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.
I haven't heard of this author or this book, but I enjoyed your thoughtful review of his ideas. I look forward to hearing what you think of his new book!
it's been interesting for me to read accounts of young people coming into "adulthood", otherwise known as being socialized. for the more talented the process involves becoming aware of the ramifications of certain types of socially unacceptable behavior and from that point to realizing where actual power lies. and as age happens, it's not unusual for some persons to understand that most of the population is totally nuts, from a logical, more universal perspective. it'll be interesting to see where on this arc of development Williams arrives at in the next book... great series of posts, lately: fascinating following along in your journey!
Thanks Debra Williams is really popular with what I would call the liberal humanist crowd. I will be soon posting on his new book.
Thanks Muddpuddle. Indeed. As people get older they tend to become less anti - social. In part, that is what this book is about.
Williams goes in some interesting directions in his new book. I will be talking about that soon.
This sounds like a fascinating book. I have to admit I've never really understood the hip-hop culture. I do enjoy some rap music but much of it is so violent and anti-woman in content that it is impossible for me to embrace it. I can understand its attraction for many young people, more as a matter of rhythm than attention to the actual words. I do think it is dangerous and wrong to make sweeping generalizations about any group of people, so I might find myself in disagreement with the author on some points, but it does sound like an interesting read.
Hi Dorothy - I have never been into rap myself. With that, I disagree with the message conveyed in the music that I listen to.
Williams is fairly careful about labeling all people of particular races and ethnicities as being one way or another. His message is that hip hop culture has been bad lots of African Americans.
Great review. I am definitely going to look this book up. It sounds exactly like something I would want to read. I have always been fascinated by race relations and culture. I would like to read this guy's perspective.
I will note, that I think as the demograph of bi-racial people grows, a new culture will form that will not be anti-black or white. I look forward to it.
Thanks Sharon. Williams really does come at this from s perspective that is different from what most people are writing these days.
He really delves into the issue of multiracial people in his second book that I will be posting about.
Excellent write-up Brian. I'm glad that near the end, you answered my "but, but, but surely not all followers of hip-hop are like this". Life just isn't like that. It sounds like this memoir has been written by a young person who has seen the light. I really hope this doesn't sound condescending because it's not meant to, but young people tend to be passionate and idealistic, and to see things in a more binary/black-and-white way than older people do. I've read two memoirs by a young Australian woman born to Asian immigrant parents. Her first memoir was written well but seemed to me to lack a "rounded" more "tolerant" view of her family, something that she almost naturally, I suspect, re-balanced in her second memoir written a few years later.
This is not to say that we shouldn't listen to these younger voices because they do bring an experience of the world that we just can't have, but we also need to apply our own experience of the world and how it works to our reading of them. And, clearly, there is this darker aspect of hip-hop culture that means something to disaffected young black people, and society would do well to listen to them I'd say!
I look forward to seeing what you say of the follow-up book.
Thanks WG - You raise a very good point in that Williams was writing from a perspective of a very young person. Many of us do become a lot more nuanced as we get a little older. I agree that is no reason not to listen to younger folks.
I am not sure that I agree with him, but Williams more or less dismisses any arguments that there is any deep or subtle meaning behind young folks embrace of hip hop culture.
Williams’s second book is also full of interesting opinions. I will probably post about it in about two weeks.
This was an interesting post but I'm not sure how much of it I understood as I am completely unfamiliar with "hip hop" culture. Based on a brief perusal of the lengthy Wikipedia article on the topic it seems there are significant aspects (including attitudes towards women and homophobia) that I find offensive. It sounds like the author does not focus on these negative aspects of the culture.
Hi Brian, Great review. This sounds like a book I would like to read. We need more writers like Williams willing to speak their minds though I do agree with you that whether its hip hop, heavy metal, video games, rock and roll (which in the 1950's critics worried would lead to juvenile delinquincy) there are many teens who can enjoy the music but not get trapped by it. I think how one's life goes has more to do with one's homelife and also if you grow up surrounded by poverty, drugs, crime, that has a bigger effect. Peer pressure also can have alot to do with steering kids down the wrong path.
