Excerpt from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Losing My Cool

How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

Losing My Cool
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2010,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    240 pages.

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I must have really been staring at her, because all of a sudden I noticed that she wasn’t aimlessly pacing back and forth anymore but pointing and yelling specifically at our car. “What the fuck are you staring at?” she howled. “You rich, white motherfuckers in your Murr-say-deez, go the fuck home! You think you can just come and watch us like you in a goddamn zoo?”

She was making a scene. Passersby in the street were taking notice and looking at our car, too. That was a time when Benzes were the shit and you had to be careful where you parked because tough guys would pull off the little hood ornament and wear it from a chain around their necks—ready-made jewelry. I was terribly uncomfortable being the center of attention there in that backseat, mentally pleading for the light to turn green. I was also confused as hell. Who were these white people this woman kept referring to? Was she talking about . . . us—was she talking about me? Of course my mother was white, but I didn’t understand how she could think I was white, too. After all, I was on the way that very moment to have my hair cut at the only barbershop in the area that would cut hair like mine—curly, nappy hair. The kind that “didn’t move,” the kind of hair that disqualified me from getting cuts at the white barbershop two blocks from my house. But this woman was talking to me.

“Just ignore her,” my mother said, and finally we drove away. But I couldn’t drive that woman’s angry face out of my head. She had somehow stripped me of myself, taken something from me. I felt I had to protect myself from ever feeling that kind of loss again.

When I stepped into the barbershop that day and every second Saturday afterward, I was extra careful to pay attention to the other black boys sitting inside, some with their uncles, some with their fathers and brothers, some sitting all alone. These boys became like models to me. I studied their postures and their screwfaces, the unlaced purple and turquoise Filas on their feet, their mannerisms, the way they slapped hands in the street. These boys would never be singled out and dissed the way I had been. I decided I wanted whatever it was that protected them.

Inside Unisex, it smelled deliciously of witch hazel and Barbasol, and there were three long rows of cushioned seats facing five swiveling barber’s chairs like bleachers in a gymnasium. There was an old, fake-wood-paneled color television suspended from the ceiling in the far back corner. If a bootlegged movie wasn’t playing on the VCR, the TV stayed stuck on one channel in particular the rest of the time, a channel I soon learned was called Black Entertainment Television. At the time in the morning when I usually came into the shop, the program Rap City would be showing. These barbershop Rap City sessions were not my first exposure to hip-hop music and culture, of course; I had been aware of it vaguely through the tapes my brother brought home and played in his bedroom. I don’t believe, though, that I had ever noticed BET before, and in the strange, homogeneously black setting of Unisex Hair Creationz and the city of Plainfield beyond it, the sight of this all-black cable station mesmerized and awed me. Watching BET felt cheap and even a little wrong on an intuitive level—my parents wouldn’t admire most of what was shown; Pappy called it minstrelsy—but the men and women in the videos didn’t just contend for my attention, they demanded it, and I obliged them. They were all so luridly sexual, so gaudily decked out, so physically confident with an oh-I-wish-a-nigga-would air of defiance, so defensively assertive, I couldn’t pry my eyes away.

One morning, Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler” video came on, and though I didn’t know the meaning behind the title—or even whether I liked what I was hearing—I knew for sure that the other boys in the shop didn’t seem to question any of it, and I sensed that I shouldn’t, either. All of them knew the words to the song and some rapped along to it convincingly. I paid attention to the slang they were using and decided I had better learn it myself. Terms like “nigga” and “bitch” were embedded in my thought process, and I was consciously aware for the first time that it wasn’t enough just to know the lexicon. There was also a certain way of moving and gesticulating that went with whatever was being said, a silent body language that everybody seemed to speak and understand, whether rapping or chatting, which I would need to get down, too. Over the weeks and months that followed, as I became more and more adept at mimicking and projecting blackness the BET way, and while it was all still fresh to me, what struck me most about this new behavior was how far it veered not just from that of my white classmates and friends at Holy Trinity, but also from that of my father and the two older black barbers in the barbershop—sharp men who looked out of place in Unisex and who held the door and brushed parts on the sides of their heads.

Excerpted from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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