The Cool World

GLENN McNATT

August 21, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

There is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that sums up the sad plightof far too many inner-city young people today. The poem is only 24 words long, and you can read it in a single breath:

We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon.

The poem, written in the 1950s, expresses in ironic shorthand the main thesis of Richard Majors' and Janet Mancini Billson's recent book, "Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America." Mr. Majors, a psychologist, and Ms. Billson, a sociologist, argue that for poor inner-city young men (and, to a lesser extent, young women as well), being ''cool'' is much more than adolescent acting out. It is also strategy for survival in a hostile world, a distinctive coping mechanism that serves to counter, at least in part, the very real threats young black men (and women) confront on a daily basis.

The authors define the ''cool pose'' as a ''ritualized form of masculinity that entails behaviors, scripts, physical posturing, impression management and carefully crafted performances that deliver a single, critical message: pride, strength and control.'' These elements of the ''cool'' style are designed to support the black youth's self-perception of competence and empowerment. They also ease the anxiety and pain of blocked opportunities.

The cool pose is a response to the anomie and materialism of life in late 20th century America. Inner-city young people want the same things other Americans want: success, prestige, personal possessions and wealth. Yet they sense that for them the path to these goals is blocked by social, economic and political barriers that seem impervious to reasonable, everyday effort. They may easily conclude that the deck is stacked against them. The cool pose is one way urban young people attempt to cope with their disenfranchised status, diminished rights and blemished self-esteem.

''Being cool is an ego booster . . . comparable to the kind white males more easily find through attending good schools, landing prestigious jobs and bringing home decent wages,'' the authors write. ''By acting calm, emotionless, fearless and tough, the African-American male strives to offset an externally imposed 'zero' image. Being cool shows both the dominant culture and the black male himself that he is strong and proud. He is somebody.''

But a huge cost is exacted for the tenuous security ''coolness'' confers. Because coolness is essentially a mask that serves to hide deeper vulnerabilities and fears, it cannot be turned on and off without risking loss of self-esteem. Once assumed, the cool pose becomes a means of coping with every situation, regardless of its appropriateness. Thus some young men will not allow themselves to express any form of weakness, such as fear or backing off from a fight, even if retreating would prevent violence or arrest.

The cool mask is also a factor in dropping out of school, falling into drug or alcohol abuse or being sucked into gang activities. It can lead to frustration in attempts to form authentic relations with women, because the very masks and game-playing behaviors that initially make the cool male attractive to women ultimately inhibit genuine intimacy and companionship.

Mr. Majors and Ms. Billson painstakingly dissect the elements of the cool style as it is expressed in clothes, cars, sports, dancing and the rituals of interpersonal interaction that inner-city youth employ to win and retain status among themselves and in the world outside the ghetto. They show that the cool style has its roots in this country's long history of racial oppression and slavery, when blacks were compelled to conceal their emotions and present a facade of detached, passive acceptance for the white world.

That mask, fabricated to defend against the bondsman's fear of total disintegration and loss of self, has been passed down through generations until it has become a ritualized mode of coping for thousands of impoverished urban youth in contemporary America. As the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,/This debt we pay to human guile: With/ torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And/ mouth with myriad subtleties. . .

There is an enormous price to be paid for such an elaborate a deception, however. And when the bill eventually comes due, every American will pay it, not just those who deal in the coin of ''cool.''

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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