Book Review of “Losing My Cool: How A Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip Hop Culture” by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Earlier this week, my friend sent me a text and said “I found my new favorite writer. His name is Thomas Chatterton Williams.  His book is so well written I want to throw it.”  So immediately, upon such a wonderful review, I googled this brother’s name while on my phone driving (yes, I know what Oprah said, but when was the last time Oprah actually drove herself around on a regular basis) just to see who he was. I read his interview on Amazon underneath his premier book, a memoir entitled Losing My Cool: How A Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip Hop Culture.

Thomas Chatterton Williams writes a memoir that is clearly dedicated to the livelihood of his father.  He acknowledges his mixed race (his father black and his mother white), however he’s aware that his parents made the conscious decision to raise him and his five years elder brother as indeed black.  His father was in possession of a earned Ph.D. and took it upon himself to give evening lessons with Thomas from an early age.  It is at this early age, third grade, that we begin the journey with the author until his college graduation.  Through a supreme command of the English language, one that I have not read in a long time, Williams navigates the dichotomy of his life at home with “Pappy” (his father) and how he has ingested hip hop as a culture.

Aside from his predilection toward basketball as he described, I was for the most part endeared to his life story through high school because it seemed identifiable.  He grew up in a decent neighborhood, but his folks weren’t rich. Check. We’re only three years apart, so high school experiences were more than recognizable. Check. He was enthralled with the aesthetics of hip hop culture: the clothes, the language, the music and even the philosophies associated with it. Check.  Granted me and him diverged on a social life, part of which I’m sure was from a lack of a religious influence that I certainly had, but still, his story made enough sense to me.

Then somewhere, when he made the transition from high school to college, the reader would notice a marked shift in the tone of the author.  The educational history of Williams had him in all white Catholic elementary school, all black Catholic high school which landed him on the campus of Georgetown for college. It was at this juncture in the reading that it seemed that Williams shifted from racial uplift to some phantasmagoric form of racial self-hate.  This self-hate has its genesis in this now seemingly and almost personified character of “hip hop” which I italicize because the hip hop that Williams writes about is not the hip hop I am familiar with.

“Hip Hop” for Williams is the enemy within the gates. Although Williams has walked, talked, dined with, had sex with, bragged about, fought with, and fought for, Williams fails to truly engage hip hop culture in the context of this book.  While I certainly welcome an opposing view when it comes to the table of discussion, such an inability to dialogue with hip hop was more than a disappointment.  The correlation of “hip hop” to the failures of his various characters in the book, from RaShawn to his ex-girlfriend Stacey or even to Ant was absolutely abysmal.  He operated from stereotypes that did nothing but produce more stereotypes.

For Williams hip hop culture was not embodied in the classic black love movies, the premier being “Love Jones” or even “Love and Basketball” or even the more cult classic “Brown Sugar.”  No, for Williams “hip hop” existed in the philosophies emoted by Biggie and Jay-Z whom he quoted song lyrics from the most and possibly in the gangsta movies such as “Menace II Society” and “Juice” which played up the drugs and the violence and the utter mistreatment of women.  The indomitable irony is that “hip hop” (with the italics) was black life.

For the remainder of the book, he failed to encounter one single, solitary black African American (read: black person who’s descended from slaves in the United States) who was highlighted in a totally positive light.  I felt the shift come as he spoke of Georgetown’s campus and I felt that if Williams had his “come to Jesus” moment while on the campus of Georgetown, I was not going to be able to take him seriously.  And of course, this is how Williams describes the blacks on Georgetown campus as the following:

The black world at Georgetown was only a microcosm of the wider black world outside of the gates, I discovered, but it was a world all the same, and governed by its own rules and language, its own kings and queens, nobles and serfs.  In many ways it was the negative of the surrounding white social order (a white order the likes of which I surely hadn’t seen before): at the top of the obsidian pyramid were the students who remained closest to the street or on whom the scent of show business was most detectable.  In roughly descending order this black Brahmin caste comprised of (a) the men’s basketball team (especially those members who came from legitimate ghettos and who put the “athlete” in student-athlete) (b) the alpha females who hung out with, fought over, and fucked the men’s basketball team, (c) the blossoming R&B singer Amerie and some of her friends (once it became clear she had a recording contract), (d) certain members of the football team (you can’t name a single NFL player from Georgetown), (e) one of two members of the track team (track is almost never televised) and (f) the truly thugged out non-athletes for whom affirmative action was either a godsend or a Sisyphean curse.

