This was a book that I read to prepare me for another book. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recently published Self-Portrait in Black and White is being talked about a lot by folks who are interested in social issues centering upon race. I initially decided to read that book but I thought that his first book, Losing My Cool, first published in 2011, seemed like a prerequisite to reading the new work. Thus, I decided to read this book first. I thought this work was a fascinating account of the author’s early life that was also filled with insightful and important social commentary.
This work is a memoir of the author’s life up until about the age of 23. It is also a scathing critique of what the author calls hip – hop culture. Williams paints a picture of this culture going far beyond rap music. He describes a world that is violent, anti – intellectual, anathema to normal and healthy relationships and incredibly harmful for those who participate in it. Thus, the author argues that this culture has done great harm to both the American black community as a whole and to black individuals.
Williams’s father was black and his mother was white. He grew up in a middle class, mixed race, New Jersey community in the 1990s. He and his family viewed themselves as black. During his teens and early twenties he was enmeshed in hip - hop culture. Williams account of these years tells a story of a young man who excelled in school but who was pulled into a destructive and harmful youth culture.
The first part of the book describes what is was like for Williams when growing up. It was a moderately violent environment which the author found himself in. Crime was glorified. It was anti – intellectual world where the only acceptable culture was rap music and Black Entertainment Television. Young men and women entered into toxic and harmful relationships with one another that were characterized by each partner distrustful of the other and trying to assert a strange dominance over one another. Williams contends that this culture pushes young black people to embrace a terribly harmful but disingenuous persona that glorifies all of these self - destructive things. Counterbalancing this youth culture was Williams’s father, known as “Pappy”. The elder Williams was a fairly strict parent and highly principled man who is an intellectual and who revers books and learning.
Williams’s high grades got him into the highly prestigious Georgetown University. There he also found a hip - hop culture that he began to participate in. However, at this point he began to change. He started to appreciate culture beyond hip - hop, he began to embrace reading and started associating with people not immersed in self - destructive practices. He credits his father’s influence on his transformation. As this time some of his old friends began to be alienated from him due to these changes. Williams eventually graduated Georgetown with a Bachelors in philosophy. He had changed a lot as he now embraced intellectualism and what I would call humanism. The book closes as Williams begins traveling to various places in France.
Toward the end of the book Williams writes a lot about society and philosophy. He brings thinkers such as Hegel to his observations. His criticism of hip - hop culture is withering. Williams goes on to talk about how too many young African Americans have embraced a group identity that is based this culture. He argues that all this has lead to high levels of violence, incarceration and single parent families in the black community. He writes,
If you’re young and black today and lucky enough to get out and travel, see the world beyond your own little backyard, inevitably it is going to strike you that you have been lied to. You have been straight-up lied to, and not just in the most obvious way—not just by Robert L. Johnson and the propaganda organ of BET or by the spokesmen for stereotypes, the Busta Rhymeses and the Gucci Manes. It’s worse than that; the swindling has gone down far closer to home. You have been lied to by people you have known personally, people you have trusted, your friends and your neighbors, your older siblings and your classmates, your cousins and your lovers. Whether that lie is born of simple ignorance masquerading as arrogance—a seductive ignorance, yes, but still only ignorance—or, worse, actual malice, matters little at the moment of your realization. All that matters at that moment is the lie itself, this fiction that says that for you and your kind alone an authentic existence is a severely limited one. You have been lied to (and for how long?) and now you know that you have been lied to and you can’t deny it and you are naked.
One interesting argument that Williams makes that while white people listen to hip - hop and sometimes embrace some the trapping of the culture, they do so ironically. They ultimately do not take it seriously and thus do not fall into self - harmful patterns. Williams says that African Americans generally take hip - hop culture seriously and actually modify their behavior based upon it.
Williams does a lot more musing about group identity, how these group identities relate to our current times and how all this relates to his own life. Williams has a lot of opinions and this book is bursting with them. It is imposable to cover all the ideas that are presented here within one post.
There are not a lot of harrowing passages in the book. While Williams describes an unhealthy cultural environment, he did not grow up in the worst areas. I should note that early in the book the author also tries to emulate the street language that he grew up with, the N- word is used throughout the text. This book is not for those who are easily offended.
I think as a cultural critic Williams is very often on target. The negative aspects of what Williams describes as hip – hop culture are convincingly laid out here. I think that this book illustrates a lot of truths but I have some additional thoughts on these issues.
I think that over the years, other youth cultures have been almost or as bad as hip – hop culture. For instance, I grew up with folks who embraced a kind of anti – social, fairly violent, heavy metal rock culture. People who engaged in it were just as anti – social and violent as the people that Williams describes. Decades after they first fell into it, I know of several folks whose lives have been plagued by substance abuse and prison. I think that hip - hop culture is worse then some other youth cultures only because it is so much more prevalent.
One criticism I have here is that Williams seems to ignore the many people of color who partake in the trappings of hip - hop culture but do not internalize its negative aspects. Williams describes many white folks talking hip – hop culture ironically. I think that many black folks do too. I deal with a lot of people in their twenties. These folks are whites, African Americans and other non – whites. Hip - hop and the at least the superficial trappings of the culture is fairly popular with these many of these young people. Most of the younger folks who I know, be they white, black or members of other groups, like the music and play with a little bit of the culture but are not negatively impacted by it. This is the same as folks who listen to and sometimes play with the hedonistic and anti – social aspects of some rock music culture but who nevertheless lead ethical and responsible lives. Conversely, I know of one young white person, who unfortunately has been drawn into some of the negative aspects of hip - hop culture. Though personal experiences are not proof, I think my experiences in this case reflect the reality of a large group of people who are not negatively impacted by this culture. I believe that as time goes by, more and more people will embrace this culture ironically much as folks have done so with the negative aspect of rock music culture. I emphasize that I think that Williams does zero - in on serious and real cultural issues here, he just does not give enough credit to blacks and other people of color who have avoided the worst aspects of this culture.
I also think that some of Williams criticisms apply to pop culture in general. For instance, he laments the fact that he and his friends knew so much about hip – hop music but knew nothing about other black dominated artforms such as jazz and knew nothing about black history. He later expands this to decry participants of hip – hop culture for their lack of knowledge about and history and culture in general. However, I think that this is an issue faced by many young people steeped in a lot of popular culture, not just those involved in this lifestyle.
Williams is lively and bold thinker. This book has come under a lot of criticism. He expresses a lot of opinions on controversial issues here. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with him on the majority of his points, I think that it would be impossible to agree with him on everything. Either way, I think that anyone interested or invested in these issues would get a lot out of this book. In addition, this is such an interesting memoir filled with fascinating events and people. I have read both of Williams’s books now. Thus, I will post my thoughts on Self Portrait in Black and White soon.