Father-Son Bond Inspires Memoir Of Love And Reflection

As Father's Day approaches, many are preparing to celebrate the special men in their lives. Host Michel Martin speaks with Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the new book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. In it, Williams describes how his dad inspired his writing and his concept of manhood.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lots of you are getting ready to celebrate dad this week. We are, too. We'll hit up the barbershop guys on Friday to hear what they plan to do with dad or what they are hoping for from their loved ones as a tribute to their dad status. And in a few minutes we'll ask the question of our director, what would Rob do? That's the name of his new book of advice and he will give us advice on how to come up with a name for a newborn. Our conversation with Rob Sachs in just a few minutes.

But right now, a little variation on our usual Moms parenting segment. We talk with a young author about how his father steered him from hip-hop culture, or at least the part of hip-hop culture that glorifies the brash, the fast, the in-your-face. And we'll hear how his dad steered him to a broader view of what it means to be a black man. Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about this in his new book "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture." And he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Will you set the table for us? Just tell us a little bit about your family, as briefly as you can and why you were drawn to hip-hop to begin with.

Mr. WILLIAMS: My father is a sociologist by training. And my parents met in the war and poverty. My father was running poverty programs in San Diego, and the same poverty eventually took him east to Newark, New Jersey, where I was born in 1981. And my father changed professions and moved the family to the suburbs in Fanwood, New Jersey. And where I lived, there was a white side of town and a black side of town. And I grew up on the white side of town. And I looked over to the black side of town and I kind of looked for ways to see myself in black culture. And the examples of blackness that really spoke to me were hip-hop and basketball players. And so I thought I need to model myself this way, too.

MARTIN: And when you say model yourself this way, what do you mean?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think that hip-hop is not just a music. It's really a culture and it's a way of life. So it's your mannerisms, its the way that you shake hands, it's the way that you walk down the street. I looked at the way these boys I was growing up around were behaving and I looked at the images I saw on Black Entertainment Television and on MTV, and some of it was explicit but some of it was implicit. I absorbed these kinds of ways of moving through the world.

MARTIN: There are also aspects of the culture that you consciously absorbed and actually tried to emulate that I want to talk a little more about. Like you set the scene, like early in the book where you talk about playing basketball at recess with two other boys. They were white. And for one - for reason - some reason you hard-fouled this one boy, I mean, knocking him to the ground, knocking the air out of him. And when the other boys says, what did you do that for? And you used some language I can't repeat here.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because you say, because I felt like it B - you know, you used the B word - and what the F you going to do about it? And then you also talk about just how seductive this was. You kind of felt you had this power over these white kids. Why? Because you're being mean?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, because - well, it's complicated. In the book, I get to that point by going through kind of the casual racism that you can go through as a black kid going to school predominantly around white kids. And so, the boy that I hard-fouled, throughout the years, there are these moments when I didn't have the upper hand, when he had the racial upper hand. And so what I realized - I was about 11 years old, I think, in that scene - actually he had a certain type of power which was - that white is better, that black is somehow inferior. But I had another type of power I was realizing, and that was that he was on certain levels afraid of me if I conformed to a type of blackness that fit in with what I was seeing on the TV screen and in the barbershop.

I wasn't bookish but if I spoke a certain way, if I scrunch my face a certain way, then I realized that he would respond in a way that gave me the upper hand. And so having seen a older black boy at the park who exercised this kind of power and no one would challenge him, no one would be racist to him, so I thought maybe if I could mimic him, I could have some of that power myself.

MARTIN: One of the things you write about in the book - and I want to talk - I want to spend some time sort of talking about why you think this matters - is that you talked about channeling your inner RaShawn. And you said the more I channeled my inner RaShawn and aped whatever I saw on Rap City and SportsCenter, the more I noticed that the white kids I went to school with were willing to buy into the hood persona I was busy developing.

You said, but my classmates took it for granted that I would beat in the 100-yard dash, hit them with killer crossovers and pluck rebounds from up above their heads. But you also say that you couldn't help but realize that I was these white boys' superior. Yes, perhaps possibly, but I was not their equal. In the classroom and in terms of material well being, for example, their expectations of me tended to be much lower than of themselves and each other.

You say: The same Tina who had puzzled over the rigidity of my hair revealed herself to be equally perplexed when I caught a higher grade than she did on a history exam. So talk more about that. You're saying, great, they all think I can dance and run and, you know, play hoops but they dont think Im very smart.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thats right, and I think that is what George Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations. And I think it works in subtle ways on black youth, and some of it comes from within black culture but a lot of it is imposed from outside. So, hands down, I could be the best basketball player and they would give me my props for that but what didnt really correspond with their idea of blackness was that I might also be from a middle-class family or that I might get good grades or be capable of that.

And so when they saw my home and they saw the books, and they met my father or I got a good grade on a test, I was incongruent with their idea of what I supposed to be. So ultimately there came a point where I realized that I wasnt actually being looked up to. I was being put in a box. And so it hurts to be put in a box and you start to think I am more than whatever these categories are.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My guest is Thomas Chatterton Williams. He's the author of a new book called "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture."

So what did your parents and your father say about all this? How did he begin to respond? And I do think it's worth mentioning that your mother is white, your father is African-American. Although, like our current president, you also say your parents didnt draw that distinction. As far as they were concerned, you're black.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: And the social construct is you're black, so thats how you were raised. But tell me how your father and your parents responded to all this.

Mr. WILLIAMS: My father very early on had both short and long-term strategies in his approach to raising his children, so my father was disturbed by the extent to which I was interested in both hip-hop and sports. I read a lot about how sports, especially basketball, really went hand-in-hand with the hip-hop culture that I was immersed in. So your physical prowess mattered, whether it was your swagger in the street or your game on the basketball court. But your mind didnt necessarily matter.