At the bottom of the heap were those–mostly males–who didn’t rap or sing, who didn’t walk and talk like they slung crack rock, who didn’t have a wicked jump shot.  Which is the same as saying, at the bottom of the pile were those of us who most resembled college students.”

It was after I read that, in the middle of a paragraph, I underlined ” college students” and wrote in the margins so college students can only fit a certain mold and for the duration of the second half of the book I became with the most insipid barrage of racial and cultural stereotypes that I had ever read in a long time.

Please understand, I’m not speaking in hyperbole.  After the next couple of pages when Williams decided to venture into the Shaw neighborhood where Howard University was, he wrote most ignobly that

“…This was no longer the place Thurgood Marshall studied law; this was the place where Sean Combs became Puff Daddy…I used to get the same feeling going to Howard that I got on trips to Plainfield or Newark as a child: It was bad.  You had the vague sense that you were doing something bad when you were there, and that could be exhilirating.  I am sure there is still a serious side to Howard, but I did not see it…I saw a giant masquerade ball, a gangsta party where middle class college kids–the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyer from suburban enclaves outside Atlanta and Chicago (north side)–as if just to prove that they were not middle class, mingled and flirted witht he street and everyone got dressed up as thugs and hustlers and hoes.  And this vision corresponded neatly with the images I saw on television and in the DC clubs, with the way my friends got down back in Jersey, witht he way the faux-thugs and athletes carried themselves at Georgetown.  This was real.” [emphasis added]

Somewhere, in a place I’m sure Williams does not want to touch anytime soon, he’ll have to come to grips with his own warped point of view.  Generally I shy away from making such bold declarations because they go against my own postmodern proclivities that I’ve blogged so heavily about in the past.  However, in Williams case, I must make an exception.

I find it highly problematic that throughout the book Williams has no qualms about problematizing the entire hip hop culture with one broad brush as if to be totally ignorant of it nuances.  I certainly do not make the claim that I am some hip hop expert, nor a stalwart hip hop apologist, but, I do believe that like any other culture, there are levels of immersion in which one is a part of a certain culture.  Williams seems to be wholly ignorant, consciously or not, of the fact that all young blacks are not a part of the hip hop culture.  Aside from completely dismissing Howard University as an institute of higher learning (and for me, taking a swipe at the institution of HBCUs as a whole and getting facts wrong about Howard students being from the North Side of Chicago when I’d be willing to bet a year’s salary that South Siders by far outnumber North Siders), Williams disdain for hip hop culture came off as a disdain for black American life.

I do not know if that was his intent, but it is certainly the tone his writing began to take once he began his collegiate life.  Once he made the decision to be a philosophy major and got introduced to the likes of Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, he began to rationalize away that which hip hop had deposited into him.  Now, as me and The Critical Cleric had discussed, and as I said in my blog a few days prior, there are some definitely anti-intellectual strands of hip hop, however, to forsake the cultural wealth that is hip hop culture  by a) looking through the lens of white, homogenous, western philosophy to critique and b) equating ALL of young black culture with all of the negative aspects of hip hop culture is the epitome of myopia that is systemic of unbridled elitism that does more damage to the race you claim is in need of a reclaiming of the “discipline and the spirit we have lost.”

For Williams, as he stated in the epilogue that “more than thirty years the black world has revolved around the inventors of hip hop values, and this has been a decisive step backwards.”  But, this reeks of the conservative mindset that rests in the notions of personal agency and personal responsibility but do not at all address systemic issues at play.  For the entire book, Williams appears to leave underdeveloped characters as memorials to failures in the black community as a direct result of hip hop.  Let me be clear, while well-written, his book flops as a serious cultural critique of young black American life because of his insistence on operating from stereotypes on hip hop culture as a dominant paradigm.

Frankly, as a young black male who is a product of an HBCU, I vacillated between being personally insulted and angered by his aloofness of black culture.  I think Williams suffers from an undiagnosed identity crisis.  His struggle to maintain friends back home once he went away to college is a battle that many young adults face when going to college irrespective of race–how do you handle your friends back home, especially when you have begun to spend the semesters away at school and only a couple of weeks back home.  It seems disingenuous that Williams discounted all of the American blacks at Georgetown for his ethnic African friends and now white friends.  Perhaps simple on my part, but it seems to me that Williams had no problem engaging in unwarranted elitism just to prove a personal point about “hip hop”; it became a self-serving self-prophecy.

