Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture

As a teenager in suburban New Jersey with a black father and white mother, Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was named after an 18th-century English poet, thugged up and dumbed down his speech. He was “keeping it real,” as he saw it, in the hip-hop era. But thanks to his scholarly father, Williams, now 29, came to see hip-hop as self-destructive: “petty, limited, money-hoes-and-clothes obsessed.” Losing My Cool is a provocative, intellectual memoir. It ends with a plea “to stop confusing the shoes on our feet or the songs in our ears for ourselves.” — Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today

Into Williams’s childhood home-a one-story ranch house-his father crammed more books than the local library could hold. “Pappy” used some of these volumes to run an academic prep service; the rest he used in his unending pursuit of wisdom. His son’s pursuits were quite different-“money, hoes, and clothes.” The teenage Williams wore Medusa- faced Versace sunglasses and a hefty gold medallion, dumbed down and thugged up his speech, and did whatever else he could to fit into the intoxicating hip-hop culture that surrounded him. 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.

But Pappy, who grew up in the segregated South and hid in closets so he could read Aesop and Plato, had a different destiny in mind for his son. For years, Williams managed to juggle two disparate lifestyles- “keeping it real” in his friends’ eyes and studying for the SATs under his father’s strict tutelage. As college approached and the stakes of the thug lifestyle escalated, the revolving door between Williams’s street life and home life threatened to spin out of control. Ultimately, Williams would have to decide between hip-hop and his future. Would he choose “street dreams” or a radically different dream- the one Martin Luther King spoke of or the one Pappy held out to him now?

Williams is the first of his generation to measure the seductive power of hip-hop against its restrictive worldview, which ultimately leaves those who live it powerless. Losing My Cool portrays the allure and the danger of hip-hop culture like no book has before. Even more remarkably, Williams evokes the subtle salvation that literature offers and recounts with breathtaking clarity a burgeoning bond between father and son.

“Since the dawn of the hip-hop era in the 1970s, black people have become increasingly freer and freer as individuals, with a wider range of possibilities spread out before us now than at any time in our past. Yet the circumstances of our collective life have degenerated in direct contrast to this fact, with a more impoverished vision of what it means to be black today than ever before. If these exciting new circumstances we now find ourselves in, of which our president is the apotheosis, are to mean anything of lasting value, the zeitgeist… is going to have to change, too—permanently…

Will we, at long last, allow ourselves to abandon the instinct to self-sabotage and the narcissistic glorification of our own failure? Will the fact of daily exposure to a black president in turn expose once and for all the lie that is and always has been keeping it real?”
— Excerpted from the Epilogue (pgs. 213-214i)

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  • Mo the Educator

    Reply Reply June 1, 2010

    I can’t comment on this book or its content because I haven’t read it. I do believe, however, that the title presents a flawed premise.

    A mentor of mine began his master’s thesis with the sentence, “African Americans have inherited a nigger culture”. Provocative and inflammatory, the statement foreshadows the author’s contention that the self-destructive behaviors we propagate have their root in forced ignorance, Jim Crow , and the overall purposeful creation of Carter G. Woodson’s “second class citizen”.

    To conflate ‘Hip-Hop culture’ with the ‘nigger culture’ Dr. Davis described is a fatal error. The negative aspects of Hip-Hop culture are an amalgamation of regular American chauvinism, misogyny, capitalistic greed, and self-aggrandizing, filtered through the lens of urban Black males who have inherited that ‘nigger culture’. The problem occurs when we use this, the lowest common denominator of Hip-Hop culture, as a synonym for “young Black American male” culture. It’s myopic and it’s a convenient way to turn what has its roots in a very progressive and useful movement into a scapegoat for deleterious behaviors.

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