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:
(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)