Book by: Thomas Chatterton Williams
Review by: Matt Kubacki
Associate Dean for Student Success
St. Joseph's College, Brooklyn, NY
Early in Thomas Chatterton Williams’s thoughtful and and thought-provoking memoir, Losing My Cool, he explains both the clarity and complexity in his subject, himself, that unlike others of mixed-race heritage, he never wanted to be white. While the rest of the book details and expands on that concept in Williams’s New Jersey-to-Georgetown education in street- and book-smarts, the lesson to be learned first here is that he is proud to be a black man, even if therein is a winding path toward understanding the self within the greater society of the late-20th and early-21st century United States. Specifically, Williams foregrounds the obstacle-ridden path toward higher education for such a man, the drive and hard work necessary from the self, and the temptations and ridicule oftentimes encountered from others, that make his story a key lesson in the perspective entrenched in such students who historically have been underserved and underrepresented in higher education.
At the same time Williams was on the cusp of entering higher education, Hurtado (1992) found that one in four students perceived considerable racial conflict on their campuses. Needless to say, this atmosphere of racial unrest does not seem to have been ameliorated since, illustrated by the 2015 student protests at the University of Missouri and the related protests on many campuses soon after. But what this does point to is the great continuing need to foster a sense of inclusion and welcome for all students in our campus communities. What Williams stresses, however, is the individual’s journey within this larger scope, and he does so by clearly taking his reader through his own struggles.
One of Williams’s struggles was existential: how to be black in American society. He writes, “It was not enough to know and to accept that you were black – you had to look and act that way, too” (p. 8). That includes “loose jeans…unlaced kicks…funky-a** hairstyles…hip-hop soundtracking our days” (p. 24), as well as ignoring all the books in his father’s study. Williams’s father is a singular figure in his life, one who read always with a pencil in his hand, looking to books for lessons in how to live, in a similar way to how Williams looked to fashion and hip-hop culture.
When Williams makes the jump to Georgetown, he starts to find the value in all those books that had surrounded him at home. Throwing aside “cloaking [his] ignorance in fashion” (p. 96), he reflects that being serious about an awareness of himself meant that he had to leave the black culture of his youth. Yet, what is most important is that this “leaving” is more an expansion of his perspective than a denial of an important part of it. Williams’s awareness was that “the world was a broad and grand place” that he was “equal to and worthy of” (p. 185). It is telling that Williams locates this awareness in his education.
In Losing my Cool, Williams personifies the searching student in a story both classical and contemporary, where education means that students become steeped in tradition in order to critically examine their own thoughts on who they are in the world and become active creators of what their future can be.
Hurtado, S. (1992). The campus racial climate: Contexts of conflict. Journal of Higher Education, 63(5).
Losing My Cool (2010). Book by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Review by Matt Kubacki. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 240pp., $15.00 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-14-311962-3.