a song that my older brother had been playing at home and that had gotten stuck in my head that week like the times tables or the Holy Rosary. “Yo, nigga, yoooooo, nigga, yoooo-oooooo, niiiigga . . .” I repeated the refrain over and over under my breath, unthinkingly, as I relived in my mind’s eye the glorious coup de grace, the deathblow I’d just dealt Ned from over ten yards away—Blaow!

“But you’re a nigger, too,” a voice said from behind me, and I half made out what I’d just heard, but not fully. I went on singing my song, which I couldn’t claim to understand on any level, but which somehow made me feel cool as hell, and that was all that mattered. The voice repeated itself, louder this time: “But you’re a nigger, too, Thomas, aren’t you?”

“Huh?” I said, pivoting to see Craig standing there, his dirtyblond hair cut by his mother’s Flowbee into the shape of an upsidedown serving bowl, like a medieval friar without the bald spot. “What did you just say?”

“You’re a nigger, too, right, so how can you say that?”

“How can I say what?”

“‘Yo, nigga, yo, nigga’; how can you say that when you’re a nigger, too, right?” My mother is white, my father black. They met in San Diego in the late 1960s. Both were entrenched on the West Coast front of what at the time was called the War on Poverty. After San Diego, they went up to Los Angeles. From L.A. they made their way north and my father pursued doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Oregon. In 1975, and over my maternal grandfather’s dead body, they were married in Eugene at the county courthouse. They had little money, fewer blessings, and plenty of love. Later, they moved again to Spokane and my mother, Kathleen, gave birth to their first child, Clarence, named for my father. From Spokane the family continually moved east: first to Denver, then to Albany, then to Philadelphia, and finally to New Jersey, where I was born in 1981.

When I was one year old, my father switched professions and the family moved again, this time from Newark, where he had been running antipoverty programs for the Episcopal Archdiocese and my mother had been raising my brother and me, to Fanwood, a small suburb thirty minutes to the west on U.S. Route 22. Fanwood, like the space inside a horseshoe, is bordered on three sides by the much larger township of Scotch Plains, and these two municipalities by and large function as one. They share a train station and public school system and together act as a kind of buffer ground between wealthy Westfield to the east and poor Plainfield to the west. Riots and waves of white flight long ago left Plainfield a vexed cross between a legitimate inner-city ghetto—with all the requisite crime, poverty, and hopelessness that go with that—and an emergent middle-class suburb that in many ways resembles Westfield, except for the condition of the houses and the color of the residents. No such white flight occurred in Fanwood, Scotch Plains, or Westfield, although like so many small towns in New Jersey, they had their designated black pockets.

When my parents first began searching in the area, real estate brokers only wanted to show them homes in Plainfield or on the redlined black sides of town. They said families like ours tended to prefer things this way, but my father, whom we call Pappy in a nod to his Southern roots, had led a childhood that was boxed in by formal segregation in Texas, and no longer could stand to be told where to live. Out of principle he said to the brokers thank you but no thank you, and insisted on seeing all listings. Reluctantly, they caved and the four of us settled into a three-bedroom ranch on Fanwood’s decidedly white side.

It was a neighborhood of well-kept homes with yards that were flaired-up with inflatable IT’S A BOY! lawn signs, lighted holiday displays, and the occasional life-size Virgin Mary shrine. There were two main downtown areas in either direction of our house, with more pizzerias than banks or dry cleaners and, to Pappy’s lament, without a single bookstore between them. Our neighbors were what my parents called “ethnic whites,” and they tended to grow up, buy homes, have children, and die within a twenty-mile radius of where they had been born—a fact that always seemed to strike Mom and Pappy as bizarre. As a family, we did not fit in with these people, who often didn’t know what to make of us. Once when I was a very young boy, I was at the grocery store with my mother, misbehaving as little children do, when an older white woman walked by and said, “Ugh, it must be so tough adopting those kids from the ghetto.”

Despite my mother’s being white, we were a black and not an interracial family. Both of my parents stressed this distinction and the result was that, growing up, race was not so complicated an issue in our household. My brother and I were black, period. My parents adhered to a strict and unified philosophy of race, the contents of which boil down to the following: There is no such thing as being half-white, for black, they explained, is less a biological category than a social one. It is a condition of the mind that is loosely linked to certain physical features, but more than anything it is a culture, a challenge, and a discipline. We were taught from the moment we could understand spoken words that we would be treated by whites as though we were black whether we liked it or not, and so we needed to know how to move in the world as black men. And that was that.

