catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 3 :: 2011.02.11 — 2011.02.24


The lie of keeping it real

Thomas Chatterton Williams will turn 30 this year. And even in this golden age of memoirs, the fact that he has produced one documenting such a short and as yet little known life might seem to be the height of hubris. Williams did not set out to write out a memoir, though. He initially wanted to write a cultural critique, but the voices of his friends and family flowed into his mind and led him to lay open his own life in a very vulnerable way. What becomes clear by the end of the book, however, is that he did set out to write with a mission — a mission to chronicle the deadening effects that a certain strain of hip-hop has on young black men and women in America and to illuminate one pathway out of its grip. In so doing, he also chose to paint a rather large target on his back, a target of the same sort that others such as Bill Cosby chose for themselves when they issued their own critiques of aspects of black culture. As to whether he merits some of the arrows that have been flung at that target, and as to whether this book is indeed important or not, I am still of two minds.

If it is a dangerous thing for a black male to critique black culture, it may seem mere folly for me, a Pakistani-American male to be an adjudicator of Williams’ motivation and methodology for writing this book. Yet some of the very pages of Williams’ book embolden me to do so. As I will make clear by the end of this review, I, too, have some skin in the game.

In synopsis, the first part of Williams’ memoir traces his life as the son of a black father and white mother growing up in a white neighborhood in New Jersey and being sent to a Catholic high school with a mix of races. Two pivotal decisions, one by his parents and the other his own, set the table for this period of his life. First, Williams describes his parents’ choice, without any note of questioning here or later in the memoir of its, well, “black and white” nature.

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 physical 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.

As if in an attempt finally to seal the deal on this identity, to quash the criticism of the woman in the black neighborhood who curses him and his mother in their old Mercedes Benz for being white, Williams ups the ante and deliberately chooses a black thug identity. In fascinating piece of prose he describes this transformational grab for real, if dehumanizing, power after his first setting down of a white classmate who very easily could have called his bluff by either besting him physically or informing the teacher but instead submits to his alpha dog display. He concludes:

Those days, as I was learning to project a certain kind of blackness, I was also coming to understand that it is not simply a means of protection — it can be a real weapon, too. There is an undeniably seductive power that black boys who grow up around white boys and pay attention can exploit in the state of nature that is grade school and the playground. Of course, this kind of power is the power of Caliban, but as a child, I didn’t know that sort of thing. All I knew was this: If they, the white boys, found me, the black boy, credibly black enough, everything was gravy.

And, so, Williams sets out on a life with a hip-hop soundtrack, one which seems to both mirror and to create his reality of braggadocio and bluster and acts of threatened and actual violence and the treatment of women as “bitches and hoes.” [Note: Williams’ language, particularly dialog, in the two parts of his memoir mirrors his lived experience, and some of the vocabulary in the first half can be coarse and demeaning, as much as that in the latter half is elegantly uplifting.]  He also takes on the sartorial and aesthetic trappings of this lifestyle, with expensive clothing often purchased for him by his streetwise girlfriend.

However, while he is imbibing and embodying the world view of gangster rap or street culture, he and his good friend Charles are also spending their entire afternoons under the tutelage of his father and his 15,000 books, being schooled in the classics of Western literature and being prepared for college. Though his father is not happy with all of his choices and his lack of desire to learn, he consistently engages and challenges his son nonetheless. And for his part, remarkably, the young Williams manages to avoid any major collision of the two divergent parts of his existence, often being helped out of bad situations by his brother.

In the second act of his memoir, Williams describes his collegiate career at Georgetown and what can only be described as a personal renaissance. His renaissance does not begin until after his first year of college, though, as initially he simply seeks out the 2.0 version of his high school lifestyle in the black community at Georgetown. He does not begin to change until he, himself, after demeaning the girlfriend of a basketball player, is set down in the same way he had set down others before him and becomes a sort of social pariah. This break in fellowship with his community combines with a growing sense of unease at his lifestyle choices, and he is set on a path of interacting more with his non-black roommates and with international blacks, even as he maintains some friendships with black Americans.

Williams begins to believe that there are others ways of being black, ways in which he need not be ashamed of using the vocabulary or engaging the ideas so faithfully transmitted to him by his father. This is also paralleled by a willingness to try foods, music and other cultural artifacts, which he would have entirely mocked and dismissed earlier. More pointedly, he notes, the very act of the trial and appreciation of these new things was something his previous life would have entirely precluded: “That day, I realized I wanted more — to know more, taste more, see more, experience more. I was tired of trying to keep it real — real provincial — all the time. I dropped my guard, and the baguette, which we slathered with funky Brie and covered in fatty see-through-thin sheets of prosciutto di Parma, was delicious.”

