As you know I don't often feature non-fiction books, but as an African-American mother of two, I could not pass on the opportunity to use this forum to share this ground-breaking piece of literature with anyone who will listen.
Thomas, welcome to Urban Christian Fiction Today. Introduce yourself to the readers.
Hi, thank you for having me. Well, let’s see, I was born in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in the Fanwood/Scotch Plains area about 30 minutes to the west. I went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where I studied philosophy. Most recently I did my master’s in journalism at NYU. I currently live in New York City.
Losing My Cool was an intriguing read. Tell us about the book, and what inspired you to write it.
I started writing the book because I was increasingly frustrated with the discrepancy I saw between the thugged-out and dumbed-down hip-hop culture that surrounded me and the black culture that I knew once carried the day, from the literature of James Baldwin and the music of John Coltrane to the disciplined sacrifice of my own father
Your father owns 15,000 books. He is an avid reader for sure and as your mother told you “…those books are his life.” Tell us about his collection; what it means to him and what it means to you now that you no longer look at it through the eyes of a bored child.
Well, I’ll start by saying this. My father, Pappy, is old enough to be my grandfather. He was born in 1937 in Longview, Texas. In his childhood, on the black side of town, outhouses were still in use and, as my mother tells me, horse-and-buggies were as common a sight on the road as automobiles. Pappy is old enough to have known and spoken with people who knew slaves. He grew up among people who were smart and talented, but no one was very educated. For him, those books, which he started devouring at an alarmingly early age, were his one ticket to a better life, period. They were an equalizer, he hoped, the thing that would make up for all of the significant disadvantages he had to cope with as a black boy coming of age in the segregated south.
For me, those books mean all of that. And they also represent, as they still do for my father, a direct way of communicating with some of the greatest minds the world has ever produced: Plutarch, Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, Sun-Tzu, Maimonides, Confucious, Camus, W.E.B. Du Bois. The list goes on and on.
You have lived a life filled with contrast: white mother, black father; evangelical Christian mother, a father who you say “had no use for organized religion”; and then of course the vast divide between Thomas the low slung jeans-wearing, basketballing, game-running, quasi-thug and the young man who came home to a cavernous library. Qualify the value of this diversity and how it has shaped you as a man and author.
My mother was fond of repeating an Emerson quote to me that has stayed with me: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I’ve changed my mind a lot over the years, and as you point out, I have a background that is full of contrast and contradiction. I think the greatest truths and ideas are found not in purity but in synthesis. As an author, I think this has helped me write with nuance, which is essential. At least, I hope that is the case!
I grew up with the old school rappers like the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, and Curtis Blow. I loved the early music and the lyrics, but I recognize the negative impact of the “new” hip hop music. My 18 year-old son wasn’t allowed to watch music videos until he was 16 years-old. That was my way of limiting the negative visual images that he was exposed to on a daily basis. Tell us how you balanced being so drawn into the culture of hip-hop, but yet managed to escape it?
It sounds like you’ve done a good and admirable job with your son, which I’m sure wasn’t always easy. One or two people trying to fend of an entire culture from taking hold of a child’s mind is difficult to do, to say the least. As for me, the truth is that I didn’t do a very good job of balancing it myself. All the credit for any balance that was finally achieved has to go to my parents, who simply wouldn’t stand for me being a thug. It would have killed them. That is the main thing that kept me from being drawn too far in. At the end of the day, I did not want to hurt or let down my parents, who have worked way too hard and given up way too much for their children.
Are there artists currently singing hip-hop that you believe have worth, or does their message get caught up in what you call the “culture,” “opiate,” and “captor” aspects of hip-hop?
There are a lot of artists who have worth of different kinds. Rap requires a lot of skill to do well, and a lot of artists are remarkably talented. I think the Roots are incredible musically. I think Drake seems like a decent and talented guy. Kanye West is obviously extremely talented musically—“gifted,” as he describes himself, as are Jay-Z, Mos Def, Andre 3000 and countless others. The point isn’t that there are no artists of worth; the point is that the culture, when taken as a whole, emphasizes a system of values that, in toto, hurts black people. Hip-hop culture, at the very least, distracts us from much more pressing and important concerns. At worst, it deludes black youth, feeding us a false and poisonous image of ourselves.
You say in the book that “distinguished” was a high and rare compliment given by your father. How does he feel about LOSING MY COOL?
Oh, yes. It was the highest and rarest compliment. Well, Pappy read the book four times, underlined passages, and took notes on it. That is the sincerest praise he could give the work, and it means everything to me. Setting out, I wasn’t sure what he would think, so I didn’t show it to him until it was all finished. When it comes to judging work, Pappy doesn’t play favorites. If he found the book to be unworthy of the values we’ve tried to realize these past 29 years together, he wouldn’t have been able to read the thing more than once.
To learn more about LOSING MY COOL or Thomas please visit him at one of the following links:
facebook page: www.facebook.com/thomaschatteronwilliams
Please look for my review on Thursday.