Questions of the soul were less clear. My mother is Protestant, the daughter of an evangelical Baptist minister. My father is what he calls a Geopolitical-Existentialist-Secularist-Humanist-Realist, which really is just his way of saying he doesn’t put much stock in organized religion. Nevertheless, after very nearly being homeschooled, Clarence and I were enrolled in private Catholic schools for what my father described as “the superior levels of discipline” they offered in relation to the public schools nearby.

Another factor in the decision was the day Clarence came home from School One, about a half-block away from our front door, dazed and unable to speak. He was in the second grade and my father had given him an oxblood leather briefcase. Apparently, this made him stand out among the other boys. So did his suntanned skin, which after the long hot summer was the color of maple honey; and his hair, which was styled in a large spherical Afro and which in his childhood was light brown with strands of blond and something like sherry in it: beautiful. My mother and sometimes my father would comb my brother’s Afro in the mornings with an orange tin can of Murray’s dressing grease and a black plastic pick. “You look distinguished now, son,” Pappy would say, and smile when he was finished with him, distinguished being the rarest and highest compliment in his vocabulary.

Clarence was a quiet boy with thick hair, good muscle tone, and intelligent almond-shaped eyes beneath bushy brown eyebrows. That day at school a group of white children had cornered and taunted him on the yard, asking what a fucking monkey had to do with a briefcase. Either the other black students didn’t see this happen or they chose not to intervene. Pappy yanked Clarence from public school the next day. By the time I was old enough, being in class with our neighbors was not even an option.

Unlike some children of mixed-race heritage, I didn’t ever wish to be white. I wanted to be black. One of the first adult books my parents gave to me, around age seven, was Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Often my mother would come into my room in the evening and discuss with me what I was reading. For several nights, I lay awake long after she had turned out the lights, haunted by the image of Malcolm’s father lying prone on the railroad tracks, his body torn in two and his cranium cracked open like a coconut husk. I didn’t want to resemble in any way whatsoever those men who did things like that to other men.

It was a fortunate thing for me, too, that I didn’t want to be white. It was fortunate because I really didn’t have much choice in the matter. My parents were right: Around white kids, I simply was not white. Whatever fantasies of passing may have threatened to steal into my mulatto psyche and wreak havoc there were dispelled early on, when Tina turned around in her chair, flipped her bronze ponytail to the side, and asked me point-blank, and audibly enough for the whole classroom to hear, “Hey, why doesn’t your hair move like everyone else’s?”

“It’s because I’m black,” I told her, and I wasn’t angry or embarrassed. It was just a fact, I felt, the way that she was husky or big-boned.

Though we didn’t speak about it outright, I don’t think my brother, Clarence, ever wanted to be white, either. He just didn’t seem to see race everywhere around him like my parents and I did. Or if he saw it, he fled from it and didn’t want to analyze it or have to spend his time unraveling it. He didn’t want to be forced to make a big deal out of it. He was forgiving and trusting and found companions wherever they would be his. His two best friends were black, and he dated a quiet Asian girl for a spell during high school. Mostly, though, he fell in with a set of neighborhood white boys with lots of vowels in their surnames and little in their heads. These white boys were almost certainly the same ones who, years earlier, had demeaned my brother with racial epithets on that School One playground (the neighborhood is not that big). But Clarence never knew how to hold a grudge, and that was ages ago and these were his neighbors and they liked to do the things that he liked to do: ride bikes, ride skateboards, talk cars, smoke cigarettes, cut class, hang out. And they did take him in as one of their own, that’s true, although I could see even as a child that they did so without ever fully allowing him to rest his mind, to forget that he was black and that he was somehow other. Still, I can’t fault my brother for going the way he felt was most comfortable. He was a child of the late ’70s and ’80s; hip-hop hadn’t completely circumscribed the world he was formed in. I was a child of the late ’80s and ’90s, on the other hand. I went the other route.

Not that it was always an easy route to go. It was not enough simply to know and to accept that you were black—you had to look and act that way, too. You were going to be judged by how convincingly you could pull off the pose. One day when I was around nine years old, my mother drove Clarence and me over to Unisex Hair Creationz, a black barbershop in a working-class section of Plainfi eld. Back then we had a metallic blue, used Mercedes-Benz sedan, which from the outside seemed in good condition, though underneath the hood it was anything but, as the countless repair bills Pappy juggled would attest. While the three of us waited for the light to change colors, I became transfixed by the jittery figure of a long, thin black woman in a stained T-shirt and sweatpants, a greasy scarf wrapped around her head. She was holding an inconsolable baby in one hand and puffing on a long cigarette with the other, stalking the second-floor balcony of a beat-up old Victorian mansion that had been converted into apartments.