And, so, William begins a journey of switching majors from economics (previously viewed as the quickest way to Wall Street and a high-rolling lifestyle respectable on the street) to philosophy. After one very formative summer in which he reads many of his father’s books, he returns to Georgetown with a completely different wardrobe — a cosmetic change, but one that reflects the profound revolution occurring in his thinking. After college, he makes the decision to leave the constraints, both externally and internally imposed, of American black culture altogether to spend a year in France, as other famous black intellectuals had done before him.  Finally, to complete the picture of his transformation, he also comes to have a much higher view of women and relationships as he dates an intriguing Nigerian-Italian woman.  He writes, “I was learning for the first time to treat a woman with respect, to approach her not as a sworn adversary, but as something more than that.”

Not only does Williams fully embrace these departures, but by end of the book his change of mindset leads him to turn the full bore of his intellectual cannon against hip-hop culture and its insidious effects, which he feels had imprisoned him from making these enriching choices much sooner. It is this spirited attack, and the fact that some of his luminaries and guides are dead white philosophers, which most seems to irk some of his critics. He is perceived, if I may be permitted the use of a rather provocative metaphor, as being a sort of “Uncle Thomas,” in providing a critique of black of culture which is destined to please and be championed by white people. In a very thought provoking, negative review with many good points, on his blog the Uppity Negro Network, JLL writes:

This type of writing makes hip hop palatable to white readers.  It reinforces every stereotype about black inner city youth.  I’m sure when his white friends whom he’s encountered at Georgetown will read this, that everything they ever thought about hip hop culture merely gets reinforced — reinforced to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of blacks across this country, let alone on a college campus.  Williams paints a false image that in order to be smart and black in this country one unequivocally must look a certain way and think a certain way — and that way is heavily influenced by western and Eurocentric ideals of ontology and existentialism.  To which I promptly and succinctly say, bullshit.

I think that Williams brings some of this criticism upon himself and perhaps deserves several of the arrows which are sticking in the target on his back. It does seem like at times he draws a correlation that is too direct and exclusive between hip-hop culture and lives which seem destined for defeat, without really considering in depth some of the other social factorsthat may have kept some of his friends with less diligent and loving parents from being able to escape difficult circumstances and succeed academically. Though I should hasten to add that Williams is very aware of his good fortune — his gratitude to his father and his understanding of his debt to him are evident on every page of this book.  

Against his critics, though, I believe that Williams does understand that hip-hop is truly a wide genre and can be quite life affirming in some of its manifestations, as he has asserted in several interviews.  I think his principal anger is against gangster rap and the street culture which it instigates. However, sometimes he seems merely to conflate this sort of rap with the entire genre of hip-hop — making the part stand in for the whole. This, perhaps, is a little sloppy reductionism, which may even be evidenced in the very choice of the subtitle for his book. Though, who knows, this well may have been more a decision of his publisher’s marketing department than his own. However, here is one example of a passage about the effects of hip-hop which might have been more carefully written:

One of the most fascinating paradoxes the student of black history ever 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. It is only very recently — basically within my brother’s life time, which is to say the three and a half decades of the hip-hop era or, roughly, the post-Civil rights era — that this has, in the main, ceased to be the case. In other words, it is only after affirmative action that black America has become so militantly provincial and wildly nihilistic.

This is an awful lot to lay at the feet of hip-hop music, and JLL’s critiques seem to bear some weight — black culture in 2011 is surely larger and more diverse than a simple hip-hop caricature and is vexed with problems having far more complicated sources.  And to his credit Williams does acknowledges this, though without delving into it with much depth, choosing instead to ask some important questions and then to return to a focus on his primary target, the negative impact of hip-hop values: 

Why when external limitations have been — and still are being — lifted do we frantically search for replacement constraints to bring down on ourselves? Is this, ultimately, what slavery’s residue tastes like? Is this the legacy of Jim Crow? Or is it, as some argue, that the black community simply fell apart with integration? Was it Crack? Was it AIDS? Is there an inherent bias in the nation’s criminal justice system? Is it all of the above….Perhaps it is the case, as many have claimed, that hip-hop culture is nothing but the logical outcome of the profound and alienating experiences so many blacks have had in the great American cities in the decades following the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps it is simply the result of all that disillusionment all those blacks and their children must have felt. Perhaps this is true. Be that as it may, though, are we bound now to keep the alienation and disillusionment going: are we bound to keep this culture that was born in negativity running in perpetuity?