Again, while well written, I take with a grain of salt a black person who uses Martin Hedegger and Shelby Steele as a preeminent lens to critique meta-black culture and in turn the hip hop culture, while admitting that James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines and Edward P. Jones were just a name to him.  And this grain of salt is so large that it will immediately give me hypertension.  This western philosophy rooted in the rational thought process that promotes cogito ergo sum as the zenith of philosophical understanding at times fails radically when discussing the history of blacks here in this country.  Williams offers a glimpse into race head on when his father and brother have a violent run-in with the local suburban cops, but still allows that incident to be one amongst the family and not at all an existence for hundreds if not thousands of other blacks across the country.  While he allowed for the history of racism in this country to factor into how he felt about the situations, and even more so how his father’s run-ins with racism 1950s style affected him, he still relegated that experience to his father and no one else.

Williams failure to address institutional racism left the notions raised with regards to hip hop culture in a rhetorical vacuum.  When he published his article in a newspaper about why black students decided to self-segregate themselves, thanks to Hedegger, he placed the sheer onus of blacks participating in the chess club or other groups such as the Skeptics Society without giving any nod to even the possibility of how they may have been treated in the past which lead them to create their own groups.  Honestly, did he even actively try and recruit any black students to join the club.  The premise of that argument was about as absurd as in 2008 whilst riding the Green Line in DC when our team leader, four days into my internship, asked me, the only black in the group and on a train where they were the only whites, as loud as conversationally possible “So can white people enroll up at Howard University?”

Williams projects an intellectual elitism that is hard to wade through.  The intellectual elitism is not evident in his command of the English language, nor his ability to be aware of 19th and 20th century philosophers that helped shaped modern western society into the behemoth that it is today, but rather it is evident in his selection of point of view as the only enlightened one.

By all accounts, I cannot support that.

According to his memoirs, aside from his childhood friend Charles, Williams is criticizing from the Ivory Tower, and that’s never helped out the masses.  The masses need to know that you’re in the trench with them and understand their struggle.  Ivory Tower talk is fine for other residents of the Ivory Tower, because you can use all of your big words and not feel bad, but when one begins disseminating abstract thoughts about existentialism, let alone from “some dead white guy” the battle is already lost.

If you still choose to buy this book, don’t expect some breath of fresh air on behalf of a young black budding intellectual.  It comes off as something classical from an era long gone by.  If it wasn’t for knowing it was a memoir, it reads similar to Catcher In The Rye evidence of a post-World War II haze.  I’m sure this due to his father born in 1937 and a full 53 years older than the author.  I push this because this book comes off as refreshing and new for a certain segment of older blacks who choose to read it, and this book is sanitary and clean for white readers of all ages who I’m sure he’ll be endeared to.

Let me push it since I’m out there already.

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 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.

Nevertheless, I refuse to be a hater.  This is still a young black man doing the damn thing.  I may not at all agree with the thrust of what he said, but he still yet another voice at the table.  And if nothing else, this is a young black man who values his father.  A father who sacrificed for him and had enough of a vision to see something for his progeny and a testament to a black man who survived despite the odds.

However, I must conclude by noting that the Brobdingnagian irony is that his parents were intent on raising him as black, but with all non-black friends now, I wonder how does the rest of the world see him.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

For further information on the author:

The Chatterton Review

(three photos were taken from The Chatterton Review website that were in full and free display to the public, to give credit where credit is due)


19 thoughts on “Book Review of “Losing My Cool: How A Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip Hop Culture” by Thomas Chatterton Williams

  1. However, I must conclude by noting that the Brobdingnagian irony is that his parents were intent on raising him as black, but with all non-black friends now, I wonder how does the rest of the world see him?

    Probably as part of the Black Anglo-Saxons?

    Memoirs are by nature someone else’s story told through a highly complex and quite personal cultural veil. Kudos to his father (and mother) for fighting the good fight and encouraging Thomas and his brother to strive for excellence. I will most likely read the book when I make time to do so.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the book review. Keep reading and writing. And, keep on keeping it uppity.

  2. Whenever I get the time, I’ll take a look at the book. But for now my observations are limited to what I have in front of me. The words below may seem wrong, and they may make me sound like I’m “hating”, to an extent. But I think parsing my words and holding back just aren’t gonna cut it. Not this time.