I must have really been staring at her, because all of a sudden I noticed that she wasn’t aimlessly pacing back and forth anymore but pointing and yelling specifically at our car. “What the fuck are you staring at?” she howled. “You rich, white motherfuckers in your Murr-say-deez, go the fuck home! You think you can just come and watch us like you in a goddamn zoo?”

She was making a scene. Passersby in the street were taking notice and looking at our car, too. That was a time when Benzes were the shit and you had to be careful where you parked because tough guys would pull off the little hood ornament and wear it from a chain around their necks—ready-made jewelry. I was terribly uncomfortable being the center of attention there in that backseat, mentally pleading for the light to turn green. I was also confused as hell. Who were these white people this woman kept referring to? Was she talking about . . . us—was she talking about me? Of course my mother was white, but I didn’t understand how she could think I was white, too. After all, I was on the way that very moment to have my hair cut at the only barbershop in the area that would cut hair like mine—curly, nappy hair. The kind that “didn’t move,” the kind of hair that disqualified me from getting cuts at the white barbershop two blocks from my house. But this woman was talking to me.

“Just ignore her,” my mother said, and finally we drove away. But I couldn’t drive that woman’s angry face out of my head. She had somehow stripped me of myself, taken something from me. I felt I had to protect myself from ever feeling that kind of loss again.

When I stepped into the barbershop that day and every second Saturday afterward, I was extra careful to pay attention to the other black boys sitting inside, some with their uncles, some with their fathers and brothers, some sitting all alone. These boys became like models to me. I studied their postures and their screwfaces, the unlaced purple and turquoise Filas on their feet, their mannerisms, the way they slapped hands in the street. These boys would never be singled out and dissed the way I had been. I decided I wanted whatever it was that protected them.

Inside Unisex, it smelled deliciously of witch hazel and Barbasol, and there were three long rows of cushioned seats facing five swiveling barber’s chairs like bleachers in a gymnasium. There was an old, fake-wood-paneled color television suspended from the ceiling in the far back corner. If a bootlegged movie wasn’t playing on the VCR, the TV stayed stuck on one channel in particular the rest of the time, a channel I soon learned was called Black Entertainment Television. At the time in the morning when I usually came into the shop, the program Rap City would be showing. These barbershop Rap City sessions were not my first exposure to hip-hop music and culture, of course; I had been aware of it vaguely through the tapes my brother brought home and played in his bedroom. I don’t believe, though, that I had ever noticed BET before, and in the strange, homogeneously black setting of Unisex Hair Creationz and the city of Plainfield beyond it, the sight of this all-black cable station mesmerized and awed me. Watching BET felt cheap and even a little wrong on an intuitive level—my parents wouldn’t admire most of what was shown; Pappy called it minstrelsy—but the men and women in the videos didn’t just contend for my attention, they demanded it, and I obliged them. They were all so luridly sexual, so gaudily decked out, so physically confi dent with an oh-I-wish-a-nigga-would air of defiance, so defensively assertive, I couldn’t pry my eyes away.

One morning, Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler” video came on, and though I didn’t know the meaning behind the title—or even whether I liked what I was hearing—I knew for sure that the other boys in the shop didn’t seem to question any of it, and I sensed that I shouldn’t, either. All of them knew the words to the song and some rapped along to it convincingly. I paid attention to the slang they were using and decided I had better learn it myself. Terms like “nigga” and “bitch” were embedded in my thought process, and I was consciously aware for the first time that it wasn’t enough just to know the lexicon. There was also a certain way of moving and gesticulating that went with whatever was being said, a silent body language that everybody seemed to speak and understand, whether rapping or chatting, which I would need to get down, too. Over the weeks and months that followed, as I became more and more adept at mimicking and projecting blackness the BET way, and while it was all still fresh to me, what struck me most about this new behavior was how far it veered not just from that of my white classmates and friends at Holy Trinity, but also from that of my father and the two older black barbers in the barbershop—sharp men who looked out of place in Unisex and who held the door and brushed parts on the sides of their heads.

One afternoon I came home from the barbershop sporting an aerodynamic new hair creation of my own. “What on earth did you let them do to you, son?” Pappy said as soon as he saw me. (Our house was not spacious; the front door opened directly into Pappy’s study, which he had converted from what ordinarily would have been a living room. To enter the house was literally to step into his scrutinizing gaze.)

“Huh?” I said, touching my hand to my head. The top was so flat and cylindrical it resembled an unused No. 2 pencil eraser; the sides and the back were shaved all the way down, revealing a shaft of high-yellow scalp.

“What, they didn’t listen when you told them what you wanted?”

“No, they did,” I said. “This is what I wanted.”

