Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams Tackles Hip-Hop, Race and Being ‘Cool’
When you see the cover of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ 2010 memoir Losing My Cool, you’ll find it difficult to believe that he has, in fact, lost it. And even more so if you have the chance to meet him in a hip SoHo café, as I did a few weeks ago. With a knit hat on his head and a scraggly beard wrapped around his chin, Williams has still got it. And yet it’s not the kind of cool he grew up admiring.
As a mixed-raced child — Williams mother is white and his father is black — a pivotal early experience in which he was perceived as white and rich by a black woman in a “working class section” of Plainfield kindled in him a strong desire to be black. And it wasn’t enough to just be black. What he learned from the other boys in the barbershop that he patronized twice a month was that he had to learn to talk, walk, and carry himself with a particular kind of swagger, as defined by the 1990s hip-hop artists he and the other boys came to idolize.
But Williams, who is speaking tonight at NJCU, was different from those boys, and from the rappers they admired, in more ways than simply his mixed race; Williams’ father — who they called Pappy — held a PhD in sociology. His parents moved from the West Coast, where they met in what Williams describes as “the West Coast front of what at that time was called the War on Poverty,” to Newark, where Pappy ran anti-poverty programs for the Episcopal Archdiocese before opening his own academic and SAT preparation business out of their home in Fanwood. Pappy’s instruction was not limited to paying customers; from a very young age both of his sons, Thomas and his brother Clarence, were subject to a rigorous extracurricular study schedule.
It was Pappy’s persistence and his love, Williams says, that made it possible for he and his brother to escape the fate that befell so many of his peers who bought fully into the lie that is manufactured and sold to them by hip-hop culture. Hence, the subtitle of Losing My Cool is “How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture.”
Williams doesn’t hate hip-hop culture, and he’s careful to prove that it is still a part of his life. (See, for example, the playlist that he posted on his website.) But, he is critical of it. His memoir, in fact, began not as a memoir at all, but as a bit of cultural criticism. Back in 2007, while a student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism graduate program, he was asked to write an op-ed piece as a class assignment. The essay he wrote, which was eventually published by The Washington Post, sought to separate black culture from hip-hop culture, as he noted, they had become conflated since the 1980s.
His professor at NYU, the author and journalist Katie Roiphe, was impressed with her student’s work and suggested that the argument he was making — that what many perceived to be black culture was really just street culture, and that street culture was not the best representation of black culture — could be more thoroughly expressed in a book-length work. With her encouragement, he took a semester off from NYU to write a proposal. After several months of writing and rewriting he secured an agent and then interest from no less than eight publishers.
As he composed his argument, he found that an effective way to flesh out each of his points was with a bit of personal narrative, anecdotes from his days growing up in North Jersey. It became clear as he worked with his agent on his proposal that these stories were the most captivating moments. The publisher he ended up choosing agreed that, as Williams puts it, “It’s probably not that interesting to read a whole book that’s an op-ed, or just an argument.”
As he shifted the direction of his book, he matched his reading to the style and tone he sought for his argument. He read a lot of James Baldwin, who he aptly describes as a “serial memoirist,” as well as fellow Jersey writer Junot Diaz, and Joan Didion and Ralph Ellison. From Ellison, he says, he learned how to approach his own argument effectively. In addition to his literary influences, the voices of his professors Roiphe and Paul Berman, and that of his father, informed his style and, he notes, allowed him to teach himself to write a memoir as it was happening.
From the very first chapter of Losing My Cool, New Jersey is more than just the setting, it becomes a character itself, informing and creating the world in which Williams came of age. Williams attributes this to what he calls Jersey’s provincialism. That is, even though it is at the heart of a major metropolitan strip that runs from Boston to D.C., one can feel rather insulated in the suburbs. He notes that the limited engagement he experienced with outside cultures, beyond the immediate hip-hop culture he and his friends adopted, is necessarily a result of place.
But more important to Williams than place is circumstance. He acknowledges that many people do not have the same advantage that he had in his highly educated and strict father, and yet he acknowledges that to a certain extent, an individual must be responsible for bettering him or herself. Quick to offer a helping hand, however, Williams acknowledges that as a writer he has the opportunity to put forth a positive example.
“As a black writer, it’s almost a moral obligation to show that there are different ways of being black than you’ll see on Black Entertainment Television,” he says, acknowledging that he doesn’t have the perfect answer, but hopes to be one of many positive examples.
The heart of Williams’ argument is actually inspired in no small way by Plato’s notion of “Allegory of the Cave,” the idea that many people are like prisoners trapped in a cave staring at the shadows on the wall and believing that what they are seeing is reality. The philosopher, Plato says, has the ability to see from outside the cave, to recognize that the shadows are cast by events happening behind the prisoners and the true form of reality is more than just the shadows.
“There are good things and there are real things and it takes thought and sense of purpose to seek those things out,” Williams says. “Kim Kardashian is on the cover of every magazine right now, and that’s a shadow.”
His Platonic reading carries into hip-hop culture as well. He has come to believe that the best way to encounter that culture is with an ironic tone — not ironic in a funny sense, but in the sense that “there is a difference between what is being said and what is meant,” he explains. “You don’t actually have to believe that keeping it real means that if someone looks at you the wrong way you have to respond in a violent manner.”
Though many already look at hip-hop with this detachment, it was a lesson Williams had to learn with the help of his father and his insistence on education.
Williams will be speaking on this very topic this evening at New Jersey City University. Additionally, he will be reading from his book and talking a bit about how he came to write it. This is one of many speaking engagements for Williams since the book was published last year; in each lecture he makes an effort to be the positive example that he insists young people need. He talks, particularly, to young men and women of color and reminds them that there are many ways to “be black.”
“Young people respond to that,” he says. “They’re happy that someone who is not 75 years older says that to them.”
Thomas Chatterton Williams will be speaking at the Michael Gilligan Student Union at NJCU tonight at 5PM. His book, Losing My Cool, will be released in paperback on April 26.