Hi James - He does talk about these things a bit. In terms of my misogyny he focuses more on the self destructive behavior of young men and young women in terms of relationships.
Thanks Kathy. Williams does go way beyond the music and talks about a lot of things different cultural aspects.
I think that the chicken and the egg question comes into play here. Williams blames hip hop culture for a lot of the poverty, drug abuse, bad home-life, etc.
This sounds like a fascinating memoir. I've heard some hip-hop music, but I have a lot to learn about the culture. Excellent commentary! I look forward to your review of Williams' second book.
(P.S. I resubmitted my comment to fix my typo. I called you "Brain Joseph" instead of "Brian Joseph", by accident. Usually I catch this typo in time, but this time I didn't. Brain Joseph is fitting though.:)
Hi Suko - No worries. I tend to make a lot of typos in comments section.
Thanks Brian for reading and reviewing this book. For me, the ideas in it are all part of the conversation. I so relate to you needing to read this book first. Something I would have done! The author's thinking, as reviewed by you, made me think of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952, in which he grapples with similar issues. Today I watched the entire memorial to Toni Morrison, held last Thursday, now on YouTube. Very moving as so many writers and performers paid tribute to her approach to racism. More of the conversation.
Thanks Judy. I agree that these issues need to be talked about and we need to listen to each other. Just that statement has become controversial. So many folks on multiple sides of these issue seem to only spew acrimony. For some, “conversation” means only giving credence to people who push their own agendas.
I will try to catch some of that Toni Morrison memorial.
what i could see through your wonderful wonderful review is that writer seems to be failed to neutral in his expressions .
long ago during my early twenties i watched a horrible drama series "Roots" it filled me with terror for long as human dear Brain ,whatever i watched later about people of color was always under influence of that powerful sense of pity which i felt for them when i watched that series .
i think such writing or set of thoughts are fair products of oppression and cruelties they beard as race. it will be impossible to write something about their life while avoiding all dark realities .
the aggression and rough behavior of hip hop culture is simple display of disturbed upbringing
i agree that rock culture and some others like that were also there to show that it was not matter of people of color only.
many fine people among them stood away from such negativity and survived sublimely by rising and shining among others .
i appreciate that writer tried to share his thoughts honestly here
thank you so much for being here to share them with us dear Brain!
Hi Baili - It has been a long time since I saw roots. It really was extraordinary and disturbing especially for the time that it was made.
Williams view is that a long and noble fight against racism and oppression is tarnished by what he views is a shallow and unprincipled descent into hip - hip culture.
Hi Brian: thanks for introducing me to this writer & thinker. He seems pretty brave to take on hip-hop culture in such a way. He sounds like a young James Baldwin type ... going to France and being an intellectual. Does he mention Baldwin? I look forward to hearing about his next book.
Hi Susan - Williams came under a lot of criticism for this book.
He does talk a fair amount about Ballin. One of several points he makes is that he compares the intellect and substance os Baldwin and those he influenced to what he believes to be the vacuousness of hip - hop culture.
"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." Says so much.
This is something I faced. Growing up in a tight-conservative religious community which condemned just about everything, I learned that world was different. It was a shock when seeing just how different with Vietnam and racial tensions. (Midwest--never even saw a black person until I was in college.)
My then-teenage kids once told me I needed to listen to Metallica, that I'd learn something from it. Did I? I guess I did, always do when someone really listens.
Hi Susan - I think that many young people, including myself, find that many assumptions that they grew up with should be questioned.
I love Metallica. I also think that they have some worthy things to say.
Hi Brian! Another good review! Again, I'll probably not get to it, but it's nice to read about it, and I look forward to the follow up.
Thanks Rachel- It was well worth reading. But there is so little time.
What a fascinating post—I have never heard of Williams nor this book, and no nothing about the Hip-Hop culture—so I learned a lot. Interesting that it is anti-intellectual—I can see that—sort of the notion that I don’t want to be part of a club that I think doesn’t want me.
Thanks for a great review and opening my eyes and mind to a whole different world.
Thanks Jane - This book was an enlightening look into a subculture that I only had a limited knowledge about myself.