“You wanted that?”

“Well, yeah, it’s what everyone is wearing, Babe; it’s what’s on BET and in all the magazines.” (We call my father Babe when speaking to him casually, kind of a tu to the vous of Pappy.)

“And you want to look like everyone else, son? Is that what you want?” He was staring at me intently now.

I stood there before him, studying the Air Flights on my feet. I didn’t have a response he would find remotely respectable. The thing is that I did want to look like everyone else—everyone else in the barbershop and on that TV screen. After all, even in the backseat of a big ol’ Murrsaydeez, the woman on the balcony would never mistake a brother with a flattop like this for being white.

Annoyed or dismayed by my new coif as he was, though, Pappy allowed Clarence and me a generous amount of latitude when it came to our personal style, as long as we were giving him our best efforts in what he cared about most: the development of our minds. What this meant, giving him our best, was not that we were pressured to place first in our classes or even to get straight A’s on our schoolwork, although it would have been welcome if we did. We were expected to maintain decent grades, but it was deeper than that. Pappy, no longer working as a sociologist, now put his PhD and extensive store of personal knowledge and reading to use running a private academic and SAT preparation service from our home. From the second grade on, giving Pappy our best meant we needed to try hard in school, but much more important than that, we needed to study one-on-one with him in the evenings and on the weekends, on long vacations, and all throughout the summer break. If we could not do that, he was able to make our home the most uncomfortable inn to lodge in. When Clarence began blowing off work, he didn’t just get grounded, he came home to find his bedroom walls stripped bare, his Michael Jordan and Run-D.M.C. posters replaced with pastel sheets of algebra equations Pappy had printed out and tacked up.

As for me, the first time Pappy called me into his study to explain my summer schedule, I was seven and my eyes betrayed me, welling with tears against my will. When he looked up from his notes and saw this, he got so offended that he stormed out of the room and I fell into my mother’s lap crying. I did not want to do the work he had planned for me. I wanted to play with my friends and have sleepover parties. I wanted to capture fireflies in ventilated Smucker’s jars and beat Super Mario Brothers on Clarence’s Nintendo. That was the truth. However, more than anything, I wanted not to disappoint my father. With my mother’s encouragement and some Kleenex, I followed Pappy into his bedroom and told him that I had just had something in my eye and that, in fact, I had not been crying. I was eager to start studying, I told him. He suspended his disbelief and led me back to his desk, where he proceeded to lay out an intensive program of regimented work in syllogistic and spatial reasoning, vocabulary-building, Miller analogies, arithmetic, and reading comprehension—his signature cocktail.

If Pappy was a tyrant, he was a gentle and conflicted one, who did not relish the role. He yearned for a time when he would cease having to be one at all. What he hoped was that if he could somehow just make reading and studying appealing enough to his boys, eventually we wouldn’t need his prodding anymore and we’d simply do it on our own. To that end, he made sure not just to dangle punishment over our heads, Sword of Damocles–style, and leave it at that. He went out of his way to be fair. If we just did what he asked without too much complaint, he would do us some real solids in return, such as paying us generously for our time (“Study- ing is your job, and an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay”), intervening on our behalf when our mother doled out chores (“Studying is their only job”), and tolerating a slew of hair, clothing, and dating choices that were in flagrant violation of his personal tastes.

Despite these enticements, Clarence would always find it diffi- cult to take to long periods of study, and he went through fits of resistance routinely. Being the younger brother, I had the advantage of learning from his mistakes and avoiding most of his battles. I was what Pappy called a “dutiful son.” Most of the time this dutifulness of mine sufficed. We were rarely in open conflict with each other, and he was almost always patient and playfully encouraging with me.

“Thomas Chatterton,” he’d say, addressing me by my middle name as I sped through his study on my way to the kitchen, oblivious to my surroundings. “Do you know you wear the name of a brilliant poet, son?” he’d call from the other room.

“Yeah, of course, Babe,” I’d say, poking my head into the refrigerator, looking for something sweet.

“And do you know they call him the Marvelous Boy, his poetry was so fine?” he’d say, still talking to me from the other room.

“Uh-uh,” I’d say with my mouth full.

“Well, they do. His poetry was so fine, in fact, and he was so young when he wrote it, that the adults couldn’t even believe the work was his own. They all accused him of copying someone else, someone much older.”

“They did?”

“They sure did. And do you know that he became so distraught by this, he became so discouraged, that he killed himself when he was only seventeen years old? He decided he couldn’t live with the dishonor.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Yes it is, son. Life is not fair. But now you’re going to bring honor to his name, aren’t you? It’s very important that you do that, son.”

