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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Losing My Cool

It is always easier for an outsider to be objective about an unfamiliar culture than it is for someone totally immersed in that same culture, especially when strict conformity to the accepted norm of the culture serves as a means of survival within it. I recognize, however, that an outsider brings his own baggage and bias into any discussion about a culture foreign to his eyes. And when it comes to the hip-hop culture that so completely dominates overall black culture today, especially the lives of its younger members, I am absolutely an outsider. But, as such, I have long wondered how, and why, American blacks have allowed their culture and their image as a people to be disgraced by something as shallow and destructive as hip-hop. In Losing My Cool, Thomas Chatterton Williams explores how the hip-hop culture came to dominate Black America and what needs to be done to counter its terrible influence on young people.

As the subtitle to his book (How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture) indicates, Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of the lucky ones. It was a close call, but he saw through the false bravado of hip-hop before it was too late for him to make something of his life. Williams and his brother are the products of the marriage between a white woman from California and a black man from Galveston, Texas. The boys grew up in a New Jersey home in which their father stressed to them that learning is a skill that needs to be practiced each and every day. There were no days off for Thomas. His friends might be wasting their summers by posing as thugs on the streets and local basketball courts but Thomas was spending hours preparing for his next school year or prepping for the SAT examination.

His father, largely a self-educated man, led by example; the man practically devoured books. He did not just read them; he had conversations with them, leaving notes and underlined passages on practically every page he read. But for Thomas, as for everyone else he grew up with, hip-hop culture trumped whatever good influence he received at home from his parents. As he puts it, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. To survive, I drank in my community’s mores, including its fear of learning, even as I capitulated to my father’s seemingly eccentric will at home…had mastered the delicate balance of keeping it real and keeping Pappy satisfied at the same time.”

Even after the countless hours of study with his father paid off in a scholarship to Georgetown University, Thomas continued to immerse himself exclusively in the world of his fellow black students. He paid no attention to his white dormitory mates, skipped class as much as he attended it, and spent as much time as possible with the black students of Howard University, where he felt totally at home because its students were living exactly the debasing lifestyle he knew from high school.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, though, is a learner and, by his second year at Georgetown, he began to realize just how badly the hip-hop culture had cheated him and his peers out of the finer things of life. They had been compelled to embrace a dishonorable lifestyle, one with no dignity and no future. Thomas discarded a culture that promoted self-hatred, denigrated women, and ridiculed books and learning for his own vision of what a man should be. Thanks to Pappy’s influence, Thomas embraced the degree of non-conformity that allowed him to become the man his father always hoped he would become.

Losing My Cool is a frank look at what has gone wrong in Black America. Williams points his finger at the culprits - and he names them. Sadly, those who would most benefit from the lessons in Losing My Cool are the least likely to read the book, either because they cannot, or because they will not. Either way, that is a tragedy.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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