Thomas Chatterton Williams: Wrestling with Race and Culture

Part One: Losing My Cool

For once, I thought I might actually offer a holiday/historical themed book review on the actual holiday. Something I have hoped but failed to do many times in the past.

But first, a confession. It might seem counterintuitive to post about Thomas Chatterton Williams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Or perhaps it might be seen as a typical reactionary thing to do as a “conservative.” I.E. rather than write about racial injustice, what the holiday should be about, post about someone who rejects race and seeks to get beyond it. Fair enough.

For the record, I plan to read what you might call primary documents during February, Black History Month. As the Black Lives Matter movement and related issues exploded over the summer I thought it would be interesting to attempt to read in a way that was emotionally removed from this summer but intellectually connected.

Books in this vein I hope to read this year (from my Library of America and Everyman’s collection):

So with that aside, what to make of the aforementioned Thomas Chatterton Williams?

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool and Self-Portrait in Black and White. He is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor at the American Scholar and a 2019 New America Fellow. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, Harper’s and elsewhere, and has been collected in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. He has received support from Yaddo, MacDowell and The American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Paris with his wife and children.

I believe I first heard of him via Twitter where I saw links and recommendations to both his essays and his books.

I was first intrigued by Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race and checked it out from the library. But decided to read Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd first. And I really enjoyed it.

What made Losing My Cool fascinating and helpful to me was how Williams brought you into his world. He employed the famous “Show, don’t tell.” Given that he grew up in a world very different from my own, in a myriad of ways, it was important that I understand his lived experiences AND their connections to the development of his personality, philosophy, etc.

But it also has multiple threads running through it. One is how he began to see himself as black and that this meant that he adopt hip-hop culture as his model; as his guide to moving through the world. It is this understanding that he later rejects.

But it is also a moving story about a father and son; about how that relationship ultimately guides the son, not the larger culture. I think the obvious love and devotion of Williams for his father, and his father’s love of books and literature, deepened my appreciation for the book. As a father and as an avid reader with something of a book addiction myself, how could it not?

It is the battle between hip-hop and his dad’s love of culture, and literature and philosophy that ultimately leads Williams to break from his earlier understanding of who he was and how should move through life; that the culture offered by BET and MTV and the celebrity world of hip-hop was a lie. Particularly when contrasted with the earlier Civil Rights Movement:

I couldn’t help but feel that it was one thing to give yourself over to the service of a worthy and moral cause, to lose yourself in your group when your group is engaged, against all odds, in a battle for its very survival. It was one thing to keep it real with your group when your group’s reality is that their children are being firebombed in church and hosed down in the streets, torn apart by German shepherds and broken up by billy clubs. That was a sacrifice of personal freedom that I could understand. But it was something else entirely to realize that you have lost yourself for absolutely nothing, that you have been manipulated and dictated by a posture, an attitude, a pose, by BET, Trick Daddy, Puff Daddy, and the Junior Mafia.

Losing My Cool

I found the description of his intellectual journey at Georgetown all the more fascinating as interacted with and clashed with his former life and world. It was interesting to see Williams fall in love with philosophy and literature and really wrestle with the epic questions these works ask of their readers. And then seek to understand himself and his life in light of what he read and learned.

Race became not something assumed, a reality to be dealt with, as, in some important way, an identity imposed on him that no longer fit with the way he saw himself. And he had the courage to follow that path no matter how uncomfortable or disorienting.

And he believes this is a necessary exploration not just for himself:

My generation, if we are to make it and to make good on the debt we owe our ancestors, must find a new vocabulary and another point of view. We have to reclaim the discipline and the spirit we have lost. We have to flip the script on what it means to be black. We have to think about what is and is not beneficial to our own mental, cultural, and even physical health. As a people, we have emerged from centuries spent in the dark woods of slavery and racism only to come upon an ominous forking path. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our survival will be determined by the direction that we take. If we can’t change our ideas, if we fail to cultivate future generations of personalities that are something more than just cool—or hard—if we fail to realize that certain values are better, and worse, than others, then what we are doing is presiding over our own gradual destruction. And that is something, for my father’s generation, that not even the most fanatic Klansmen could have hoped to achieve.

Losing My Cool

Now, obviously, the world is a very different place in 2021 than in 2010. And am not really in a position to engage in the arguments about hip-hop and black culture. But for me, the beauty was the love between a son and a father and the determination of that father to mold his son despite some very powerful countervailing pressures in the wider world.

That Williams used that love and upbringing to truly explore his place in the world and decide for himself what path he would follow makes for a powerful story.

Further Reading:


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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