“But I don’t know how to, Babe,” I’d say, returning to the study with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of soda in my hand.

”Well, you don’t have to be a poet, son. You can be a great philosopher, for example—pull up a seat.”

“A philosopher?” I’d say, and sit down.

“Yes, in fact, you’re a philosopher already, aren’t you?”

“I don’t think so,” I’d say, my cheeks flushing.

“Well, yes you are, son. Think about it: Do you question the things around you? Do you reflect on their meaning? Are you interested in the truth?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you’re a philosopher, son,” he would tell me, and I would laugh, embarrassed because I didn’t feel at all like a philosopher, whatever that was I could only imagine. I felt ignorant, which is what I confessed to him. And he would tell me that ignorance is the beginning of knowledge and talk of men named Socrates and Confucius. He revered these two men perhaps above all other men, Socrates for his edict to know thyself and Confucius for his devotion to learning and personal excellence, he said. I would sit there at Pappy’s desk, exhausting whatever sugary collation I had brought with me from the kitchen, and listen to him talk. “Well, I’ve told you enough,” he’d eventually say. “Now, you tell me—how am I going to grow up and be smart like you?” We’d laugh and I’d try to come up with some reply. These questioning talks I had with Pappy were so frequent in my childhood that to this day the name Socrates remains mingled in my mind with the image of my balding and bearded father seated in his study. I cannot think of one without inadvertently conjuring the other.

Sometimes, though, Pappy grew impatient waiting for the love of learning to take root in me. “I don’t understand,” he’d say in moments of frustration, “how you can keep walking past all these books and never stop to pick up a single one of them. My people told me not to read—don’t you know what I would have done to have all this? Don’t you ever get curious, son?” These were simple, honest questions that sometimes he put to me with a shake of the head and wry smile. Sometimes, though, he didn’t smile at all. In these latter moments, the look on his face was nothing like anger and something like pain—a sort of deep, serious pain I have only seen replicated in pictures of black faces of a certain age and demographic. It was a pain that I knew I couldn’t have caused but somehow must have mistakenly activated. I would stand there looking at him, frozen, like a deer suspended in halogen beams, and stammer some weak response.

That particular afternoon after my visit to the barbershop, Pappy let drop the subject of my rectangular head of hair and handed me my work for the day. There was no long talk and no sadness in his face that afternoon. “Memory exercises and then vocabulary, both synonyms and antonyms,” he said. “Write them all out on flashcards and then come see me.”

“OK, Babe,” I said, and went to my room carrying a pale green tachistoscope, a stack of SAT and GRE word lists, and a thick Merriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, glad to have dodged a confrontation. After a morning spent at the barbershop, submerged in Black Entertainment Television, speaking and thinking in my florid second tongue—Ebonics—it was time now to return to the staid and familiar language of my father.

Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS, Author of LOSING MY COOL: HOW A FATHER?S LOVE AND 15,000 BOOKS BEAT HIP-HOP CULTURE

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in New Jersey, but my parents are from out west. They moved the family to New Jersey when my father, a sociologist by training, took a job in Newark running anti-poverty programs for the Episcopal Archdiocese. My father ?Pappy? who is black, is from Galveston and Fort Worth, Texas. My mother, who is white, is from San Diego. They both lament the decision to move east.

I spent the first year of my life in Newark, but was raised in Fanwood, a solidly middle-class suburb with a white side and a black side. We lived on the white side of town mainly because Pappy, who had grown up under formal segregation, refused out of principle to ever again let anyone tell him where to live.

I studied philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and more recently, attended graduate school at New York University.

Q: Why did you write this book?

I started writing this book out of a searing sense of frustration. It was 2007, hip-hop had sunk to new depths with outrageously ignorant artists like the Dip Set and Soulja Boy dominating the culture and airwaves, and something inside me just snapped. I was in grad school at NYU and one of my teachers gave the class the assignment of writing an op-ed article on a topic of choice, the only requirement being to take a strong stand. I went straight from class to the library and in three or four hours banged out a heartfelt 1000 words against what I saw as the debasement of black culture in the hip-hop era. After some revisions, the Washington Post published what I had written and it generated a lot of passionate feedback, both for and against. I realized that there was a serious conversation to be had on this subject and that there was a lot more that I wanted to say besides. That was why I started.

By the time I finished writing, though, it had become something quite different, something very personal, a tribute to my father and to previous generations of black men and women who went through unimaginable circumstances and despite that, or rather because of it, would be ashamed of the things we as a culture now preoccupy ourselves with, rap about, and do on a daily basis.

Basically, the book began as a Dear John letter to my peers and ended as a love letter to my father.

