Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Losing My Cool (2010) has been called “a provocative intellectual memoir” by the USA Today, and helped gain Chatterton Williams considerable attention and notoriety as a thinker and critic. Losing My Cool is a first person account of the events of his adolescence with hip hop culture as the backdrop for all of his intellectual, social, and moral missteps. Memoirs like this obviously rely on personal experience, and intend to provide an interesting or unique perspective on a familiar social event or phenomenon.  While Chatterton Williams second book, Self Portrait in Black and White does just that, Losing My Cool perhaps should have remained in the pages of his private diary. Self Portrait adds a necessary perspective to what can be a stagnant conversation, Losing My Cool parrots racist hip hop tropes with Chatterton Williams acting as the C Delores Tucker character.  

Critiquing hedonistic, hyper masculine, racially stereotypical hip hop culture is certainly not beyond the pale.  Anytime identity or culture is presented as narrow and singular we should notice and wonder why.  However, the type of hip hop Chatterton Williams is most critical of (which exists as just one type in an incredibly diverse genre) was not created in a vacuum but rather in a country that promotes hedonism, misogyny, and racism across cultural mediums.  It seems myopic and patronizing to reduce any culture to its most basic and toxic traits and hip hop culture is no different.  Hip hop culture is as diverse as the type of blackness and humanity Chatterton Williams seems to be advocating for.  

Why is this type of hip hop so much more readily available to youth?  What are the marketing and promotional tactics that normalize and glamorize these ideas and marginalize music that is more conducive to self acceptance and representative of an expansive human experience?  We wouldn’t know from reading Chatterton Williams because he fails to ask the question.  We are reading his personal experience, and critique of the culture but his willingness to stop short, even in retrospect as a grown man, seems to be a case of missing the forest for the trees.

Chatterton Williams efforts may have been better spent considering why he was so attracted to these ideas of blackness and maleness.  I wonder what he may have found had he zoomed out and noticed hip hop as simply one branch of a tree rooted in wealth, violence, and misogyny. His efforts may have been better spent expressing gratitude that he was able to move beyond these tropes, in part because of the privilege of being born into a family that valued education and exposed him to culture beyond hip hop.  He came to the realization that hip hop culture can place hard boundaries on a developing identity when, instead, humans should have the opportunity to consider a full spectrum of being.  A beautiful and worthwhile realization indeed.  

I respect the idea that it may be particularly damaging and difficult to distance oneself from these tropes as a black man.  It seems, and Chatterton Williams confirms, that in the 90’s and 2000’s the conception of a black male identity became more limited and singular than ever before.  I think that reality gives this memoir value although his broader critique remains misguided.  Participation in hip hop culture does not make a person less intellectual and it is not a sign of an underdeveloped racial identity and I would argue it’s problematic to insinuate as much.  I like jazz music, fine cuisine, and nice wine, just as Chatterton Williams discovered he did during his time at Georgetown.  If his point is to encourage us not to align these cultural markers along racial lines and encourage children that all of these things are available to everyone, and further if he feels there is more of an urgency for black children to reach this understanding, then that’s great.  My impression is that he hopes to blame hip hop culture, relegating it back to where he feels it belongs, in the cultural basement, and reinforce a hierarchy that is not appealing and not financially feasible to many Americans, thereby reinforcing race and class rather than helping transcend.  

The maturation process is a challenge and defining intimacy and masculinity on one’s own terms can be disorienting.  Blaming a problematic hip hop artist for the growing pains of America’s youth misses an opportunity to learn to take personal accountability, both for the consumer and for the adults who are complicit for profit and/or fame.  It flattens out and over simplifies the maturation process, something I would expect Chatterton Williams to understand.  One might argue that it is beyond the scope of a memoir to offer such a critique, but I would argue that Chatterton Williams had no such problem offering a rather bitter critique of hip hop culture, I’m simply wondering why he chose to stop there?

By: Spencer Childress

AKA The Knight of Infinite Resignation



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