So my father was disturbed by the way I dressed or the slang I used or the amount of time I spent in front of the TV. But he had a long-term focus on winning this war of getting me to care about ideas and learning. And so, as long as I was studying with him, which I always did in the evenings and on weekends and in the summers, he kind of conceded these smaller battles about the way I dressed or who I hung out with.

MARTIN: Your book has a long title. Im going to read it again: "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture." To this point we've been emphasizing the hip-hop culture aspect, right. And I know there are a lot of people who would argue with you about hip-hop and say, you know, there are plenty of white musicians who talk about hurting people and taking drugs and...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: ...nobody thinks that they're driving, you know, the culture. Maybe this is less about hip-hop culture than this is more about parenting...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well...

MARTIN: ...and the fact that your father was a constant and ongoing presence in your life. I mean, to use a phrase that, you know, some people might not like, he was on you like white on rice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it's both. And I was very fortunate to have that. And the sad truth is that children, black children in particular, dont have a father around all the time. But to answer your previous point about white culture emphasizing horrible pathologies...

MARTIN: Well, not white culture. Im saying white music and...

Mr. WILLIAMS: White music, yeah.

MARTIN: ...you know, rock...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Rock 'n roll...

MARTIN: ...metal and so...

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's true but the degree to which - I guess, one of the points I really tried to make in the book is the degree to which hip-hop culture dominates the whole black cultural scene in the year 2010, and has for past 30, 35 years. So black culture and identity has been squeezed in the hip-hop era and narrowed. And I dont think that there's an analogous white cultural movement that so defines the white American experience.

MARTIN: But why is that? I mean, is that because maybe white parents are more present? I dont know.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, there's a variety of reasons. Part of it has to be socio-economic. There are just - obviously there have been historically many more opportunities for whites in this country than there have been for blacks.

But, you know, one of the things that puzzled me and that raised questions for me when I set out to write this book was, when I looked at previous black generations through the literature of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and W.B. Du Bois, when I looked at my father and when I listened to the jazz of John Coltrane, the evidence was there to me that there used to be many more ways of being black and of realizing your black identity than there were in the era that I grew up in. And so, something had changed.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think now, now that youve kind of analyzed the problem? And I wonder if you also think that the reality of having an African-American family in the White House is part of that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I think that the only solution is going to be enough voices present counter-narratives and challenge this one dominant vision of blackness. And so I think that its the obligation of writers and intellectuals and thinkers and public figures and just ordinary men and women of good will to challenge these stereotypes and these negative ideas of what being black is really about - to challenge them, but then also to present viable alternative ways of being black.

You know, images are powerful. Symbolism is powerful. And there's no greater image than seeing this black family in the White House and seeing the values that they hold dear, and seeing that they also hold dear their black identities. But it's not enough simply to have one image. We have to now build on that and have more and more images of a multitude of ways of being black that have nothing to do with necessarily being thuggish or being an entertainer.

MARTIN: And the president, among other things, is also a passionate father.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thats right.

MARTIN: So in the time that we have left, I'd like to talk a little bit more about your father, who had such an influence on you. Just, I'd love to hear a little bit more about his program for you. You talk about early...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...in the book about how he had - his summer agenda for you was extremely ambitious.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And that one day when your brother didnt want to adhere to this program, he took down all his Michael Jordan posters and everything else. And up there were like algebra equations...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Replaced them with algebra equations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All over the room.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That was my big fear coming home and my room had been remodeled.

MARTIN: Remodeled with algebra equations all over the room.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: And presumably it was the expectation that those would be done. Tell us a little bit more about your dad.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure. I had the benefit, Ill say it, of coming up behind my brother and seeing what he went through and just simply trying do the opposite oftentimes.

But the episode you're talking about happened around the time that I was seven years old, and that meant I was old enough for my father's summer program. Which meant that I was going to study with him, as my brother did, from nine in the morning until 12 in the afternoon, break for one hour for lunch and then from one to three. And that was Monday through Thursday every week.

And during those hours that we studied, we studied all kinds of things that I couldnt talk about with my friends. We used memory builders. We used statistischescopes(ph) to increase hand-eye coordination and recognition of patterns. And my closet gradually filled up with shoebox after shoebox of vocabulary cards, flash cards.

And so, I mean, I was walking around with flash cards my whole childhood. And I have to say, you know, I didnt go very good schools. The only thing that got me a chance at going to a good college was that by the time I took the SAT test, I had done all these things with my father. So the test was nothing harder than what I had been doing in my own house for years.

MARTIN: What advice do you have, though, for someone whose father may not be present, let alone doesnt have a Ph.D., doesnt have the love of books and learning, doesnt understand, you know, himself - what is functional and optimal in a society like this? So what do you say to somebody like that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: My advice would be that I hope that they could see something of themselves in the figure of my father, because he grew up very much that way, never knowing his father and was lucky enough to realize very early on that if he was going to learn some things and if he was going to educate himself it was going to be through books. And so, obviously it's a lot easier if you have a dedicated and committed father in the house but the greatest wisdom of the ages is contained in books. And if you know how to talk to the people who wrote them, if you read these books and you have a relationship with them, you can talk to the smartest and the most interesting people who ever lived.

MARTIN: So what does you dad think about your book?

Mr. WILLIAMS: He's very proud that I was able to dedicate a book to him that now sits on the shelf, is probably as far as Im concerned the best gift I could give him.

MARTIN: Well, tell him we said happy Father's Day.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you. I will.

MARTIN: Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of "Losing My Cool: How a Fathers Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

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