With the frenzy of another school year ended, I’ve had the time to reflect on the past year – one where I was fortunate enough to be able to send both my sons abroad. The 8th grader went to Barcelona with his Spanish class, the college senior went to Tanzania in a semester abroad program. For both of them, I got the desired effect – a broadened perspective on life that I hope will later translate into a broader, more global, view on what it means to be a black man.
I saw a 22-year-old come back with a deeper appreciation of his life prospects in the US, even with its troubled racial history and tumultuous present and future. I saw a reticent 14-year-old come back full of chatter about Spain, confident in his knowledge of a place his parents hadn’t seen, something all adolescents cherish, the moment when they know something more. Both of them reminded me of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture by Thomas Chatterton Williams. He grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, enamored of hip-hop culture, going completely against the wishes of his erudite father and headlong into an American urban culture and a narrow view of what it means to be a young black man. Eventually, after numerous missteps, the influences of his father and some 15,000 books sank in.
In the blogosphere Williams and his book have received mixed reviews, deep appreciation for his writing skill, but split decisions on his verdict on hip-hop culture (some taking him to task for what is perceived as criticism of hip-hop – read general black urban – culture). What was most evocative for me, given my recent experience with my sons, was a scene in the book where Williams meets with childhood friends on a college trip abroad to France and witnesses the looks on their faces when they realize how wide the world is and how narrow their perspective has been until then. I’ve seen that look on my sons’ faces.
One of many cold facts of life is that not everyone can travel. I myself am good and broke from financing my sons’ trips. Which brings me to an important point – books as surrogates for travel, the ability to go places and experience things you can’t otherwise, to get a broader perspective on life.
Which leads me to Tyrese Gibson’s book How to Get Out of Your Own Way. It is not as philosophical and introspective as Williams’ book but the title alone is good advice. Driven by the need to get out of Watts, and with enough instinct to choose friends attuned to more positive perspectives, Gibson found his own broader outlook and is now sharing it with others.
All of it is much to think about in the summer as young black men confront the temptations and limitations of urban youth culture (no this is not a blanket indictment of hip-hop culture) and the desperate need to imagine other lives for themselves.