Monday, August 9, 2010

Male Monday: Losing My Cool

Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip Hop Culture by Thomas Chatterton Williams 2010

IQ "It is more accurate to say, however, that the mood of black culture doesn't need to change into something wholly new so much as it must simply find a way to reclaim what it once had. One of the most fascinating paradoxes the student of black history every observes, as well as a tremendous justification for black pride, is the extent to which this culture, against all likelihood, has customarily embodied a joyful, soulful, affirming approach to life and not a spiritually bankrupt or self-defeating one. [...]In other words, it is only after the tremendous civil rights victories of the '60s, only after desegregation, only after affirmative action that black America has become so militantly provincial and nihilistic." pg. 214

Sorry about that long quote, but it's some great food for thought. It seems like almost every other sentence in this book makes you think. I looked within while I was reading this book because I love hip hop. I've mentioned this before, but I will use this review to elaborate a little further. I love hip hop artists for their wordplay, a truly clever line will make me laugh and/or will become my status on Facebook. I love to share these lines with everyone. Some examples of clever hip hop artists; b.o.b., Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z and Tupac. There are others but these are the first ones to come to my mind. I also like rap and hip hop for the great beats. Yes I know that many rapers are misogynists and yes their lyrics do bother me. And yet, I can't bring myself to give up this genre. I don't want to be disrespected, but I don't want to be at a party and have to listen to alternative/country/metal music that no one can dance to. I love rap/hip hop because I can dance to it, the clever lyrics are a bonus. Like many people (girls?) my age, I have conflicted views on rap/hip hop. While the author of Losing My Cool and I have some differences when it comes to our background (and age), we both have a sort of love/hate relationship with hip hop. Our reasons are both different and similar. Whoa this became a lot longer than I thought it would. On to the review....

Teenager Thomas Chatterton Williams is into being a playa, getting money, wearing the best clothes and listening to hip hop music. His father, Pappy, wants him to read more (he has plenty to chose from, his father owns 15, 000 books!) and work in pursuit of academic excellence. Williams wore whatever was considered cool at the time, "dumbed down and thugged up his speech" and worked hard to be a part of hip hop culture. "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." However, Pappy insists on Williams studying for the SATs and working hard academically everyday after school. Pappy grew up in the South (he read classic works of literature secretly) and he knows how important it is to have a good education, especially for Black people. Williams lives in two worlds; the world of hip hop and the world of Pappy. Set in the 1980s this is a memoir of Williams life until he graduates from college. It looks at the appeal of hip hop culture and the strong bond between a father and son. (Quotes in parenthesies are taken from the book jacket).

When you finish this book, you realize that it really is amazing that Williams went from "thug wannabe" to a graduate of Georgetown. The funny thing is, he continued trying to live the thug lifestyle when he first got to college. I don't want to give the whole book away, but I loved how candid Williams was about his journey from thug to gentleman (I'm not even sure if that's the right word). I've always understood why Black people imitate rappers. It's all about acceptance. No one wants to be called an oreo. But I never realized how far some people go in imitating the lifestyle rappers describe. In that regard, this book was eye opening. Williams touches upon many thoughts that I've had about certain aspects of black and hip hop culture (just far more eloquently!) but he also expresses sentiments that I've never really considered (see the Incredible Quote. I'd never really thought about how hip hop culture has ruined some of the victories of the Civil Rights movement, but it does make sense. Rappers are telling kids that you don't need to get an education to be successful in life. So much for Brown vs. Board of Education, Ruby Bridges, etc.). I would like to share an excellent quote in which Williams explains what being Black means. "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 physically 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." (pg. 5)

Aside from Williams thoughtful insights on race and hip hop culture, Pappy's story makes this book even better than it already is. He is an amazing father. He trusts his sons and he lets them make mistakes. He doesn't like Williams' girlfriend Stacy or a lot of his other friends who are so into hip hop culture, but he never forbids Williams to hang out with them. Instead he tries to counter their influence by having Williams study all year round. They work on math, reading comprehension, vocabulary, reasoning and analogies. I can't imagine being forced to study all year round (I need my summers off!) and yet, Pappy's sons turn out well (I'm not so sure I'm capable of getting into Georgetown). Through it all, Pappy is strict, but fair, for example, "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 ('studying is your job, and an honest day's work deserves an honest day's pay), intervening on our behalf when our 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." (pg. 13-14). I'm with Pappy 100%. We should get paid for studying, but then again he pays them because they study after school. He doesn't pay them for going to school. Pappy clearly loves his sons and its heartwarming to see. I do love a good story with a strong father present. Williams' mother isn't mentioned much and I would have liked to know a little bit more about her. Other than that, I loved learning about Williams, his brother Clarence and all their friends (especially Charles and Stacy). They remind me of people I know or that I have met oh so briefly. We need more Pappys in this world.

Losing My Cool is a triumphant story that will give readers hope that hip hop culture can be beaten. The author recognizes that hip hop culture is tied closely to black culture and he's never too negative of hip hop culture. There's a reason rap music is so popular and the author deftly explains why that is. His honest portrayal of his life experiences reward readers with valuable lessons and analysis. Williams is a great narrator. His story moves along quickly and his explanation about people and events never disrupts the flow of the story. At times I worried that he would never stop trying to be a thug, and that made his story all the more genuine. He certainly had me nodding my head in agreement. Because black culture is not just hip hop culture.

PS I believe that part of the idea of this book came from an article he wrote for the Washington Post, Black Culture Beyond Hip Hop. It's a fascinating article and the discussion in the comments are well worth reading as well.

Disclosure: Received from Kathy. Thank you so much Kathy!


  1. Did you see the author speak at the Harlem Book Fair? I was really impressed with what he had to say--thanks for this great review!

  2. Wow, where was this book when I was taking hip hop theater. I will definitely find this book and take the time to read it. I have a love/hate relationship with hip hop too. It's weird because most of my friends in high school were non-Black, so I had to hide my like of the genre. If you listened to my radio now, it would be a mix of Asian hip hop and American hip hop and pretty much nothing else. It just goes to show how powerful the genre is to see it embraced nearly halfway around the world.

  3. Yikes, this is an unfortunate typo! "Yes I know that many rapers are misogynists..." Yes, I'd say so :)

    I tease. This was an awesome post. This book sounds very informative. Hip hop in relation to black culture is something I've thought on a lot. I enjoy some (love B.o.B.!), but not all, and wonder at some of the lyrics.

    The argument you explain here about hip hop culture not really rolling back the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement actually reminds me of a lot of arguments against modern feminism. Just because some take it too far or take away the wrong message doesn't mean the original battle for rights and respect is completely undone. It's about finding balance.

    Great post!


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