Driven By Rage From Prison To Print

Posted: February 16, 1994

WASHINGTON — If you really want to get writer Nathan McCall angry, mention the crime bills legislators are trying to pass in the nation's capital these days.

Crime is on the minds of many here, including President Clinton, members of the Senate and House, and those who work and live in the District of Columbia, where the per-capita murder rate is the highest in the country.

McCall agrees that it's time to discuss the growing problem of crime, which disproportionately affects African Americans, who are the vast majority of the city's population. It's the approach society takes that makes him wanna holler.

"America's response to what is happening in the streets with young black men killing each other is 'Lock them up and throw away the . . . key and forget about them.' Man, when I hear that, it makes my flesh crawl.

"It makes me feel like I am losing years of my life. The anger churning inside me may eat me alive, man. . . . But that's America. That is very, very characteristic of the approach they take in dealing with us."

McCall speaks from experience. The 39-year-old father of three is a reporter for the Washington Post, where he last covered the District of Columbia corrections system.

He is also a convicted felon. For three years he was in the custody of the Commonwealth of Virginia, serving a 12-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed as a 20-year-old in Portsmouth, Va.

Furious, plain-spoken and blessed with an ironic sense of humor, McCall recounts the spiritual and intellectual rebirth he underwent while incarcerated in the just-published memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America (Random House). He will give a reading from his book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Community Education Center in West Philadelphia as part of the 10th Annual Celebration of Black Writing.

"I am driven by my anger," says McCall, a wiry man whose dark eyes burn with intensity, even when their owner laughs, which is often. "The difference is that now, it's focused anger. I know how to direct it now."

Stories such as Makes Me Wanna Holler are not new. But McCall's is nonetheless well-told, a narrative that chronicles, in hard-hitting language, the desperation, alienation and pain McCall felt growing up in his working- class black neighborhood in the Tidewater area during the '60s and '70s.

He came from a strong, two-parent family that preached the value of hard work. But the man who had made the dean's list during his freshman year at

college ended up running the streets with a gang, dealing drugs, pulling small heists that progressively got bigger and bum-rushing white boys on the other side of the tracks.

We all took off after him. We caught him on Cavalier Boulevard and knocked him off the bike. He fell to the ground, and it was all over. . . . My stick partners kicked him in the head and face and watched the blood gush from his mouth. . . . With each blow delivered, I gritted my teeth as I remembered some racial slight. . . . F-ing up white boys like that made us feel good inside.

McCall takes the reader through incidents such as that, which formed his young world-view. He lived in a place where men could not afford to show their feelings and where women were objects to be brutally toyed with.

"The life" caught up with McCall when he was caught holding the gun after an ill-conceived robbery and he was sentenced to prison.

Miraculously, it was in jail, where the code of the streets was law, that McCall began to find himself. He delved into Christianity, then Islam. He began to read books such as Native Son and Manchild in the Promised Land and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the work of contemporary philosophers. And he began to change his outlook on life.

"(The books) made me think about things I never thought about before," McCall said. "A lot of the philosophy I read helped me learn how to think as opposed to what to think."

After his parole, McCall won a scholarship and returned to Norfolk State University, a historically black institution near his home town. He received a degree in journalism, then landed reporting jobs at the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star in Norfolk, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and, in 1989, the Washington Post. It was not until the 1980s, in Atlanta, that McCall met a white man he could honestly call a friend.

I asked him tough questions about whites. He asked me tough questions about blacks. I respected his sincerity - so much that I even confided to him that I'd been to prison. I hadn't told anyone else about my prison past, not even other blacks. . . .

After a long period of silence, Danny came at me with another question. ''You're pretty angry inside, aren't you, Nate? . . .

"Naw, Danny Boy, I'm not angry. I'm . . . furious.

Danny frowned. "God, Nate, you think about race all the time. Give it a rest, man. It ain't healthy."

I told Danny I didn't have a choice. . . . I can't get past race, because white folks won't let me get past it. . . . I stay so mad all the time because I am forced to spend so much time and energy reacting to race. I hate it. It wearies me. But there's no escape, man, no escape."

McCall took a two-year leave from the Post to complete Makes Me Wanna Holler, a project he began in 1991 when an autobiographical commentary piece he wrote got overwhelming response from the paper's readers. Director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) has optioned the book for a possible film.

McCall writes honestly about his feelings. He's not afraid to tell the reader about times when he was scared, when he cried and when he felt remorse about things he did.

"One of my goals in writing this book was to be brutally honest, and to do something that black men don't often do, which is to really, really talk about my feelings, my fears. We often don't want to do that. And because we don't do that, I think it feeds into stereotypes about us being hard, cold-blooded, devoid of feelings.

"That's just not true. Black men are probably more sensitive than most people. We're strong, but we're very fragile. . . . People don't understand that we do some of the crazy things we do because we are hurting so bad inside."

That pain, caused by generations of self-loathing, is one reason that black men are murdering one another so readily, McCall believes. It shows that the self-hatred among the younger generation may be more of a problem than the racism that helped spawn it.

Still, McCall has a lot of admiration for today's young black men.

"People talk about how bad this generation is, but I admire the spirit of the young folks," he said. "They are not afraid of the white man or anyone else. And I think this is the posture blacks in this country need to take. When we're afraid, and think we have something to lose, we don't get anything done. . . .

"The other thing I like about them is that they haven't bought into the values of my parents' generation, the notion that you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. This generation is even less inclined than mine to even think about trying to join the establishment."

For their own sanity if nothing else, African Americans need to rethink the assimilationist ethic and to do for themselves economically, McCall said.

"We should do what the immigrants who come to this country have done. They don't waste a hell of a lot of time trying to fit into the mainstream. Many of the Koreans who come here, for instance, have master's and advanced degrees. But they didn't bother trying to fit into corporate America."

"Our orientation has always been a bit different, and that's understandable. We go to the best colleges and universities in the country, and acquire all this knowledge and all the skills, and we're using it to benefit somebody who is oppressing us. It doesn't get any crazier than that. It's insane."

IF YOU GO

* Nathan McCall will give a one-hour reading from Makes Me Wanna Holler at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Ave. The event, held in conjunction with the 10th Annual Celebration of Black Writing, is free but registration is required. Information: 215-735-9598.

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