Thursday, June 10, 2010

Losing His Cool: Author Thomas Chatterton Williams Breaks Down Black Boys Vs. Hip Hop

Editor's Note: I am so very pleased to introduce to MyBrownBaby Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of "Losing My Cool," an incredibly poignant and telling memoir recounting Williams' teenage struggle to break loose from the negative, restrictive pull of hip hop culture and embrace the studied, cultured worldview encouraged by his father. I read Williams’ book over the weekend with selfish motives: I am the mother of a beautiful, brilliant African American boychild who, too, danced the awkward jig between “keepin’ it real” and being the smartest kid in the room, and I wanted to get some clarity on how this plays on the psyche of brown boys. For sure, I found everything I was looking for in “Losing My Cool”—devotion, grace, love and a whole lotta searing truth. I encourage you to pick up the book and see for yourselves—and certainly to put it in the hands of the kids in your life who could stand to hear Williams’ simple message: Trading in your intellect for money, hoes and clothes is tantamount to embracing death.
To celebrate the release of “Losing My Cool,” Williams wrote an original piece about the fear that gripped him the day his SAT scores threatened to out him as a smart kid to his black friends. I’m honored to present that story here, exclusively on MyBrownBaby.

One day during my senior year of high school, the Vice Principal summoned me from homeroom. Usually, being called out of class like that meant I was in some kind of trouble. Before entering his office, I took off my new Versace shades and made sure I wasn’t violating dress code. I shut the door behind me, wondering what I had done this time. “Nothing,” he assured me. “Nothing wrong, that is.” He just wanted to let me know that he was going to honor me on the closed-circuit television station that broadcast throughout the school each morning.
“What for?” I asked him.
            “For getting a perfect 800 on your SAT II Writing Test!” he said. “We’re very proud of you.”
            The thing is that I was one of a handful of students in the entire school—and the only black student in my graduating class, which had a considerable black and Latino minority—to receive a perfect score on any of the various College Board exams. I was also very definitely not trying to draw attention to this fact—at least not in front of my black hip-hop- and sports-obsessed peers. Along with a quick stutter-step dribble and a reliable pull-up jumper, I’d worked hard to develop the ability to keep it real. What that meant for my friends and me, “keeping it real,” was that we devoted our lives to sports and rapping, to pulling mad shorties, and to throwing the hands whenever disrespected, but we did not give a damn about book learning or what my father, Pappy, called “the life of the mind.” For years, I’d been leading a double existence of sorts, checking my cool at the door after school and studying for the SATs with Pappy as though my whole world hinged on it. Most of my friends had no idea what I did at home.
            I sat there in the VP’s office that morning, surprised and a little nervous. “Thank you,” was all I could say, as he extended his hand to me. I shook it, but my heart started sinking once I let go. In a few short minutes everyone would see me and my geeky score plastered all over TV, everyone including Stacey, my pretty and popular girlfriend who hadn’t even bothered to take the SAT test, and who had made it clear that she couldn’t care less about the thing. I was about to come across looking like one big mega-buster, I feared, and I prepared myself for the backlash.
The announcement itself is a blur to me, it came and went and was over before I knew it. Mostly, it turned out, I’d been worried over nothing. No one said anything about my score or teased me as I walked the halls back to my locker. In fact, no one seemed to care one way or the other about it, I realized. Looking back on the matter, of course, that is the strangest part about it: no one said anything; it was as if my achievement were not real, which in a way, I suppose it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t as real as, say, the Versace shades I put back on when I left the Vice Principal’s office, the ones I’d coaxed Stacey into buying for me, the same ones Biggie Smalls wore in his videos. Shades like that got me props. What, after all, was an SAT score?
            Such a lopsided system of values didn’t strike me as particularly crazy at the time. It was as natural as strutting with a slight limp for me to downplay certain things and to emphasize others. I’d grown up tiptoeing a razor-thin line between keeping it real with my friends at school and keeping Pappy proud of me at home. It was a delicate balance to say the least. Sure, part of me wished that Stacey or someone had given me a pat on the back, recognized my effort just a little, but more than anything, what mattered to me most was simply not to have that balance broken. That was all; that was essential. Anything else was gravy. 
Standing by myself in the hallway after the announcement, gathering my books as the bell rang for first period, I spotted one of my friends running up to me with a huge smile on his face. “Yo, Thomas!” he said, “I was looking for you!”
            “Oh, yeah? What’s up?” I said, smiling back at him.
            “Yo, you remember that one Puerto Rican girl at my job, son, the one I was telling you about?”
            “Uh huh.”
            “Son, I smashed that last night!”
            “Ah, that’s what’s up!” I screamed, dapping him in sincere congratulation.
“Yeah, yo,” he said running off. “It was amazing. And, you—how you been?”
I started to say something but then I didn’t. “Oh, you know,” I said. “Same old, same old.”
“Word, well, I’ll holler,” he said, and we both went our separate ways.