Q: You fully embraced the black culture of BET and rap superstars starting at a young age. What drew you in?

I think I was drawn to black culture by the same things that have been drawing the entire world to it since the days of Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. This culture is original, potent and seductive. As we all know, the evil of slavery and the sting of the whip have given us many things including the voice of Nina Simone, the prose of James Baldwin, the Air Jordan sneaker, the blues, jazz, moonwalking, and more recently gangsta rap.

What matters here is not that I found the black hip-hop driven culture that I was surrounded by alluring?that?s not significant, unique or particularly interesting. The crucial point is that this culture exerted a seriously negative influence on my black peers and me, and it did so in a way and to a degree that it didn?t for non-blacks. The main reason for this, I firmly believe, is that we (blacks) tended to approach hip-hop seriously and earnestly, striving to ?keep it real? and viewing a lifestyle governed by hip-hop values as some kind of prerequisite to an authentically black existence. Non-blacks were better able to embrace hip-hop with a healthy sense of irony.

Q: Your father tutored you throughout your life, yet you still seem awed that you escaped the allure of hip-hop culture. Where are your high school classmates today?

Yes, I was and still am awed! Let?s be honest, like many committed parents my father faced daunting odds getting me away from the foolishness that surrounded us. Because we were not wealthy and living in seclusion, it was basically him and my mother against a neighborhood and high school of bad role models who were working in conjunction with a relentless and powerful propaganda campaign that streamed into the house 24/7 via Hot 97 FM, Black Entertainment Television and MTV. The odds were that his message would be drowned out in a cacophony of bullshit.

To answer the second question?and to be precise, we?re just talking about blacks and Latinos when we talk about my classmates here because I wasn?t really around anyone else in those days?I haven?t kept up with any of the classmates I mention in the book with the exception of Charles, who is like a brother to my brother and me and a son to my parents. Charles is doing fantastic, having recently graduated from one of the top two law schools in the country.

From what I hear and occasionally see on Facebook, no one else has done anything close to that. That?s sad to me because there were many other students who were intelligent enough to go that far, but they didn?t. Without my father?s encouragement and guidance, of course, I don?t think that Charles and I would have gone far either. The culture was stifling. None of us (except for one or two good girls who come to mind, but who were not influential at all on the rest of us) considered being smart very ?real.? Most of the others that I mention in the book seem to be in solidly mediocre positions, having grown into adults with varying degrees of success. Some have done okay, but some have utterly failed. Some are happily married and some still dream of becoming rappers, which floors me. The girls seem to have done better than the boys. Are they all a bunch of criminals and crackheads? No, not at all, and I want to emphasize that. But was there a lot of needlessly squandered potential? Yes, absolutely.

Q: Your father owned 15,000 books, but says that he has never read for enjoyment. What is the difference between your attitude toward books and your father?s?

It?s true, Pappy is in his 70s and to this day he still underlines articles in the newspaper every morning. My father loves to read, but he can?t simply relax with a good book. Reading will always be work for him. He always felt pressure to read for the purpose of obtaining practical knowledge (even from novels). He was born black in the segregated south in the 1930s, and he figured out early on that if he didn?t teach himself what he needed to know through books no one else would. I contrast this with my own view that it?s nice to enjoy literature for purely aesthetic reasons.

In college and in my early 20s, I read for the latter reason mainly, for beauty and quixotic epiphany, both of which are valuable things, but a bit luxurious, too. Today, as a writer and someone who cares deeply about sentences, I find myself reading for many more practical reasons than I used to. I read for technical and inspirational knowledge about my craft. In that way I am more like my father than I used to be. However, I?m also always on the lookout for beauty for beauty?s sake and nothing more. I see it both ways now.

Q: In the book you describe Georgetown as ?an outpost of white and international privilege? nestled into one of our country?s blackest cities. What was your attitude going into your first year? And upon graduating?

Georgetown is certainly that. Going into my first year, my attitude was essentially that I would be an alien there; at most I would just be passing through. I had no animosity toward the wider non-black world, I just couldn?t imagine myself reflected in it. It wasn?t real to me. By the time I graduated, I had become a stranger to the hip-hop culture I had grown up in. Crucially, though, I didn?t feel that I had started selling out or acting white at all. Actually, I felt prouder than ever to be black?it?s just my definition of what black could be had begun to expand dramatically.

Q: At different points in LOSING MY COOL, you identify hip-hop as ?a culture,? ?a way of being in the world,? as like a religion, an ?opiate,? ?captor,? ?nation,? and, well, just music. What does hip-hop signify to you today?

