ESSAY

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


by Thomas Chatterton Williams


The Penguin Press | 24.95 | 225 pp

An essay by Fred Beauford


Surviving Rap


thomas chatterton williams photo

One of the most devastating attacks on so-called “hip-hop” culture I have read comes not from grumpy old black men like everyone’s favorite father, Bill Cosby, or from one of the most outspoken critics of rap, New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch, the self-described “hanging Judge,” but from someone who grew up with, and once had deeply embraced the culture, Thomas Chatterton Williams.

In the end, however, the crux of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, by the first time author , is not just about rap and hip-hop culture, whether Williams realizes it or not, but is also about his trying to define himself as someone from a mixed race family in a racial climate, that determined whether you were either black or white.

Losing My Cool is following in what is emerging as a distinctly American literary genre in its own right: the search for identity of mixed race Americans, especially African Americans. Williams is walking along a trail already blazed boldly by the outstanding One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets, by Bliss Broyard, Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish, James McBride’s impressive The Color of Water, and, of course, the most famous of them all, the outrageously popular best seller, Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, which not only made Barack Obama a very rich man, but quite possibly, helped elect him President of the United States.

Williams writes early on in his memoir: “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…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.”

But how does someone who is mixed race, and lives in a mainly white section of his town of Fanwood, New Jersey, become authentic, or keep it “real,” a word William’s often uses in this maiden effort?

“One day when I was around nine,” he writes, “my mother drove Clarence (his older brother) and me to Unisex Hair Creation, a black barbershop in a working-class section of Plainfield.” This is where he encounters a hostile black woman who resents them for driving a used Mercedes-Benz, calling them, “rich, white motherfuckers.”

His mother tells him to ignore her. But what he couldn’t ignore was the “fake wood-paneled color television suspended from the ceiling” in the barbershop. It was always fixed on one channel, Black Entertainment Television (BET), and the program Rap City was on each time he visited, and this fact changed his life.

He notes, “I don’t know…that I had ever noticed BET before, and in the strange, homogeneously black setting of Unisex Hair Creation…the sight of this all-black cable station mesmerized and awed me.”

“Watching BET felt cheap and even wrong on an intuitive level; 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 so luridly sexual, so gaudily decked out, so physically confident with an oh-I-wish-a-nigga-would air of defiance, so defensively assertive, I couldn’t pry my eyes away.

“…I knew for sure the other boys in the shop didn’t seem to question any of it, and I sensed that I shouldn’t either…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…over the weeks and months that followed, as I became more adept at mimicking and projecting blackness the BET way…what struck me most about this new behavior was how far it veered from my white classmates and friends at Holy Trinity.”

Two keys things were happening to the young Mr. Williams, and I have written extensively about both of them. In these very pages, I pointed out that I, too, had once been “mesmerized” by the culture young street blacks have now mesmerized the entire world with. And, like Williams, I gladly abandoned my white world and sunk myself deeply into this exciting world, so I know first hand where the young brother is coming from.

There was something else at work in Williams’ world that that did not exist in the world of my youth. In my youthful world, poor street blacks still had everyone’s attention, but others spoke for them, whether it was positive, or they wanted to ship them all back to Africa. They were just the voiceless faces, head bowed, being led away to jail in handcuffs each night on the local news.

The electronic revolution slowly, but surely, changed all of that.

In the youthful world Williams inhabited, text was no longer king, unlike the world I grew up in, as the relentless electronic revolution Samuel Morse launched on May 24, 1844, not only gave a voice to the so-called “Brother in the Street,” but amplified his voice to the extent that that voice had, in effect, drowned out the other black voices I heard growing up, like the soul touching lyricism of Langston Hughes, the sweet voices of the doo wop groups singing plaintively about love and longing, the sassy eloquence of James Baldwin, the profound intellectualism of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the almost cosmic idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead, the loudest voices Williams heard that were considered the most authentically black, were the harsh words of rappers. Those voices were about hoes, bitches, sex, guns, booze, drugs and the pitiless hardness of the thug life.

Niggers With Attitude, if you will.

And these young men soon became the envy of young men everywhere in the world, which is why they have made so much money for so many.

In keeping with the infamous Law of The Unintended Consequence, American slavery and the emasculation of the black male, had, in effect, liberated these young men from the constraints that fathers placed on young men everywhere.

There was no need to slay the father, because the father wasn’t there. Without fathers breathing down their horny little necks, these young men were able to act out in total abandonment, that which every hot-blooded young man in the world would love to do.

***

As the years went by, Williams became even more “Street,” as he finally moved to a school that had a large number of low-income black students. He learned to be hard, to consider young black girls bitches, as not something to love and protect, but something to use for sex and material gain.

Music, sports, how you dressed, and how you expressed yourself, ruled that world.

Yet something else also lurked powerfully in Williams’ background—Pappy. Pappy was a man from the south, who had refused to be emasculated, Not only did he have the nerve to marry a white woman, but he had earned a PhD, not because of America, but despite America, and had developed a deep, abiding love of books and education, and was determined to pass this on to his two sons, despite the loud noise of BET and the Streets.

Williams notes: ”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 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.”

In other words, throughout his high school years, Williams was living a double life: hardcore street on the outside, including once slapping around his girlfriend because she “disrespected” him, and his father’s dutiful son on the inside. One gets the sense from Losing My Cool that his father knew the inner turmoil that his youngest son was experiencing, and worried deeply about which side would win in the end.

It was only after a dismal first year at Georgetown University, while Williams still trying to have it both ways, that the eureka moment came, for on his summer break he really looked at all the books his father owned for the first time. “I had lived in the midst of written treasure for nineteen years somehow without ever having noticed it, I realized that summer, as if the books in our house used to be wrapped in invisible dust jackets or hidden behind mirrors…Startled friends would point them out to me when they came over, timidly, as if they thought Pappy was a sadist and this was his torture chamber.”

Part of this awakening came after he found out that his former girlfriend, Stacy, was pregnant. He asked her what the guy who knocked her up did for a living. “’Nigga, he sells crack!’ She shrieked.”

This sends his mind whirling. “I doubt I would have realized all this that night in the car, but it is true: In the sixty-three years between the moment when my smart grandmother had Pappy at seventeen, embarrassing her family and her church by doing so, and the moment when Stacy got pregnant at the turn of the millennium, becoming too cool for school and embarrassing no one, black life had changed in dramatic ways. Human and civil rights were in, hip-hop was in, nihilism was in, self-pity was in, the street was in, and pride and shame were out—two more cultural anachronisms confined to the African American dustbins of history, like jazz music and zoot suits.”

A bit of an overstatement, to be sure, brought on by great disappointment; but well said, and Williams goes back to Georgetown a changed man, meets a highly intelligent woman who is also of mixed race, and starts fully embracing smartness for the first time in his life, and does well.

Pappy had clearly beaten the streets, and this fact alone makes this book worth reading. I just wish he had given us more about his mother. Did she play any part in all of this, like James McBride’s memorable, fierce, larger than life Jewish mother in The Color of Water? By comparison, Williams’ mother is a mere shadow in this book.

***

Rap Moguls Russell Simmons and Sean Combs made millions, and Robert Johnson, founder of BET, became America’s first black billionaire, convincing young black men that the thug life was keeping it real. In the end, thanks to Pappy, Williams found out that this was a big lie designed to enrich a few by giving the youth of the world an easy, entertaining way to live out their fantasies.

Now that jails are filled with the young African American men the rap Moguls counseled, I hope they choke on their ill-gotten gains. When all is said and done, they have nothing to be proud of. I also hope by some slim chance they read Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture to see at what cost they made their princely fortunes.



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