    Firstly, I wonder how his outlook on life and black culture in general would look if he were raised by a black mother and a white father. To me, it seems that white mothers have a tendency to gift their mixed offspring a touch of self-hatred. I see where his father tried to give him something of a black upbringing, but I personally feel that a black mother would have more success at keeping him “in perspective”. Combine that self-hate with a glass-half-empty look on black culture that borders on disdain. Hence the author’s psychological flight from what he deems to be a failed culture, searching for acceptance within some avant-garde multicultural construct — one that could just as easily evaporate given the right circumstances.

    I also wonder if his negative views of HBCUs and the campus life therein was shaped because he just couldn’t fit in with most of the campus groups, was dismissed by the ladies because he was too lightskinned, too intellectual and not an avid participant of popular black sports, or because he chose not to mix and mingle with what he saw was a substandard collection of folks, preferring to be around his white and African compatriots. I had a couple of those problems back in college — non-athletic, intelligent, not fitting into the most common molds — instead of chasing things that didn’t fit me, I met people who shared the same interests as I had and even ending up associating with plenty of other people in the more “popular
    areas of campus life as well. Did he make any effort in doing that?

    And then he makes the same mistake that plenty of non blacks make when viewing black culture — thinking that because a group of blacks act one way, it means that they all act that way. Worse still, he seems to make little to no effort at challenging his own prejudices. That’s right. I said “prejudices”. His behavior is indicative of that practiced by most white Americans, except that as a “high yellow”, whites around him will still do to him what he’s done to other blacks — take pains in lumping him in the same group as those he lumps. At some point, he might get that “Nigga Check” in some form or another.

    1. @MackLyons

      I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of the whole HBCU conversation, but to really push it, out of ALL of the HBCUs that I’m familiar with, Howard is among the MOST diverse of HBCUs. From having internationals, to having the prestige, having the money, having the resources etc. And based on my own experiences, they were plenty of students at HBCUs who grew up in white suburban enclaves who had to navigate the uncharted territory of all black educational settings–its more than possible. I just didn’t get the impression he was at all interested.

      That’s an interesting observation concerning the black father and white mother outlook. I do consciously remember that at my high school (an almost perfect ad mixture of Latinos, black, Asians and whites evenly divided) that there was a set of biracial twins who were being primarily raised by their black father, but it was evident easily by the end of freshman year that they almost disdained the black kids at school–and of course those same feelings were thrown right back at them. As far as both sides were concerned, I’m sure every stereotype was enforced.

  3. Between your review of the book and checking out Williams’ website (I wanted to see how old he was), my main impression is that his view of hip hop culture is very narrow. He is concerned about people considering trivial matters over all else, and seems to think that hip hop is riddled with triviality. Some of his criticisms of hip hop may be legitimate, but to dismiss an entire culture because it has been popularized and commercialized is to disregard the roots of hip hop and the uniqueness of the experience and expression it represents.

    I was curious as to his age (not listed on the website) because of his regard for Heidegger and other rationalist philosophers. So many young philosophers become enamored of Heidegger and Nietzsche because as young people, we tend to be more self-centered and want clear answers, which rationalist thinkers provide. I prefer to move forward with later 20th-century thinkers, like Levinas and Habermas, who would both appreciate the otherness of hip hop culture, and its interaction in the public sphere. I think that even the basest expressions within hip hop allow for the messiness of life to exist and be talked about in community. It may be individual expression or group expression, but it is intended to be viewed and shared with others, for praise, challenge, discussion and criticism.

    As a white, middle-class woman in her 30’s, my view of hip hop may be different than those who find themselves in the middle of that culture, whether black, asian, hispanic, white or mixed, rich or poor, but I would gently push back on your categorization of the white view of hip hop being represented and reinforced by Williams. I may not always completely understand various expressions within hip hop, any more than some of the rural Oklahoma church congregations may understand my generally northern, citified experience or expressions. The important thing is that we don’t have to understand another culture in order to let it speak to us. Williams is indeed prejudiced about a culture from which he seems to feel rejected, and that may change over time as he discovers that categorizing life strips it of truth and beauty that exists of the messiness that cannot be neatly named or labeled.

    My own experience of hip hop is very different, and not merely because I am white, since Williams and I probably have had a similar upbringing and life experience. Rather, I think it is because my parents set an excellent example of being open to the other (as each of us is other) and then perhaps because of my involvement in the Seattle music community, which has a healthy and growing hip hop scene that is not anti-intellectual.