For a lot of people I know, hip-hop is still all of those things, so it signifies all of that to me still. In my own life, though, more than anything, hip-hop is now the sound of my childhood and adolescence. It signifies the past and not the future. Of course, anything that reminds you of your growing up years is going to be special to you in certain ways, but I see hip-hop, by its very nature, as basically an obstacle to serious engagement with the world.

Q: Do Kanye, Jay-Z, and other current rap superstars have anything to offer society?

The thing I want to stress here is that it has never been my aim or desire to criticize hip-hop from a musical or formal standpoint. For one thing, I?m not qualified to do that, and for another, I?m already convinced that it is formally very interesting and worthy of respect from a variety of perspectives.

So with that said, yes, I do think artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West especially have something to offer society, and that is the spectacle of their talent. These are extraordinarily talented cats. Jay-Z?s wordplay on songs like ?D?Evils? or ?Can I Live?? surpasses what most Harvard and Yale graduates can do with language. As for Kanye West, he?s got to be one of the most gifted and original popular musicians of his generation in any genre. The things he hears you and I don?t hear.

It?s no secret that we all love to discover and marvel at talent, put it on a pedestal and gawk at it. But in my opinion, what these guys do for us seldom or never gets any deeper than merely displaying that they are clever, and doing so in strictly solipsistic ways. In terms of their ethics, interests, values, and the lyrical content of their work, these rappers have very little that is enriching and lots that is actually very damaging to offer their listeners. They engage us in a catchy way so we admire them for it, and hunger after what they produce, but it?s empty calories at best. The truth is that there?s very little that is nutritious to consume there. You can gain far more from an hour spent with Joan Didion or James Baldwin than with Jay-Z, period.

Q: How does your father feel about LOSING MY COOL?

My father named me after a writer, always encouraged me to be a writer, and worked extremely hard to equip me with the tools to become one, so this book is my way of saying thanks to him and I think he gets that. The first time he read the book I was nervous, though, because he?s an intensely private man and here I was writing a memoir and exposing things about myself that he might find vulgar or embarrassing. Unlike with my mother and brother, I never let him read the manuscript; I waited until I had galleys before I shared it with him. When I finally gave him a copy, he took it upstairs to his reading room and read the whole thing straight through. And he took notes on it! He identified two minor factual errors in the text, which was really helpful. Other than that, he didn?t say much immediately about it, we just sat down and watched some NFL, but I knew that he was very happy because he was in a really playful mood throughout the game, laughing and joking with my mother and me.

Since then he?s read the book cover to cover at least three more times, underlining it extensively (always underlining!). We?ve spoken a lot about the more philosophical subject matter, which comes up later in the book, like Heidegger?s idea that groups rob the individual of him or herself. This is an important point for my father. Pappy is almost never in crowds, and he doesn?t belong to any scene and never has. That?s because, he says, he?s been trying his whole life to define himself and not be defined by others. I think he?s proud that I was able to touch on this.

Q: Is there anything you?d like to go back and tell your low slung jeans-wearing, basketballing, game-running former self?

Most definitely! I?d say: Life is long and the world is wide, so it?s important as hell to guard against making choices that pointlessly limit you down the road. And also, it?s better to be open and flexible than closed and hard. And also, when you?re tall and slim, it?s much, much more flattering to the physique to wear clothes that fit. And also?pay more attention in French class, please!

Q: What can we do to overcome the negative aspects of hip-hop culture such as self-hatred, emphasis on failure, willful ignorance?

The first thing we have to do is get serious. The world is a serious place?the climate is changing and we are at war?and way too many of us are walking around worrying about utter trivialities, such as what 50 Cent said about Rick Ross or what shoes Kanye West wore.

In the book, I describe a time in my early high school years when I was playing basketball with members of the St. Anthony Friars, one of the best, if not the best, boy?s varsity teams in the nation. These kids there were dedicated to the game of basketball the way many black kids I know are dedicated to hip-hop, to such an extent it is almost unbelievable if you take a step back and think about it. In fact for young black men hip-hop and playing sports, particularly basketball, go hand-in-hand. What?s heartbreaking to me is that if these kids had ever put similar effort into developing their minds, some of them would now be inventing ways to combat global warming, some would be curing cancer, and one or two would be writing the next great American novel. Almost none of the members of the Friars team, if any, now play in the NBA, so what was it all for?

The second thing is that we really have to expand our idea of what it means to be black. Being authentically black has to mean something much more than merely being cool, athletic, sexy, thugged-out, from the ?hood, or ?real.? To that end, I think the election of Barack Obama was earth-shattering and we will start reaping the tangible rewards five, ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road. At least, that is what I sincerely wish for.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from LOSING MY COOL?

