Something that interests me very much is the existence and dissemination of reading materials that would be both interesting and mentally stimulating to young urban males who are either younger than college age, have not attended college, do not plan to attend college, or who’s circumstances would not allow them to. These types of books have always had a great potential to increase general knowledge, literacy, and help young men make better choices. I’ve always gotten a charge out of seeing a young man find a book that he feels finally explains things that he has percieved but did not understand the structure of, in a way that is both intellectually rigourous, but spoken in a language that is based on the on the ground, int the street realities of living in America (and around the globe, but America in particular). It’s amazing to see these books take root and spark a desire to learn more, although sometimes it can be sad as well when you see these people wish they’d been turned on to knowledge sooner.
Young men might find out about these books in the places they frequent, and from friends who they trust. Many times they have a friend who is a well respected memeber of their peer group, and is seen as having done the same things they have and been through the same struggle, but is also well known for being intellectual and a reader and student. Somehow, someway, a morsel of info catches the persons ear and makes them say, “I want to read that!” Sometimes, if it’s the right book, it captures what Miles Davis called, the feeling of, “turning on the lights in the room for the first time.”
I personally learned about this type of book from books that were on my fathers volumnous bookshelf that I learned were ridely read in black communities across the U.S and extending overseas, among young men in the 1960s, ’70s, and even stretching into the ’80s, and early ’90s. The Black Panthers probably epitomized this and made many books popular through their Political Education (P.E) classes, the organization itself was nourished by this tradition of extra curricular reading. Malcom X was inspired to read everything he could during his prison conversion to Islam, even going so far as to read the entire dictionary! When asked once as a Muslim minister what University he attended, he replied, “Books.” In turn, Malcom X’s autobiography written in collaboration with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcom X became a prime example of the type of book I’m talking about in this post.
During the consciousness revolution of the 1960s, there were many young titles that a young black man in particular might discover through word of mouth. The Autobiography of Malcom X, Eldgrige Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life, Donald Goines’ Whoreson, The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, Die Nigger Die! by H.Rap Brown, Das Kapital, by Karl Marx, Message to the Blackman and How to Eat to Live, by the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude McKay, and books by Richard Wright are all books read by many on various paths to self education.
This tradition reached the very young (at the time) practitioners of hip hop. The great, articulate M.C’s who influenced my thinking, such as KRS One and Chuck D, read all these books and then some, which provided the content for their music. KRS was a homeless audodidact who studied everything he could get his hands on, wheereas Chuck D graduated from college, but you still get the feeling his thirst for knowledge was developed in his community way before he set foot at the campus of Adelphi University.
In turn, I think books by hip hop authors such as KRS One’s, The Gospel of Hip Hop, and Ice T’s, The Ice Opinion, carry on that tradition and should be on an updated list. Tupac Shakur was also influenced by this traditon of reading for ones self and ones circumstances, just as the Chuck D’s and KRS-One’s, and his began very early, as his mother was a Black Panther and he was exposed to self education from an early age (also failing to finish high school as KRS-One).
Tupac contributed much to the continuation of this tradition and the reason I got interested in Robert Greene, when his readings inspired him to adopt a rap name sepereate from his perfect for an entertainer (just like Prince Rodgers Nelson) first name, Makaveli, taken from the Philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who penned the classic tome of how to gain, keep and expand power, The Prince. I can recall how ‘Pac got my peer group talking about this book, one of the foundations of westren philosophy, because he overstood what Machiavelli was talking about would have a wide resonance in the inner city communities where people feel they lack power and are struggling to expand their resources.
Around 2000, watching a documentary called, Pimpology: Uncut produced by the always entertaining, “Pimpin” Ken Ivey, I was exposed to Robert Greene’s, The 48 Laws of Power. As a person who’s always been interested, in a very early age at how political and social power is gained and lost, the book quickly made me a fan. The other thing that appealed to me, as a young man who grew up in a heavily religous environment, extracting salvation info from the age old stories in the Bible, as well as a lover of history, was Robert Greene’s use of his degree in classical literature. When I was a kid and told my older brother I liked history, he told me, “what you gonna do with that.” At the time the question hurt, but it was very true. Robert Greene took his degree in classical literature and made use of it, by studying how people have increased or lost their power over the years and providing historical interpetations to back it up. I became a witness for this book, telling many associates about it, and enjoying conversations based on its principles when they purchased it. Whether we became rich and powerful is unimportant. What is important is it gave us some objective examples with which to analyze life and view events, and that strong type of frame work ususally provides for some measure of what we call success in life.
When I tried to convert my sister to this new religion of Robert Greeneism, she wold have none of it, telling me, “I’m only interested in having power over myself.” Robert Greene would most likely tell me those who claim not to want power are usually the most desperate power seekers of all, but I’ll give my sis a pass (hope you’re reading this P, love u). Interestingly enough, that is the path this new Robert Greene book, Mastery, seems to be going down. Greene’s last book, The 50th Law, dealt with developing a success oriented mentality and leapfrogging over the social complacency that would prevent an individual from becoming succesful. This book was inspired by and co written with 50 Cent. This is another example of how Robert Greene is ahead of many other content producers in our day and age, unlike Cristal and Tommy Hilfigger, who made it clear their urban audiences were questionable ghetto gravy on top of their continental European, All American mashed potatoes, Greene embraced his urban audience when he found out his books were highly read in the urban world. And who better to do a book based on the hip hop model of success with than 50 Cent? I can’t think of an MC who’s rise personally offended me more than 50 Cent, and it was based on his relentless thirst for combat with M.C’s, a tearing down of the old order to make a place for himself that Greene advises in several of his books.
This new book however, Mastery, purports to tell us how to master ourselves so that we can master things in the physical world to make our way to success easier. In all actuality, all of Greene’s books had elements of self control and mastery in them, even in the hustles they ran on other people. But this book seems to expand on some concepts found in The 50th Law, where Greene mentioned that the talent of sitting down with something and mastering it, is very much endangered in our modern smart phone, twittering, get your ass beat and it’s on YouTube a minute later society. But in order to be successful, we still must sit down and master ourselves and master our hobbies, careers, and work.
I remember my father, born in the depression in 1931, and many of his peer group that I grew up around in Oakland, used to tell us when we were enjoying the talents of somebody else, we were enjoying their hard work, but we needed to do ours. I thought it some old cruel black talk back then, but it’s become music to my ears more and more. My bumbling efforts at bass playing and writing are two testaments to the victories time wasters have won over me!!! So I welcome Greene’s new book as a chance to rediscover how to sit down, be quiet, work, and conquer myself and the world in the process.