    It is also important to distinguish criticism of particular negative aspects (self- or other-destructive behavior) of any personal or cultural expression from dismissal of an entire body of expression. Also, Williams needs to go find a sense of humor. Yes, life is serious, but life is also trivial. Perhaps he should read (or re-read) Ecclesiastes, which deals with this existential struggle in a much more profound way. We are both like the grass, which withers and fades, and unique creations of God, imbued with life, intelligence, responsibility and freedom. In order to deal with all of that, in making us in God’s own image, we were also granted with a rich sense of humor, that not everything matters existentially and even the existential can be funny.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    1. @megateer

      Well said.

      Even if we don’t understand culture, doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad.

  4. Okay, Mr. T. Chatterton Williams’ book was a “BIG” disappointment which leads me to admit that I gave him more credit than I should have. I guess I try to take a continual posture of supporting young brothers who are making literary, rhetorical, and/or sermonic intellectual contributions because often their works are not celebrated by their peers. But this is no excuse because as I previously stated the “book was a BIG disappointment,” for all the reasons you stated in this review and a few more. Honestly, I read a couple of his articles and found them insightful, entertaining, provocative and well-written and the first part of his book was no different. However, as you clearly state he turned a corner in the book at a certain point and I never recovered!

    Having stated this, I don’t think that T. Chatterton Williams or his book should be written off as useless and not relevant to so-called black culture. As much as it may pain many of us, Chatterton Williams represents a certain strand of black life that should be heard and analyzed with the same nuance and complexity that you commend Williams should display in his criticism of hip hop culture.

    But as someone who takes cultural criticism seriously, I must say, Williams’ poor assessment and critique REALLY bothers me. So much so, that I must ask you (the Uppity Negro) to remove my high endorsement of Williams from the beginning of your blog post. Having read the entire book, I can only recommend this book, but not celebrate it!!! Thanks–Great Review

    1. @ The Critical Cleric

      Your comment acts as a “retraction” of the high endorsement at the beginning, seeing as how you admit it was premature.

      And since this author did take the time to respond to me on Twitter and was QUITE gracious in his response on Twitter, I think it speaks to his character (or at least just good PR), and perhaps he’d be the type who would be willing to sit and have a discussion about such topics and at the end of the day, that’s about all I can really ask and hope for.

  5. The book review was longer than the book. I read the book and felt a strong sense of self hatred, and the act of destroying what he did not understand. I hate the notion that intellectualism is only relegated to whites or uppity Negroes trained through formal education. These institutions were not formed to educate but to simply train. I am tired of trained Negroes we need some folk who are truly educated in who they are and where they came from. Further more they need to be educated about the past so they cab survive in the present, in order to teach the future.

  6. This question may be something more suited to an email, since it’s kind of a hard left swerve on a comments forum, but I’m going to shoot for it anyway.
    Awkward though it may be, I’m going to ask a question that may well read as “How do you say the alphabet?” or even, possibly, “What does the word ‘is’ mean?” I hope you’ll bear with me. Here it is:

    What is hip-hop culture?

    Yes, I’m actually asking that.

    You can see what I mean by the “what does ‘is’ mean” analogy—I don’t know if asking that is like asking a fish to explain water or what. There are certainly things that are so woven into the very fabric of who I am as a person, that I couldn’t even assemble the words to describe them. I assume this to be true for everyone. Or not. I don’t know.

    What does “hip-hop culture” actually mean, at least to you? What is it about? What are the philosophies you allude to? What is being celebrated?

    It’s a simple question that does not have a simple answer.

    Is this ignorance? Certainly. No claim otherwise.
    So moving on from that.

    1. @Marbles

      People disagree, and I’m sure someone could come through and say my answer is all the way wrong, but this is what hip hop is to me.

      Hip Hop culture is just that–a culture. Just like every other sub-culture birthed uniquely out of the American experience. From the Harlem Renaissance culture to the hipsters (hence the Hip movement which gave rise to hip hop, hint hint) from Beatniks to Hippies, and even to a sub-culture that doesn’t have a set name attached to it that gets recognized a lot. So hip hop culture is the music, the clothes, the mindset, the speech patterns–its a way of life as with any culture.

      Mainstream media has just done a good job of pointing toward hip hop as being solely entangled with the musical aspects and from there resulting in all of the negative imagery that we see plastered on nightly and national news programs. All I can say is that it’s bigger than that.

