Losing My Cool
By Inye Wokoma
Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat
Thomas Chatterton Williams
The Penguin Press HC (2010), 240 pp
When Thomas Chatterton Williams was 9 years old, his mother drove him and his brother to the black barbershop to get their haircut. As they were stopped at a light, a black woman started screaming at them, accusing them of being rich, white gawkers who watched the people in the working-class, black neighborhood as if they were zoo animals.
Recalling the episode, Williams writes, “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.” In order to shield himself from the woman’s judgment, Williams began to study the other black boys around him, using them and Black Entertainment Television as models for his blackness.
This episode unlocks the heart of the dilemma that plagues Williams throughout his memoir, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. While the title of the book leads us to believe that the central conflict in the story is between hip-hop culture and literacy, at its heart, Williams’ tale is less about his struggle to transcend hip-hop culture than his uncertainty about what it means to a black male in the United States. What plagues Williams throughout his childhood and adolescence is a lack of context in which to frame and process his experiences.
The mainstream of black experience
I suspect that, without even knowing it, Williams places himself in the mainstream of black experience. If “Pappy,” as Williams affectionately calls his father, is the disciplined, cerebral, and vindicated counterpart to Bigger Thomas (Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940), then Williams is the reflective, yet less purpose-driven counterpart to The Man With No Name (Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1953). These character types are not just paragons from mid-20th-century literature; they are the personification of the experiences (to one degree or another) of every black man in America. And both of the above-mentioned novels deal with black males, who, like Williams, struggle to find their humanity in a society designed to deny them this birthright. The great irony is that Williams doesn’t seem to have the historical, cultural, or political context to recognize this.
Williams is the son of a black father, who was self-exiled from his southern homeland, and a white mother. Yet he was reared in Fanwood, New Jersey, a predominantly white, working-class suburb, as an unequivocally black boy.
This parental decision was reinforced by Williams’ own choices. From reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the age of 7, he resolves never to be like the men who murdered Malcolm’s father — that is, white. This choice might seem absurd to most in America, but given Williams’ mixed heritage and relative shielding from the realities of race at that age, it is a clear act of self-definition.
Battle for an emerging identity
In decoding the stories that Williams tells about his early childhood, it is clear that he was simultaneously isolated from the black community and in desperate need of intimate contact with it. His parents unflinchingly affirmed his blackness, but in the predominantly white Fanwood there was no community or context to support that affirmation in nuanced and healthy ways. As a result, Williams was left with two towering models of blackness: Pappy and corporate hip-hop culture. These two giants, irreconcilable in the psyche of an adolescent Williams, were locked in a battle over control of his emerging identity.
Pappy was an honorable, bookish man, with a demeanor that was simultaneously stern and compassionate. When the younger Williams is in danger of being expelled from school for fighting, it is the impeccable conduct of the elder Williams, clad in business attire and with flawless diction, that ultimately gains him mercy.
Pappy embodies the kind personage that can often be found in older black gentlemen who were cut from the cloth of Southern black self-determination, Jim Crow cruelties, a hunger for knowledge, and a fiery intellect forged by the pragmatic necessity of surviving racism in America. It is in this triumphant experience of adaptive black masculinity that the true force of the affirmation “I think, therefore I am” can be found. Williams describes the labyrinth of books that his father installed in the family home. I picture a honeycomb of prose, history, and philosophy — a womb whose walls were fortified with ideas to nourish a young mind struggling to sort out the contradictions and uncertainties of being a black man in America.
On the other end of the spectrum was the ethereal image of the hip-hop “baller” beaming out of every television, radio, and CD player. Although virtual, these models of black manhood held sway over the young Williams, frequently eclipsing his father’s influence. The omnipresent visage of the black boy cum player/pimp/rap star was the most ubiquitous and enduring image of black male success in modern popular culture.
In Williams’ life, this fearless, ghetto fabulous black male was represented by RaShawn, a teen notorious for his prowess on the basketball court, occasional violence toward his white peers, and indifferent generosity toward the adoring younger black boys in the neighborhood. Rashawn seemed to demonstrate that if Williams could muster enough testosterone to maintain a fearless poise, his blackness would be without reproach.
A social and cultural critique?
Losing My Cool holds up well as a memoir, being a nearly flawless retelling of Williams’ experience. However, in the way of social and cultural critique, it promises more than it can deliver. While Williams’ prima facie critiques of the pathologies of popular rap music are beyond reproach, he fails to offer insight into the phenomenon beyond personal experience. He questions and critiques hip-hop culture, but fails to frame his experience in the larger historical, political, cultural, and economic context in which it belongs. He doesn’t examine, or even acknowledge, the schism between those who seek to maintain hip-hop social commentary and the producers of commercialized rap music, the popularized hip-hop hedonism to which Williams fell prey.
Whether Williams was unaware of such distinctions or dismissive of them is unclear. Either way, it is not surprising that as we follow him through his transition from rap acolyte to aspiring philosopher, his critique of his peers becomes more biting. On some fronts he has reason to criticize, but he fails in his choice to retreat from his former culture and peers instead of engaging them from a more reflective and compassionate perspective.
Being a graduate of a historically black university and knowing many Howard alumni, I find Williams’ qualitative account of black college life severely lacking. My sense is that in realizing that his embrace of blackness was little more than an act, he was unable to parse the indulgent flourishes of black life from the deeper, more nuanced realities that lie underneath.
Toward the end of his story, Williams reveals that he is no more a victim of hip-hop culture than his white dorm mates at Georgetown University. The façade that he donned in high school, he easily shed in college as he began to reimagine himself. In broadening his critique from corporate hip-hop culture to include nearly all of his black peers, Williams seems incapable of fully appreciating his own standpoint as a suburban African-American male who comes from a reasonably privileged background.
What Williams needs in order to truly offer an understanding of hip-hop culture, to his peers and himself, are not the musings of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky in exclusivity. A careful considering of the works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, W.E.B. DuBois, or numerous other black thinkers and writers would bring Williams’ critique into sharper relief.
I don’t offer these works as an alternative to the major Western philosophers, but as a necessary primer for understanding aspects of the black experience, and how Western philosophy is related to this experience without disparaging it. Williams might also have taken a moment to do a serious study of the evolution of hip-hop, noting its social, political, cultural, and economic contributions as well as its aberrations.
Williams sets up hip-hop culture as the ultimate boogeyman stalking young black psyches, offering himself, unflinchingly, as Exhibit A. But he didn't extend the critique to American society at large, which is also prone to promote crass consumerism and sexuality as a trivial affair. In the end, Williams’ combination of courageous self-examination and limited cultural critique makes the book a success, yet leaves this reader yearning for more.
Inye Wokoma is a filmmaker, photographer, and youth media arts instructor living in Seattle, Washington. Born in 1969, he came of age as a part of the first generation of hip-hop youth, many of whom embraced the culture as a creative expression of their social and political aspirations. The son of a Nigerian father and a mother active in the arena of black nationalist politics, he has always sought to view his world with clarity and critique through multiple lenses.
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