This book review is cross-posted on Reading Local: Portland.
Reading Local Portland Review: “Losing My Cool” by Thomas Chatterton Williams
By: Cara Holman
[ Losing My Cool | Thomas Chatterton Williams | Penguin Press| $24.95 ]
Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture began as a 1000 word op-ed essay Williams had to write for a class assignment when he was in grad school at NYU. The only requirement was that he take a strong stand about something he felt passionate about. When the essay was later picked up by The Washington Post, it generated a lot of both positive and negative feedback. That’s when Williams knew that he had more to say on the topic, and this book ensued.
Originally intended as an essay against what Williams “saw as the debasement of black culture in the hip-hop era”, he discovered in the course of writing that it turned into something quite different. By the time he was finished with the book, he discovered that it had become more personal, a tribute to his father, and hence the subtitle of this book.
Williams grew up in to the suburban neighborhood of Fanwood, New Jersey, to a white mother and a black father. His family lived on the white side of town, where Williams immediately felt out of place. He began to identify early on with the hip-hop culture which he discovered on Black Entertainment Television (BET). The first half of the book describes Williams attempt as a teen, to emulate the lifestyle of the rappers he admired, with the goal of “keeping it real”. Williams describes the world in which he tried to fit into, as one with an emphasis of conforming, by dressing and acting a certain way, disrespecting women, and dumbing down not just speech, but aspirations.
Countering the effect of hip-hop culture was his father, whom he called Pappy, a highly educated man with an extensive library who named his younger son after the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. Pappy exerted a strong influence on the teenaged Williams, encouraging him to read, study for the SATs, and live up to his name. Eventually Williams earned himself a spot at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., but it wasn’t until his sophomore year that he began to take school seriously, studying philosophy, and looking outside the narrow world he had boxed himself into. “For nineteen years,” he observes, “I had seldom ventured, mentally or physically, beyond the guarded borders of the only patria I really knew or cared for, which was the nation of hip-hop.”
Losing My Cool is all in one, a coming-of-age story, a tribute to a father who never gave up on his son, and a moralistic essay of why it’s so important for not just the black youth of our nation, but for any youth, not to be seduced by the destructive and debasing lifestyle glorified by rappers.