Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Losing My Cool is a compelling new memoir that exposes the dangers of hip-hop culture and celebrates the power of education over ignorance.
Growing up in Baltimore City, I know the hip-hop culture well. I was introduced to it at a young age by rappers like Ice Cube, Tupac, and NWA. It is its own self-contained entity, as present and real as a physical being. A driving force, it held me and many of my fellow Baltimoreans in its grip. And not just Baltimoreans; African American youth from all over the world have given themselves, body and soul, to the phenomenon without any consideration of its damaging effects. Freedom from it, however, is not impossible. Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture chronicles one man’s journey into and out of the shadows of hip-hop culture.
Author Thomas Chatterton Williams gives readers an intimate picture of a young man of mixed race (his mother was white, his father black). After being mistaken as Caucasian, he determines to prevent it from happening again by mimicking what he sees on Black Entertainment Television. This was the beginning of Williams’ desperate journey into hip-hop. The early pages of the book chronicle his introduction into the mindsets of the culture: the degradation of women and exaltation of money. He followed his role models perfectly, wearing expensive clothing and treating women like objects. Most of all, he played down his intelligence to fit the mold rappers like Notorious B.I.G and Dr. Dre cast for him.
At its heart, Williams’ story is a cautionary tale. Among the book’s more striking moments is one when he realizes that his fellow classmates know more about dead rappers than they do of historic black figures. It’s a moment he considers absurd, but not absurd enough for him to abandon his quest to live out what he considered the authentic African American image.
Williams lures readers into his journey with well-crafted sentences and smooth pacing, although be warned that his profanity mirrors the language of the culture, harsh and extreme. He masterfully selects the moments of his life that defined his experiences. He shares the painful realization of his limited knowledge of the world outside the culture while hanging out with a Caucasian fellow student at Georgetown University. And, while hanging out with an old girlfriend, he realizes how hip-hop isolates and fails to prepare its victims for the real world. He tells of others, friends and classmates, who never escaped the grip of the culture and how their lives turned for the worse.
It’s clear Williams draws a distinction between hip-hop as art (the music and wordplay) and hip-hop as a way of living. He is especially interested in the culture’s effects on young black people. “[T]his 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,” says Williams in. “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.”
Although Williams depicts hip-hop culture as a powerful force, his family relationships are portrayed as equally powerful. His father, in particular, plays a huge role in his transformation. Clarence Williams, affectionately called “Babe,” had an incredible affinity to books. The younger Williams shares his gradual realization that those books were potent tools, containing far more power than any rapper or entertainer could muster. Williams discovers a newfound freedom through his father’s massive personal library, reading authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nietzsche, and Descartes. He receives his liberation from hip-hop bondage and is introduced to a completely new paradigm of thinking. He sees that his priorities in life were skewed and that knowledge and intelligence are powers worthy to be pursued.
Williams, who went on to earn his bachelor’s from Georgetown and a master’s from New York University, tells of how he was persecuted for his intelligence in high school. His stories expose the prevalence of the very narrow definition of the African American experience and reveal how educated blacks are negatively perceived by those who are immersed in the culture of hip-hop. Most heartbreakingly, his journey illuminates how a spirit of self-hatred and willful ignorance has supplanted a spirit of dignity and purpose.
As I read Losing My Cool, I was struck again by the stark reality that education is not always looked upon favorably by a younger generation of African Americans. For my parent’s Baby Boomer generation, and subsequently mine, education was highly coveted. I can remember my parents stressing the importance of going to college. I remember their celebration when my one of my older sisters became the first member in our family to receive her degree.
Sadly, knowledge isn’t as highly valued today. Our urban communities are filled with under-resourced schools that produce students with dreadfully low reading scores and virtually nonexistent math and science skills. Consequently, acting cool has become far more important than using your brain.
College was a powerful catalyst for breaking a toxic culture’s hold on Williams. But after reading his memoir, my concern is that there are too many young people who may never have the opportunity for liberation that Williams did. Not just the opportunity to go to college, but the opportunity to experience something more than the world according to hip-hop culture.
Williams’ tale not only highlights the danger that comes when young people accept the values of hip-hop as truth, it also highlights the power of a father’s love and the power of knowledge. It offers the hopeful message that, with a resurgence of committed fathers and mothers, more young African Americans can be freed from the kind of damaging thinking that once afflicted Williams.