In bringing this review toward its conclusion, hopefully, if nothing else, simply the number and quality of Williams’ quotes I have included will whet your appetite for the actual book itself, which I do believe is an important one, even with its faults, and well worth discussing. Ten dollars at Amazon or a free loan from your library will let join in on this important conversation.

As noted above, though, I did also say that I do have some skin in the game. I generally believe that all Americans do, as we consider the plight of individuals who are missing out on the numerous potential advantages which living in America can offer, be they people living in the inner cities of America or small towns, whether they listen to rap or country or Latin music. As this is a review of a book about the childhood of a black male influenced by rap, however, I also want to specifically dwell on some of the concerns Williams has for this segment of our population.

In my work as a librarian at an urban community college I have seen what Williams describes as a “sort of deep, serious pain I have only seen replicated in pictures of black faces of a certain age and demographic” on the faces of faculty and staff in meetings in which we are discussing the vexed questions of expectations for dress and behavior on our campus. I have heard the pain in their voices as they literally plead with others that we absolutely must hold up high standards and expectations even as we do our best to provide a supportive environment. They embody a painful longing and love for the betterment of black youth, which perhaps I cannot truly claim direct ownership of, but with which I certainly resonate and choose to align myself in action by whatever means appropriate.  

And in my own personal life, I keep a sharp eye on a boy who I tutor, who is an African immigrant and also a fellow churchman and friend.  He is like a beautiful Burundian princeling — the only boy in a constellation of luminous sisters, all watched over by two kind and careful parents. In just the past few weeks, I have noticed him beginning to wear his pants with a sag and to cock his Cardinals baseball cap in very telling ways. I have heard him and his sisters add constructions to their speech such as “fittin to” and “y’all.”  I hesitate to tell you how quickly and bluntly I responded to these cues, marshalling the help of our elder and good friend, Eddie, to reinforce the message, because my reaction might simply come across as racist and controlling, that I would choose to resist his acculturation to American society in this particular way but not in others. I hope I am not impelled by racism here, and I might agree that perhaps my cautions to him may have been a bit of an overreaction, but in a church community in which both black American and black immigrant children have gotten swallowed up in the violence and dissipation of street culture perhaps this might be excused a little.

Before I go on, I must add that lest the reader feel that I, too, am guilty of painting all black Americans of the hip-hop generations with the same brush, please let me say that I do not. The young black American students of my college, the members of my church, are too diverse and bright and interesting individuals to allow me to do that. They display musical and sartorial and intellectual tastes, in this increasingly mashed-up America, which cannot be contained by one label. And, yet, I do maintain with Williams that there are lifestyle choices and postures, which if held onto and practiced in our common public sphere without reflection or accommodation or irony will certainly hold people back, be these hardcore gangster or goth or grunge personas.

Finally, it is close attention to and persistent care of the young, especially the care provided by parents, which is the most important, though perhaps least surprising, message of Losing My Cool. Closely linked to this main theme of love is also the power of books in the home — a lot of books — which warms my heart as a librarian. In a 20-year, international study, researchers discovered that across cultures the number of books in a home is an even a better predictor of higher academic success by children than the educational level achieved by their parents.

Thomas Chatterton Williams did not simply have an average number of books in his home, he had 15,000; he did not simply have an average father, but an incredibly bright and persistent and loving one. And Williams is cognizant and thankful for every ounce of these blessings. In some of the most moving passages of his book he looks both backward and forward in gratitude.

In a startling passage, Williams’ father acknowledges that he has never been able to read simply for enjoyment, without copious underlining and note-taking, because for him reading has always been a necessity, a tool to get practical knowledge to make his life better. Williams humbly realizes his debt:

I realized that the only reason I was able to enjoy the books I read was precisely because Pappy hadn’t been able to enjoy those same books when he was my age. I felt ashamed at the pride that had come over me when Pappy had complimented my learning, as it struck me that all this was profoundly unfair — an accident of time, little else — and that I must owe my father something more than the professional status and superficial material well-being so many of my friends and classmates were chasing after. I owed him something else entirely.

Looking to the future, Williams sees black America standing at a cross-roads, a unique moment in history when “the most powerful man in the country is not white, he is black…the most visible black person in the world is not a thug or entertainer, he is a nuanced thinker.” And yet not even this man, whom he so rightly admires, is beyond the point of his hip-hop carving scalpel, as Williams recently took Obama to task in an op-ed piece for displaying a taste for and thus giving importance to several rappers who represent a “misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent” rap culture.  Williams hopes for something far better for black America in light of Obama’s incredible rise:

The more pressing question, though, is, How will this make subsequent generations of black people feel? Will such a twist in the American racial narrative prove powerful enough to alter the underlying laws that still govern day-to-day black life? 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?

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