It's me, I'm back.
Re-reading this review brought back to a book (I've read 3/4 of it...was still teaching then.) "Bless me, Ultima", written in 1972. Its story is intense, seeing the struggle within his own family. the mother and father's different families and their life views lead the boy to seek his own path.
It is an excellent book and it relates to Williams conflicts. Ignorance, yes.
In San Diego, so close to the border, teaching meant seeing these children struggle, being between language, fitting neither in lst and 2nd cultures.
Hi again Susan - Thanks for mentioning Bless Me, Ultima, I will check it out.
Living with two cultures can be rewarding and it can be difficult. In the case of this book, Williams gives no credence to hip - hop culture and calls for its rejection.
I saw the sentence which said this was a memoir of a 23 year old and instantly thought, how can someone that young have much to write about. But the rest of your review made it clear this was nothing like the shallow 'autobiographies' we get now from many celebrities. Whether you agree with his views or challenge some of them, at least this is a book with much matter to reflect upon
Hi Karen - This is Indeed a substantive book. I cannot imagine what those celebrity autobiographies of young people are like.
I tend to think that no two people could possibly agree on all these complex issues. With that, Williams is definitely worth listening to.
I can understand why he's come under criticism. Or at least one of the reasons why he might have; writers from minority groups often get accused of inviting racism or other kinds of bigotry if they say critical things about their own culture.
It sounds like an interesting book, and I agree that many cultures have elements that can be destructive, especially to younger people who need to mature, see more of the world, and hopefully grow past certain habits or mentalities.
Hi Hila - Indeed, that is one reason that ire is directed at Williams. Especially in his second books, his ideas have challenged what I have referred to as the ideas of the postmodern left.
Young people so often fall into bad behaviors that they often grow out of. This includes my own experiences.
Hi Brian, really enjoyed reading your review. I agree that there are other pop cultures that are just as negative.
Thanks Carol. Young people will tend to gravitate towards some bad stuff. Hopefully, as time goes by, more will do so ironically.
Hi Brian, this sounds like a really interesting read. I can imagine the author has come under a lot of criticism. Good point about how some people unfortunately don't branch out and learn about other forms of music like Jazz or even 50's doo-wop.
I used to love some hip-hop music as a teen myself in the 90's it was really popular...mainly the women artists. One of my favorite albums in the genre "My Life" by Mary J Blige turned 25 recently, I used to listen to that one all the time... the lyrics were inspiring and something I could relate to at that age.
Fantastic commentary as usual, thanks for your thoughts on this one!
I look forward to your post on Self Portrait in Black and White.
Thanks Naida - I also was really culturally closed off in terms of music when I was young.
Williams explained that people like Mary J Blige was looked down on in the Hip Hop culture that he was exposed rot as her message was not simplistic and did not promote the gangster image.
Yes, Mary J Blige was more about women being empowered ... Lauryn Hill was another popular female hip hop artist who sent the same message as well. ...
Sounds like a good book. How did Williams manage to escape the anti-intellectual aspects? How did he get top grades and in get into such a good school? And what did his friends think about it?
Hi Stefanie -Despite his surroundings, Williams always had a steak of intellectualism in him, prompted by his father. It set him apart at times from his friends. When exposed to different people at Georgetown, this began to grow.
As with all of your reviews, I enjoyed this one. I suspected the horror of sexual abuse regarding Mr. Quint with Miles. However, I thought Miss Jessel's interest in Flora was to promote maleficence. Given their different positions within the house, I'm not certain that Mrs. Grose would have felt it was her place to contradict the governess regarding the ghosts. I think she would have outwardly deferred to her for this reason. Granted, this is only my opinion. What I would like to know is why the children's uncle was so strict with the governess about not reaching out to him. I don't recall it ever being explained why Miles was expelled from school. I read the book over 25 years ago so my memory may be faulty on that. If anyone knows why Miles was expelled, do tell!
Thanks Liberty. It is actually amazing how much you do remember this book considering the fact that you have not read it in so long. As your questions and observations show, there are many ways to interpret this book and it leaves one with many questions. I really do not know why Miles was expelled, it is something else that is repressed.
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