Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up at random and without any preconceived ideas. Here’s my take on first read.

I enjoyed this thoughtful and engaging memoir that did offer me insights into black youth culture as an outsider. I applaud the author for his willingness to expose his past mistakes (including beating his girlfriend) and the learning process he went through to change and see the world from an enlarged perspective. His message comes across most powerfully for me in the closing chapters, when he expresses how he felt betrayed by his friends and community into having a tunnel vision about the world, inflected by the misogyny and materialism of hip hop culture. As a college professor, moreover, it was gratifying to see the profound effects of books and higher education on his development. I see many of my students, black and not-black, struggle with similar kinds of cultural and emotional development. Education, if it is truly an education, is transformative: we are not the same person we were before, even if this meant abandoning a particular social group belonging. Both Williams and his father chose to take advantage of the opportunities for growth afforded to them. This book could be useful in the classroom, though for the purpose of provoking thought and discussion rather than as the ultimate representation of black youth culture.

On the other hand, I have some misgivings.

First, he downplays the role of his white mother in his life. His father, a black man who escaped the Jim Crow South and who has put all his energy into an intellectual life, is clearly a critical and significant influence on the author. I was disappointed, however, to not learn more about how his parents negotiated their mixed-race marriage, and how his biracial background may have, or not, influenced his desire to be accepted into the black youth culture of his neighborhood. His father states that he always wanted to be black, and yet there is no addressing why his father married a white woman–these are not mutually exclusive, but the question arises. Nor is there any discussion of what kind of influence his white mother had on him, other than the fact that she was ostracized by her family for marrying his father. I was also curious about how the role of his mother may have influenced his attitudes towards women in his early years. I wanted to know more about these racial dynamics within his family. and how they may have contributed to his life path.

Second, while he criticizes his black peers for mostly failing to escape their lives of poverty and cultural stultification, it is clear that without his father’s intellectual model and demand that his son study for the SAT every day after school that the author would likely not have succeeded in being admitted to Georgetown in the first place and thus had exposure to the international elite on offer at such an institution. He is, I think, right, that the issues are cultural, but culture starts at home, and has a profound influence on a child’s life trajectory. He suggests that family life is not determinate (Stacey, for example, is also from a middle-class family), and that the “They” of in-group pressures (Heidegger’s “They” and Nietzsche’s “herd”) are more influential. Perhaps they are, but surely the dynamics are more complex than that, speaking as someone who has family members who followed a path similar to Williams.

Third, while I’m not especially well-versed in hip hop culture or music, I agree with other commentators that his criticisms are narrow. Even if these were his personal experiences with some hip hop music and its infamous gangsta values, it would have been best if he had, at least, acknowledged that there are hip hop artists who take a political stance that is more historically and intellectually self-conscious. The difference between the art itself and the interpretation of that art within culture seems important to stress here.

Finally, the title (of the edition I read) is a bit misleading. Literature doesn’t play that important a role here; it’s philosophy, particularly continental, that exerts its influence on him at Georgetown, and later his belated reading of black intellectual writing. Perhaps this was an editorial decision on the assumption that no one wants to read about philosophy, but if so the pandering is palpable and undercuts the very thesis of the book.

These are my first impressions on first read, and without any exposure to controversies in the media.

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