Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Losing My Cool

I first encountered Thomas Chatterton Williams’ writing three years ago, in the London Review of Books, where he reviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best-selling memoir Between the World and Me with that rare mixture of sympathy and skepticism characteristic of the true critic, and I have been following his work ever since. His memoir Losing My Cool, first published eight years ago, describes his upbringing in New Jersey in the 1990s, and the dangerous allure of what he calls “hip-hop culture,” which is not merely a music or a style of dress but an attitude, a way of life – one that Williams comes to recognize as deeply limiting, even dangerous. It’s worth noting that I read the paperback version, where the subtitle is “Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd,” which I find infinitely superior – if less nakedly descriptive – than the hardcover’s subtitle: “How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture.” It was indeed Williams’ father, a remarkable autodidact with an expansive library and the kind of unshakeable dignity that can only come from having grown up in a pre-Civil Rights America, who helped rescue Thomas from the narrow horizons offered to him and his peers, and this memoir movingly describes the changing dynamic of their father-son relationship.

To the uninitiated, it’s difficult to overstate the ubiquity of hip-hop culture, and if that was true for my upbringing – as a white kid from the ‘burbs – it applies tenfold to young black men growing up in America’s urban areas. As Williams puts it:

The way the Puerto Rican kids I knew growing up learned to sway their hips back and forth, the way the Jewish kids learned to recite the Torah, the way the Irish and Italian kids learned to talk like casual bigots, the way the Chinese kids learned to obliterate their schoolwork, that was the way we black kids learned to imitate thugs and gangsters. Around non-blacks, this made us seem hard. Around other blacks, it just made us seem normal.

In practical terms, this means dressing a certain way – Air Force Ones, baggy pants, gold chains; speaking a certain way – profanity, slang, the idiom of the streets; and adopting a disdainful attitude towards everything deemed “inauthentically black,” including education. As always, there are rewards to conformity: Williams discovers his imitation of what is expected of him as a young black man garner him the respect of his community, and elicit an odd combination of fear and deference from his white classmates. But he also comes to realize that there is a cost as well: those same white people who look at him with awe are surprised when he does well on tests, or when they discover that he does not live in poverty, and his black peers begrudge him every betrayal of their shared identity, however trivial. Perhaps the most poisonous influence of hip-hop culture, as Williams tells it, is on the relationship between men and women, which becomes ludicrously antagonistic and mistrustful. The men are supposed to be macho, above effete displays of emotion and disdainful of commitment to any one woman, while the women are encouraged to be equally non-committal.

Money, hoes, and clothes, that’s all a brother knows; Fuck bitches, get money; Gs up, hoes down; All I’ve got for hoes is hard dick and bubble gum – this was the rhetoric that was drummed (literally) into our heads. It wasn’t the way my father felt about my mother. But Jay-Z told us straight up: We don’t love these hoes. Not if we’re going to be cool by his book. And on these matters we listened to him and those like him. If for some reason you did end up caring, as I hopelessly did for Stacey, well, that was something to be kept close to the chest. You got no respect – not even from the girls themselves – for wearing your feelings on your sleeve. We called the me-myself-and-I position that we adhered to many things; most commonly we called it pimpin’.

If this strikes you as a hopelessly limiting ideology, that’s because it is, and Williams witnesses – in himself and in his peers – the devastating consequences: the men who squander the opportunities before them, many of whom will resort to crime and end up killed or in jail; the women who stay in abusive relationships, or have children before they’ve graduated from high school. At bottom, it is a deeply nihilistic ideology, born of a very real despair – poverty, racial oppression, mass incarceration, early death – but whose only antidote to that suffering is acquisition: money, hoes, clothes, gold chains and fast cars.

Opposing this limiting vision of the good life is the life of the mind, offered to Williams by his father, a Ph.D in sociology with a lifelong passion for reading. He takes it upon himself to educate his son, concocting for him a reading regimen far more rigorous and ambitious than the one offered to him by his schools: from literature to philosophy, Greek tragedy to the Harlem Renaissance. Williams himself is even named after the 18th century English poet Thomas Chatterton, which suggests not only his father’s literacy but also the scope of his ambitions for his son. “You’re going to bring honor to his name, aren’t you?” Williams Senior tells his boy. “It’s very important that you do that, son.” And so, for much of his formative years, Williams leads a double life: playing basketball and hanging out with his friends, in the necessary disguise, and then returning home to read under his father’s tutelage, to prepare him for a very different kind of life. Losing My Cool describes the tensions of that double life, and the eventual victory of the life of the mind – the only life that can offer Williams an identity truly his own.