      1. You actually brushed by the real answer I’m looking for when you mentioned “the mindset” in that list of other, more surface things, like clothes and speech patterns.
        That’s the thing I don’t understand. What IS the mindset? At least as you see it.

        Part of my inability to wrap my head around this comes of course from being in the low-melanin majority (the ones who aren’t being talked about in that “more white people buy rap than black people” statistic), but also from the fact that personally, I’ve never felt a part of any movement, culture or mindset. There are certain cultures I suppose I could say I superficially belong to, but I’ve never felt like I’m really on the inside. Partly comes from a distrust of cliques, I suppose. So I have trouble relating to the concept of having a “mindset” that’s shared by others within a culture/subculture.

        (Except, of course, when my American values/conditioning are confronted with something else. My Kuwaiti roommate at school, for instance, made me aware of certain values I took for granted that were strange to him, ones that he designated as belonging to a uniquely American mindset. So I shouldn’t say I’m ENTIRELY unfamiliar with the concept. Still.)

      2. @Marbles

        Notwithstanding your rejection of an ephemeral understanding of culture, I was trying my best to not dismiss the question as moot on the basis of some warped understanding of American superiority. But since you were transparent enough to disclose your POV, the best thing that I could say to get you to ask it is ask do you ask those same questions when you walk down the street in an Italian neighborhood, a Puerto Rican one, a Russian one or any other ethnic group? All of those things that you automatically assign to stereotypical Italian families or Puerto Rican families applies here. Yes, there are exceptions to EVERY rule when it comes to culture, but there are some basic and general precepts that persons of an ethnic background follow.

        I’m not about to sit up here and give a list of benchmarks that are associated with a hip hop mindset because it varies from city to city and from region to region. I guarantee asking someone what hip hop is in Atlanta versus New York or Chicago and you’ll get a different response and certainly compared to people out in Cali.

        Now if that doesn’t help, then indeed your issue is really with the meta-concept of culture in general regardless of ethnicity and nationality—which is equally as valid. I certainly don’t have a problem if you feel that way. Just usually the problem arises when blacks feel that they are forced into a corner having to defend hip hop culture which feels much like our black intellectual predecessors (think W.E.B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier and C. Eric Lincoln) who were forced to have to defend academically black Americans as having a unique culture to the wider American culture. It just seems like the same meme recycled simply because the questions come off as tho blacks have a culture that must be studied—you never hear about Italian Americans being studied, or Russian immigrants in the new world. So much so that it seems CNN has a fetish now with black culture.

        It’s mildly irritating.

  7. “I was trying my best to not dismiss the question as moot on the basis of some warped understanding of American superiority. But since you were transparent enough to disclose your POV….”

    Actually, no. That’s not the kind of exchange it was, although I guess my wording was vague enough to be interpreted that way. Specifically, my Kuwaiti roommate brought up (I can’t remember what prompted it) the concept that “everyone is special,” which of course since the ’70s or so has been the mantra our children are taught by the media/schools, etc. He said it was a strange idea to him, and something he’d never encountered except in America. “It’s an American thing,” he said. I HAD dissected the concept in my own head before that conversation, but its “American-ness” simply hadn’t occurred to me.
    That’s what it was. It wasn’t wasn’t coming from a place of superiority, although I did feel the need to defend the concept somewhat.

    “…do you ask those same questions when you walk down the street in an Italian neighborhood, a Puerto Rican one, a Russian one or any other ethnic group?”

    Not in the same way. Because my assumption was that the equation “hip-hop = Black American” is loaded with all kinds of fail. I know it’s ludicrous to assume that one cultural marker defines any ethnic subset of Americans, so I didn’t assume it about blacks either. “Rock culture” certainly didn’t define “White Americans.” (and by the way, I couldn’t begin to tell you what that one “means,” either.)

    Hip-hop culture, whatever that means to different people, has reshaped all of American culture, and much of world culture as well. Your review of this book, and the way it speaks about hip-hop culture, is the latest thing to remind me that I don’t have the mental tools to grasp just WHAT is being talked about in the first place.

    I understand what you (and many others) have said about the whole “something that must be studied” thing, since it’s dehumanizing at worst and belitting of your own American-ness at best. Unfortunately, people don’t know what they don’t know, because there are many two-way streets where neither lane has much traffic. Tone-deafness like the type you and some others highliight in the media may make some in one lane think they’re getting some enlightenment, not realizing that the other lane feels patronized.
    But sometimes cluelessness is impossible to avoid, no matter how artful the attempts to disguise it, and some attempts to achieve some broader understanding of some of your fellow Americans are going to sound tone deaf. I don’t know how it can be otherwise. And that’s something that cuts in all directions, your cogent point that blacks know more about white culture than the reverse notwithstanding.