I hope that LOSING MY COOL will provoke readers black, white, old and young to question, critique, and ultimately reject more of the nonsense and conformity that surrounds us all.

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2012

    I am a high school English teacher, and I cringe when I think ab

    I am a high school English teacher, and I cringe when I think about suggesting this book to my students because of the language and sex, however they might read it because of the language and sex and change their lives because of the ideas.
    This is probably the most philosophical book I have ever read that was meant for high school students. Mr. Williams has an excellent command of the English language and an equally wonderful handle on philosophy. Students can be introduced to philosophy in a way that makes it meaningful to them.
    I am suggesting this book to all my students, black, white, yellow or whatever color they might be, but especially to those who are on their way to college, and might have a tendency to become sidetracked by the freedom they will experience.
    Buy it as a graduation present for any teen you know! Or, be like Thomas' dad; buy it while they are in school, make them read it and discuss it with them as they read. Well worth it!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 4, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The awakening.

    Thomas's father's statement on pages 54 and 55 is very insightful and touches the heart of true and positive parenting. The vernacular of Thomas at first may seem appalling, yet we are reminded that it is the language of the author's day and time period. High school life from the viewpoint of your changing body and what some females do to be "cool" is the story on pages 97 to 100 and it is rather informative and enlightening. On page 89 a reference to Howard University, "It was like real life BET," will probably be a real eye-opener for readers. Chapter six, "You Can't Go Home Again," was well worth reading for the lessons the readers could learn. There are several pivotal points for the author and gems of wisdom for him to see. This is definitely a quality work of non-fiction. The re-telling of some of his life may seem to be in vulgar terms, yet readers will understand that this is the "way of the streets/the 'hood," as many would term it. The Enlightenment could also be a title for Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture written by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    LOVED IT!

    I would recommend this book to any/every young African-American male who has grown up/currently growing up in an inner city in America.

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  • Posted July 15, 2010

    Very Enlightening

    I was drawn to this new book at the library. It was interesting to see what young people were saying about their experiences. We all grow up and change, that's just the way it is. I have a dughter going off to College and this is interesting stuff. The confrontations this guy encountered at Geprgetown- over menial stuff was eyeopening. The pecking order and all that was involved. the High school prom scenario- all informative to me. I don't expcet kids to be saints with this high peer pressure society they are up against, But as Mr. Williams explained- he had some decisions to make. This is good reading an I would surely recommend this for parents with middle school aged kids on up. Having been thru this with my nearly 30 yr old son- I believce there is 100% credibility in what Mr. Williams is saying. I had a very open relationship with my son- and all that Williams described- sounded very familiar to me.

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  • Posted June 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    It's Not Just Music

    I believe in the first amendment right to freedom of expression. As an artist myself, I don't want to be told what to write, or how to share my gift, but I do makes choices about my writing based on what I believe is my social responsibility; that is write well and don't write about trash. After-all, literature is forever. As is its counterpart, music.

    Music has always impacted culture. It is an expected reality. Young rockers who perhaps got caught up in sex, drugs and rock and roll were impacted by music, as were the flower children of the seventies. There are countless more examples. In my opinion there was very little danger in the music of the past, because most enjoyed the music and were able to resist the lure of any negative lyrics. The listeners simply grew up. The issue with respect to hip hop is the vulnerability of the African-American population. There's evidence that listeners are not passing through and simply growing up. Hip-hop is an opiate that's destroying the vulnerable young people who listen to. The message in most of the music devalues women, work ethic and basic sensibility, so we're in trouble. The music convincingly declares that we're no one unless they have the gold, the car and the girl, so we're in trouble.

    I reviewed this book from the parent's perspective as I am not an expert on Hip-Hop Culture. As a parent I do know our young people are in crisis. I live in the suburbs and it has long concerned me that my generation will be the first African-American generation whose children that will be less successful and less educated than their parents. Emails from the high school principal and counselors that beg parents to care that their children are failing ninth grade English is a scary thing. Failing -English? Their MP3 players are full of music by artist who are struggling to take command of the language themselves. I'll end my rant here.

    This book couldn't have had a better title and probably could not have been introduced at a better time. The cultural war is on and those leading in the trenches need to know that they can win the battle in their own home. In the Williams home, 15,000 books and a father's love did it. Each parent must determine what will be their weapon.

    The Williams Family's brave effort at cultural sustainability is to be admired. I highly recommend this book.

    Reviewed by Rhonda McKnight

    A copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

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    Posted May 26, 2010

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    Posted May 12, 2010

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    Posted May 28, 2010

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