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Georgetown Alum Writes Hip-Hop Memoir - Georgetown College
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Georgetown Alum Writes Hip-Hop Memoir
January 4, 2011
At first glance, Georgetown alumnus Thomas Chatterton Williams (C’03) might seem to be an unlikely author for a book called Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. Yet Williams’ unique background gives his memoir a compelling perspective on what it means to be a young black man in America.
Williams is the second son of a white mother and black father, both civil rights activists who encouraged their children to refuse racial stereotypes and social prejudices. After graduating from Georgetown in 2003 with a degree in Philosophy​, Williams obtained his master’s degree in Journalism from New York University. In 2010, at only 29 years old, Chatterton’s Losing My Cool was published by Penguin Press to much acclaim and was selected as “an editor’s choice” by both the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times Sunday Book Review.
The book chronicles how Williams, growing up in the eighties and nineties, was immersed in hip-hop music and obsessed with the lifestyle of partying, fighting, and “keeping it real” that accompanied it. When his father’s patient after-school tutoring gained him admission into Georgetown, Williams encountered a brave new world. After years of keeping pace with his friends and music idols, he slowly realized that the relentless pursuit of “realness” had constrained his worldview and the kind of person he could become. Out of a “lingering frustration with hip-hop culture and the state of popular culture,” Williams concluded “that black culture of the past 30 years isn’t black culture—it’s street culture. It’s been dominated by one tiny element,” which has serious repercussions.
What began as an Op-Ed for the Washington Post turned into a contract with Penguin Books to critique hip-hop’s dominant position in African-American culture. Rather than railing against the conventions of hip-hop itself, Williams is concerned with how the musical genre became a “monolith” of cultural identity. He argued that “it consumed and swallowed up all other forms of black culture,” and with it, black identity. With this point in mind, “I wanted to write a book of cultural criticism,” he explained, but “as I was writing, I kept hearing my father’s voice especially, and my friend’s voices.” By writing about his experiences and those of his father and friends, “I ended up with something that’s not just a polemic, but more of a love letter to my father and previous generations of blacks that came before me,” he said.
Williams credits his time at Georgetown for drastically expanding his worldview. In the book, he cites a required class in ethics, taught by Professor Nancy Sherman​, as a turning point for how he began to reexamine society and his place within it. “It was just the first time I had thought seriously about some of the philosophy that my father had talked about,” he explained, and “it was the first time I separated myself out from the group and the collective identity I had aligned myself with.” Questioning the narrow roles of his peers and idols—as a “baller,” “hustler,” or “gangsta”—Williams grew to understand his father’s refusal during the Civil Rights era to be limited by his culture and race. The powerful conclusion Williams reached through Georgetown, he remarked, is that “education not a black thing or a white thing…it is the power of getting outside of yourself and realizing there are other ways [to look at the world].”
Williams said that his book has inspired a wide range of responses about hip-hop, race, and culture. For future readers, especially students, Williams remarked, “I hope that it would inspire multiple reactions, and I hope that they would be critiquing my ideas about race...and others would have gone through what I went through.” In the philosophical tradition, the book positions self-knowledge as the result of serious social reflection.
The future holds new projects for Williams. Asked if he considers himself a cultural activist, he explained, “I don’t want to be an activist, and I don’t want to get boxed into the role of always criticizing hip hop.” As a writer, he argued, he’ll keep exploring new ideas. “Taking on one issue, that’s a pundit, but a writer concerns himself with the world,” he explained.
--Jessica Beckman
Photos from top: Williams on the cover of Losing My Cool; the author with his father, Clarence Leon Williams.
Photos courtesy of Thomas Chatterton Williams. 
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