  8. The only two groups left in America that use the term “race traitor” are the white power movement and black liberals. If this same gentleman were criticising elements of white America would ANYBODY on this site say that he hated his white half??? Anybody? It’s just stupid. The idea of ideological purity is authoritarianism. Should black people really THINK a certain way? What a disgusting notion.

  9. The writer of this review in my opinion hits the nail on the head with his argument. Throughout the entire memoir, Williams uses commonly heard stereotypes to back up his arguments. The quote by the writer of the review, “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.” This is just a stereotypical thought that doesn’t represent the true “Hip Hop Culture”

    Characters like Rashawn and Stacey are in control of their actions but their upbringing is the bottom line reason why they get themselves in these situations. Williams was fortunate enough to have parents that were always there to care and love them and make sure they did well in school. Rashawn and Stacey don’t have parents like these so they don’t know what is right and what is wrong. This is a major factor that Williams seems to ignore.

  10. After finishing the book, my main impression is that his view of hip hop culture is very narrow-minded. He is concerned about people considering trivial matters over all else, and seems to think that hip hop is riddled with triviality. Some of his criticisms of hip hop may be legitimate, but to dismiss an entire culture because it has been popularized and commercialized is to disregard the roots of hip hop and the uniqueness of the experience and expression it represents.

    My own experience of hip hop is very different, and not merely because I am white, since Williams and I probably have had a similar upbringing and life experience. Rather, I think it is because my parents set an excellent example of being open to each other and then perhaps because of my knowledge in the Boston music community, which has a healthy and growing hip hop scene that is not anti-intellectual.

  11. William’s arguments were, most of the time, backed up by stereotypes commonly heard today. Some of his reasoning is valid, but it only represents the bad things about the hip-hop culture. Hip-Hop has brought hope and a new life for some people. It gives them a second chance and to make a difference in their life.
    Everyone has control over the choices they make. Rashawn and Stacy were always able to make the right decision, but since they were brought up in a bad time with little guidance they chose wrong. Williams had good guidance from his parents which led him down a better path.

  12. I’m 65, white, and female, and before reading the book I didn’t know much of anything about hip hop culture.

    After reading the book and some reviews, I’m inclined to think that Williams was young when he imprinted on a very pathological hip hop subculture (possibly not the worst), but there are other hip hop sub-cultures which either don’t have an ideal which is as criminal or realize it’s a fantasy or both.

    It’s theoretically possible that his father could have successfully pointed him at a better hip hop subculture, but there are obvious reasons why his father wouldn’t have known they existed, and there might not have been one locally available.

  13. The person who recommended this book to me was much like your Critical Cleric. After almost a year, I decided to pick it up and fall into the pages. I bumped my head quickly in the the beginning knowing 1.) the author is not black and 2.) the basis of this book is hip hop culture. The math is incomplete in that one that is not black should not be able to deliver a critique of hip hop culture with this much confidence. I would’ve received this so much better from someone who was AT LEAST born from two black individuals. Before I reached the end of the book, I had to explain to my dear friend my disdain for how the author uses “hip hop” culture (and yes, like the original reviewer hip hop culture must be in quotations because it is incredibly larger than it is described in this book, but I digress) for his personal gain of relationships, clout and knowledge of lyrics just to flip the script (literally) to denouncing hip hop as being nothing more than what provided him with the reasons to do “bad things.” His parents decided to raise him black but it seems he found his whiteness upon his sophomore year of college, writes off hip hop, leaves Betrys and moves to France to further whitewash the bloodline by marrying white. In the Epilogue III, he writes “imagine… if the only black American who survived one hundred years from now was the cartoonish thug of the past thirty years…” I understand the problem with what the picture would look like 30 years from now. It depends on who is painting this picture though. Is it someone with a lack of culture crayons in their box like our author here? If so, the image would be no different than the image we know is incorrectly displayed today. It’s a situation of #IYKYK. On a positive note, I love the notion he gives to stretch beyond the cultural ceiling to learn more so that the only hands molding the mind isn’t hip hop and to be expressly learned in other cultures. Eleven years later, thank you for your review.

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