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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  • First Published:
    Apr 2010, 240 pages
    Apr 2011, 240 pages

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Clarence was a quiet boy with thick hair, good muscle tone, and intelligent almond-shaped eyes beneath bushy brown eyebrows. That day at school a group of white children had cornered and taunted him on the yard, asking what a fucking monkey had to do with a briefcase. Either the other black students didn’t see this happen or they chose not to intervene. Pappy yanked Clarence from public school the next day. By the time I was old enough, being in class with our neighbors was not even an option.

Unlike some children of mixed-race heritage, I didn’t ever wish to be white. I wanted to be black. One of the first adult books my parents gave to me, around age seven, was Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Often my mother would come into my room in the evening and discuss with me what I was reading. For several nights, I lay awake long after she had turned out the lights, haunted by the image of Malcolm’s father lying prone on the railroad tracks, his body torn in two and his cranium cracked open like a coconut husk. I didn’t want to resemble in any way whatsoever those men who did things like that to other men.

It was a fortunate thing for me, too, that I didn’t want to be white. It was fortunate because I really didn’t have much choice in the matter. My parents were right: Around white kids, I simply was not white. Whatever fantasies of passing may have threatened to steal into my mulatto psyche and wreak havoc there were dispelled early on, when Tina turned around in her chair, flipped her bronze ponytail to the side, and asked me point-blank, and audibly enough for the whole classroom to hear, “Hey, why doesn’t your hair move like everyone else’s?”

“It’s because I’m black,” I told her, and I wasn’t angry or embarrassed. It was just a fact, I felt, the way that she was husky or big-boned.

Though we didn’t speak about it outright, I don’t think my brother, Clarence, ever wanted to be white, either. He just didn’t seem to see race everywhere around him like my parents and I did. Or if he saw it, he fled from it and didn’t want to analyze it or have to spend his time unraveling it. He didn’t want to be forced to make a big deal out of it. He was forgiving and trusting and found companions wherever they would be his. His two best friends were black, and he dated a quiet Asian girl for a spell during high school. Mostly, though, he fell in with a set of neighborhood white boys with lots of vowels in their surnames and little in their heads. These white boys were almost certainly the same ones who, years earlier, had demeaned my brother with racial epithets on that School One playground (the neighborhood is not that big). But Clarence never knew how to hold a grudge, and that was ages ago and these were his neighbors and they liked to do the things that he liked to do: ride bikes, ride skateboards, talk cars, smoke cigarettes, cut class, hang out. And they did take him in as one of their own, that’s true, although I could see even as a child that they did so without ever fully allowing him to rest his mind, to forget that he was black and that he was somehow other. Still, I can’t fault my brother for going the way he felt was most comfortable. He was a child of the late ’70s and ’80s; hip-hop hadn’t completely circumscribed the world he was formed in. I was a child of the late ’80s and ’90s, on the other hand. I went the other route.

Not that it was always an easy route to go. It was not enough simply to know and to accept that you were black—you had to look and act that way, too. You were going to be judged by how convincingly you could pull off the pose. One day when I was around nine years old, my mother drove Clarence and me over to Unisex Hair Creationz, a black barbershop in a working-class section of Plainfield. Back then we had a metallic blue, used Mercedes-Benz sedan, which from the outside seemed in good condition, though underneath the hood it was anything but, as the countless repair bills Pappy juggled would attest. While the three of us waited for the light to change colors, I became transfixed by the jittery figure of a long, thin black woman in a stained T-shirt and sweatpants, a greasy scarf wrapped around her head. She was holding an inconsolable baby in one hand and puffing on a long cigarette with the other, stalking the second-floor balcony of a beat-up old Victorian mansion that had been converted into apartments.

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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