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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ESSAY

Holy Warriors—A Modern History of the Crusades

by Jonathan Phillips


Random House, New York | 2009

An essay by Jane M McCabe

holy warriors

I.

Failing to understand the crucial role the Crusades played in the development of Western civilization, we often disparage them, citing them as the foremost example of violence wrought in the name of religion. This argument is used to explain our distrust of organized religion. We see the Crusades as the time when European knights marched to wrest the Holy Land back into Christian hands. Whereas this is true, a rich tradition of crusading is part of our history.

A little more background is perhaps in order:

Christians have been at war with Muslims since the 7th Century—for 13 centuries! Prior to Mohammed (570 – 632 AD), the Holy Land was inhabited primarily by Christians. (The Jews became scattered throughout the world after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 90 AD, the Second Diaspora.) Since Christians consider Jesus the Messiah God’s final Revelation, they have never known what to make of Mohammed, nor his Revelation as recorded in the Koran.

Christianity and Islam have seemingly irreconcilable doctrinal differences, mostly over the concept of the Trinity, which Muslims deny, yet their origin is the same: all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—call Abraham their father. Crusades and Jihad can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. Each side refers to the other as “infidels,” or the unfaithful.

Jerusalem was among the first conquests (637 AD), as Muslim warriors swept through the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries following Mohammed’s death. By 711, they had entered Spain, controlling the Iberian Peninsula for the next 700 years before its “Reconquista” by Christians.

We refer to the 5th through the 13th Centuries as the Middle or Dark Ages. Before they were converted to Christianity, Europeans were a barbarous and superstitious lot, and Muslim Baghdad and Cordova, Spain, were the highest centers of learning in the world.

From the 11th through the 13th Centuries we have the Crusades. A great deal has been written about them, and while they were in progress, Christian and Muslim chroniclers wrote of them. With so many books already available, one might wonder, why another? Yet Random House chose this year to publish another book on the Crusades, Holy Warriors—A Modern History of the Crusades by Professor Jonathon Phillips, the Professor of Crusading History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an author of three previous books, as well as a main contributor to the History Channel’s 2005 series, “The Crusades: the Crescent and the Cross.”

Usually a scholar chooses to write on a subject already widely written about either because new information has become available, or because he sees the topic in a new way that he feels will illuminate the past and make it more relevant to modern times. In Professor Phillips’ case, unlike accounts that end with expulsion of the Christians from the Holy Land in 1291, Holy Warriors reexamines the conflict from its origins, through its expansion, decline and disappearance. Beyond the 15th Century, Phillips also discusses how the term “crusade” survived into the modern era and how its redefinition through romantic literature and the drive for colonial empires during the 19th Century gave it an energy and resonance that persists down to the alliance between Franco and the Catholic Church during the Spanish Civil War, right up to George W. Bush’s pious “war on terror,” thus making crusading relevant to our own times.

Nine hundred years ago, Pope Urban II triggered the First Crusade. On November 27, 1095, he urged the knights of France to regain Jerusalem from Muslim hands in return for spiritual rewards. “He told them, hugely exaggerating the truth, that a grave report had come from Jerusalem and that a race alien to God had invaded the land and had committed atrocities, so they must rescue it, to which the people shouted in unison, ‘Deus vult. Deus vult!’ ‘God wills it. God wills it!’”

On July 15th, 1099, four years later, crusaders stormed the walls and put its defenders to the sword to reclaim Christ’s city from Islam, one of the biggest bloodbaths in recorded history.

Thus began 300 years of crusading. There was not just one crusade; there were seven or eight or nine. Jerusalem was ruled by Christians until 1187 until the great Islamic leader Saladin, reclaimed Jerusalem following the terrible Battle of Hattin. Though it was briefly reclaimed by Frederick II, in 1229, for most of the next 600 years the Holy Land remained in Muslim hands until 1948, when the Jews drove the Arabs from Palestine and established the state of Israel. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople (founded by Constantine, in 325), the “queen of cities,” and seat of the Byzantine Empire, was captured by Muslims and renamed Istanbul. It has been a Muslim city ever since. This is one of history’s watershed dates.

In 1492, another important watershed date, (the same year that Columbus sailed for the new world under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand), the Moors were expelled from Granada, completing the Reconquista. Spain has remained Christian ever since. And so the map of the world remained drawn between Christian and Muslim lands for the next 500 years, until modern times when hostilities have been revived.

II.

Faith lies at the heart of “holy war.” “From a modern-day western perspective, extreme religious fervor is often synonymous with the fanaticism of minorities, but in the Europe of the central Middle Ages crusading was regarded as virtuous and positive, points out professor Phillips.” By the 13th Century, it was a badge of honor to have ancestors who had taken part in the early Crusades. Positively, crusading was instrumental in establishing our code of chivalry—bravery, honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice-- negatively, it led to the horrors of the Inquisition. Crusading history contains stories of heroism and feats of courage displayed on both sides.

The propaganda promoting the 1st Crusade used highly inflammatory images to provoke moral outrage. There had been no systematic persecution of Christians by Muslims in the Holy Land—Urban and his circle of advisors constructed a case whereby violence was justified against Muslims for the atrocities they allegedly had committed. The war between Christians and Muslims has thus always been fueled by misconceptions.

