The Hard Core Of Cool

Donna Britt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 30, 2006

Years ago on a summer day, I was driving along the Detroit riverfront and saw a black man strolling down a wide downtown sidewalk.

Long, lithe and fluid as the river by his side, the man seemed to be gliding. Bareheaded, he wore a white, ankle-skimming djellaba from some sultry, equatorial nation. Yet something whispered that he was African American, something about his utter nonchalance as his garment whipped in the breeze and insinuated itself around his calves. Trust me:

He couldn't have been hotter -- or have seemed more chilled out.


Over the years, I've seen plenty of striking men. But when someone mentions "cool," I hearken back to that strolling stranger. It wasn't his distinctive garb that burned his image into memory but his confidence. Flanked by skyscrapers and businessmen, he wore his exotic ensemble with such authority, the sweating corporate types around him seemed out of place.

Confidence is cool's most essential element. Perhaps that's why black men -- for whom the appearance of assurance can be a matter of life or death -- so often radiate it. Perhaps that's why in the United States, where men as different as Frank Sinatra, Joe Namath, Bruce Lee, Sean Connery, Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp have been deemed cool, black men remain cool's most imitated, consistent arbiters. I mean, there's cool -- and then there's brothercool.

Think of Barack Obama's instantaneous ascension to "coolest man in Congress." Observe Denzel Washington's loping stride. Ponder Dwyane Wade's sweet-as-a-caress ball-handling, Terrence Howard's slumberous gaze and Mos Def's straight-ahead poetry and crooked grin.

Know what else is vital to cool? Authenticity. A whiff of falseness or visible exertion chases it away. (Who else thinks Diddy tries too hard?) Cool is also economy of movement and speech. That's why Eddie Murphy's cocksure '80s screen persona out-cooled Chris Tucker's more recent motormouthed flailing.

Cool is grace made masculine, the seamless melding of emotional authority with physical poise. It's so innately male that its association with black men -- whose masculinity and sexuality have for centuries inspired fear and fascination -- seems inevitable. The connection is so strong that any honest examination of cool must have black men at its center.

No wonder so many black men seek to develop the wardrobe, attitude and facial expressions to telegraph cool. No other group's identity is as steeped in the necessity of appearing cool, or in the expectation that they instinctively bring coolness to the table. That expectation is fueled by black men's outsize influence on music, language and culture, and by white artists -- Elvis, Eminem, Justin Timberlake -- who mimic them.

Every time middle-aged buddies anywhere share a knuckle-clasping handshake or slap their palms in agreement, they're demonstrating brothercool assimilation. Brothercool took fashion's most boring garment, the basic white tee, and inflated it, tossing it over baggy jeans worn by poor youths. The look was copied from Tulsa to Tokyo. A white Minnesota cardiologist recently told me that his T-shirt-sporting 17-year-old son "really thinks he's a poor black kid from Compton."

We think cool emanates from a man's innermost soul, but it has strong physical and sensual components. Yet it's never just about the physical.

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