To read more about Thomas Chatterton Williams and his memoir, "Losing My Cool," visit his WEBSITE, like him on FACEBOOK, or friend him on TWITTER. CLICK HERE to purchase his book.  

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  1. First of all congrats for the Essence feature. Loved it. And this post reminds me so much of myself in high school, trying to dumb it down it front of my friends and then in the shadows gets A's on the tests and participating in things that would further my education. Hindsight I wish I would have been more proud and let my work shine instead of hiding behind pjs and uncombed hair.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate

  2. When I read stories like this, it always feels like I'm stepping into another world. Not because I don't understand the pressure to lead double lives like this, because I absolutely do. Plus, I expect my own kids will face some of the same issues.

    It's just that growing up in the Virgin Islands, peer pressure wasn't nearly as much of a factor for me as it was for Thomas. There was always the urge to feel "cool," of course, like one of the popular kids. But the disparity in levels of "coolness" wasn't as pronounced as it seems to be in a lot of schools in the states.

    I was a straight A student, and by all definitions, a "nerd" — BUT I was also a cheerleader, sang in the school choir, played steelpan and knew pretty much everyone and they knew me. I'm willing to bet some of the guys I grew up with would remember it differently, but for me, smarts and popularity weren't mutually exclusive. I don't know if that was a reflection of my own personality or the culture I lived in, but reading this certainly made me think about it.

    I would absolutely love to read the rest of this, in hopes that it will help prepare me to deal with what's to come :)

  3. Excellent guest post! Thank you so much for sharing it with your readers and for being a part of Thomas's virtual book tour!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I plan to read it to help me better understand the struggles my own son will have to face.

  5. this is wonderful. i'm totally obsessed with brown boys and how we are raising/encouraging them. as the mother of a little brown boy i feel it's necessary to encourage his academic prowess, his #BrownBoyGenius (check the tweets. @prisonerswife).

    i will most definitely buy this book. cannot wait.

  6. I recently finished this book and I have to say it by far is one of the most insightful books I've read. It really goes into the mind of a biracial boy trying to find themselves and living two different lives. I know its something that some black boys struggle with everyday, trying to please others without looking into themselves to find what truly makes them happy. And his father played such an important role in making him the person that he's grown to be. Great book!

  7. Great post. I loved this. I'm definitely going out to get this book.

  8. I can see a striking similarity between this story and my own high school experience. I took me so long to realize the vice secular hip-hop music had on me. I made a decision (fairly recently) that I didn't want to pass that vice on to my children. The name Hip-Hop Dad has a much deeper meaning. I will enjoy reading this book.

  9. It's so interesting hearing an experience so different from my own. I wore a nerd stamp on my forehead apparently. I still felt the pressure to conform to my peers socially, or rather the backlash for not conforming. I feel that if more of us are honest with ourselves and our families than we can prevent passing these social fallacies to the coming generations. Great post.

  10. I've a son that is very intellegent but he dont want friend to know how smart he's so to me that a problem to me because if you have the ability why not use it to get want you want out of life. you shouldn't be afraid of who you're but who you will be come bottom line.

  11. There are alot people out there with the brains but are scared to let there friend know the real them but in reality there only hurt themselves in the long run. I love the intellegent that our children have that a special gift and that need to know that there nothing wrong with being smart.

  12. Does posing in fronbt of a graffiti alley make you hiphop?


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