In truth, Emperor Alexius of Constantinople, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, had sent envoys to the Pope appealing for help in the struggle against the Muslims of Asia Minor. In the autumn of 1096, the main crusading armies set out on the 3,000-mile journey from northern Europe to Jerusalem. Sixty thousand people took part in the expedition. Members of the senior nobility provided its leadership—Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Count Stephen of Blois, Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles, and Bohemond of Taranto.

The crusaders stay in Constantinople was fraught with tensions, as there was a massive philosophical gulf between the native Greeks and the crusaders. Anna Comnena describes the Byzantines’ dismay toward the rough-hewn crusaders in “The Alexiad,” her account of her father’s life, the Emporer Alexis. Alexis hurried his fellow Christian crusaders across the Bosporus as quickly as possible.

On June 7, 1099, the crusaders reached Jerusalem, and unleashing a savagery and slaughter on an appalling scale, captured the city. The horror of this event has left an indelible stain on Muslim/Christian relations down through the centuries. Following the Battle of Ascalon, for the first time in 462 years the Holy Land was in Christian hands. Sad to say that in three hundred years of crusading, the first battle fought was the most successful.

The Franks set up four states in the Levant—the Kingdom of Jerusalem, county of Tripoli, principality of Antioch, and the county of Edessa. The history of the 88 years that Jerusalem was held by Christians is rich in lore—from the pious Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the sack of Jerusalem only to refuse the title of King, to Queen Melisende, one of history’s little known female monarchs, who continued to rule Jerusalem despite her male son’s claim to throne, and to the four Baldwin’s, who ruled down to Baldwin IV, the Leper King.

The first comingling of Christians and Muslims is of note, as a number of Christian crusaders settled in the Holy Land and made it their home. Muslim historians write of the Muslim disdain for Christians. They considered them uncivilized and thought themselves to be culturally superior.

Jihad was a part of Islamic faith from its foundation, but it took decades for it to inspire Muslims to cohere in sufficient numbers to expel the Christians. Finally, “one al-Sulami spoke from the carved pulpit (minbar) in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and used a Hadith to remind people that holy war was the duty of all Muslims. Echoing Urban’s appeal, he spoke: ‘May God hasten your waking up from the sleep of neglect.’”

The Battle of Hattin, mentioned above, provoked Pope Eugenius III and Bernard of Clairvaux to call for the 2nd Crusade (1189-92), a call to arms, to which the King of England, Richard the Lion-hearted, responded. The relationship between Richard and Saladin has been often written of, as both leaders were admirable, instilling respect for one another.

The Siege of Acre, which went on for several years before the Christians, under Richard’s heroic leadership, were able to hold onto their bit of territory left in the Middle East, is a story unto itself.

The crusaders who rallied themselves to partake in the 4th Crusade never made it to the Holy Land, but instead sacked Constantinople, in 1204, under the leadership of the aged and blind Doge Dandolo of Venice, another choice bit of crusading history.

The horror of the 5th Crusade, in which Crusaders never even left Europe, was the phenomenon that occurred when a more liberal element within a society turned against the more puritanical with a revenge—in this case, it was the traditional Catholics who turned against the Cathars, a Christian sect that opposed the economic boon brought by urban expansion and advocated a life of apostolic poverty and a return to a more simple life-style.

“These men and—crucially—women, renounced all property, vowed never to kill any human or warm-blooded beast, to consume no products of sexual intercourse such as meat, cheese, eggs, or milk, to tell no lies, and abstain completely from sex, which was the means of physical procreation and intrinsically evil…They rejected the Old Testament, the Eucharist, baptism, and only took the consolamentum—thus obtaining salvation—as they neared death.”

The reaction of the medieval church, which felt threatened, was harsh. They set out to eradicate this “heresy” in what is known as the Albigensian Crusade. We have an echo of this phenomenon in modern times, in the contempt that liberal society has for peoples of a fundamentalist persuasion

There were more crusades to follow, as crusading had evolved into warring against any people who had not accepted Christianity or who were perceived to pervert its creeds.

Frederick II of Germany, referred to as “Stupor Mundi,” the wonder of the world, briefly recovered Jerusalem in 1229. Having spent his childhood in southern Italy, where Muslim and Christian influences comingled, he spoke Arabic and was criticized for being sympathetic to Islam.

Then there was King Louis IX of France, a pious individual who dedicated his life to crusading. And yet I’ve said nothing about the Templars, the knightly order that came to the Holy Land and built stupendous castles, only to be brought to trial, accused of heresy and debauchery, and outlawed in the early 14th Century.

The 15th Century saw the sack of Constantinople in 1453, another heart wrenching story, and at the century’s end, the final blow to the Muslim control of Spain, when the Moors were expelled by Isabella and Ferdinand.

The reader by now must surmise that reading a comprehensive history of the crusades is an awesome enterprise. If one were to read only one history of this period, Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors is good choice, as Dr. Phillips writes with the kind of clarity and zest that makes reading history a pleasure

.

Crusading is part of our heritage. The third definition for “crusade” in my American Heritage Dictionary is “a vigorous concerted movement for a cause or against an abuse.” We see many such crusades in modern times.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.



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