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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Of Fathers and Wardrobes

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Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress by Russell Smith. Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. 256 pages.

For many years Bill Cosby has passionately sought to shore up the deteriorating American family. Both “The Cosby Show” and Cosby’s best-selling Fatherhood book offer humorous takes on family life while simultaneously demonstrating the strength that can be found in family life.

In his latest book, Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2007), Cosby’s advocacy of fatherhood, family, and personal initiative take a more serious turn. Co-written with Cosby’s close friend, Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Come On People is a trumpet call to both the black community and our society at large, telling us that the way toward the restoration of the family is not through talk shows or government programs, but through ourselves as individuals. As the jacket cover of the book states, “the chance to set this country right again begins with the person holding this book.”

On every page of Come On People, Poussaint and Cosby preach this message of individual change. Some of their recommendations — cut off the television, eat healthy foods, teach children manners and respect, push hard for education — can be found in any parenting manual. Indeed, parents looking for practical advice combined with a philosophy of child rearing that calls for a strong mix of love and discipline will find much of value in these pages.

Along with such standard advice, however, Poussaint and Cosby also address problems they find specific to the black community: the absence of fathers in many black families, the obstacles faced by young black males coming of age without positive father figures in their lives, the pressure by their peers to remain mentally (if not physically) in the ghetto. The two men point out at length the benefits of learning standard English and the dangers of learning only dialect. They show little but contempt for the detrimental effects of some rap music with its misogynistic lyrics and its use of the N-word (“If you’re going to raise kids in a home where the N-word is commonly used, you will certainly corrupt your children’s view of themselves”). They urge black men to become responsible fathers and providers, and warn black families about the spiritual dangers of becoming trapped in the welfare system.

Although the humor of Cosby’s previous books is missing from Come On People, his voice still comes through in the prose. Here in this discussion of television and why it should be kept out of our children’s bedrooms we read:

When the television is in a common area, however, you can select the programs for your preschoolers. Then, too, you can use your veto power on programs that the older kids might want to watch, and you can stay in touch with what they enjoy. When you watch together as a family, you can talk to each other and comment on what you are watching. You can even make fun of stuff together and live life like, well, a family. How about that?

Although Come On People has received wide acclaim and generally positive reviews, a few critics have blasted it for alleged blindness to institutionalized racism and poverty. These people doubtless have their reasons for their assaults on Poussaint and Cosby, but whether they have actually opened the book, much less read it, must remain in doubt, for Poussaint and Cosby openly acknowledge the ongoing existence of racism and the cruelty of poverty. They simply put forth a different solution to these problems than those advocated by Sharpton, Jackson, and company — a solution from which not only many blacks, but peoples of all races might take to heart: individual initiative, will power, fortitude.

The holiday shopping season is fast upon us. Come On People would make a splendid Christmas gift for the young parents in your own life.

•••

Russell Smith, who writes weekly columns on fashion and the media in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, raises both male consciousness and gales of laughter in his Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007). Of certain men who like boxer shorts he writes:

He likes to wear his boxers under his velour robe and watch TV. He likes to slap his jiggling belly while he watches football. If he likes his boxers printed with humorous symbols — happy faces, dollar signs — he is even more all of these things.

The silk-boxer-wearing man is not like that. His is a time-honored mix of conservatism and sensuality. Winston Churchill was said to wear pink silk boxers. And no one called him a pussy.

These lines offer a glimpse of Smith’s insouciant wit. In addition, the insights which Smith offers throughout the book on male attire — insights which, given the way most Americans dress, many of us might well take to heart — will be helpful to any shopper wishing to upgrade his wardrobe. Smith acts as a grand guide on a safari through the jungle of fashion, explaining in regard to suits, for example, the difference between a besom pocket with D-tacks and the flap pocket with its somewhat supercilious ticket pocket. Some of his observations may seem arcane, but most will prove of great help to men seeking fashion advice, particularly his comments on formal wear — a term which in these casual times may encompass suits and sports coats as well as tuxedos and morning dress.

The conclusion to Men’s Style makes the book worth its price. Here in just a few pages Smith gives some wonderful snippets of advice regarding fashion. Some of them are of a practical nature (“A jacket will always make you feel more confident than a sweater”). Others are both humorous and dead-on true (“Race car drivers and soccer players are paid large sums of money to wear corporate logos on their clothes. If you are not being paid, why work for free?”)

Here is a delightful book whose sparkling prose brings a smile and whose ideas just may change your wardrobe forever.

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