Violence warps our vision of the black experience

February 17, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The hot new book right now -- the one everyone in my crowd seems to be reading -- is Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America." It is a rags-to-riches kind of story about how young Nathan rose from a troubled childhood and a life of crime to become a reporter with the Washington Post.

And his certainly is a dramatic and disturbing tale. On Page 3, Nathan and his buddies beat up a white youngster who had strayed into their neighborhood on a bicycle. On Page 44, Nathan's gang rapes a 13-year-old girl, the first of a string of "sex trains" on their female acquaintances. And on Page 87 they rip off the local ice cream man.

Nathan and his merry men deal drugs, pull off armed robberies and shoot each other for showing disrespect. At age 20, Nathan received a 12-year sentence for the armed robbery of a fast food restaurant.

In prison, he began to reflect on his life, read and study. Freed after three years, he earned a degree in journalism from Norfolk State University in Virginia and is now on leave as a reporter with the Post.

Though his own life seems to show a remarkable turnaround, Mr. McCall doesn't offer much hope for the next generation of young black men: "For those who would like answers, I have no pithy social formulas to end black-on-black violence," he writes. "But I do know that I see a younger, meaner generation out there now -- more lost and alienated than we were, and placing even less value on life. We were at least touched by role models; this new bunch is totally estranged from the black mainstream. . .I've come to fear that of the many things a black man can die from, the first may be rage -- his own or someone else's."

Mr. McCall's book ends, fittingly, with a line from a Marvin Gaye song: "Makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands."

The friend who recommended "Makes Me Wanna Holler" described it as "a thought-provoking and troubling book. And kind of depressing, too."

Yes, it is.

But I find it even more troubling that stories of rape and mayhem in the inner city seem to be the only thing blacks can find to say about each other these days. The perception that the current generation of young black men is violent, disaffected and out of control permeates our literature, music and movies. It is as if we have taken the ancient stereo types about us and embraced them as truth.

No wonder people who read the book come away depressed. Mr. McCall treats crime and violence as the norm in the black community, the natural reaction of young black men to racism and deprivation: "When I consider white America and the way it's treated blacks, our random rage in the old days makes perfect sense to me."

But such violence is not the normal reaction to racism. I have cousins who grew up in Mr. McCall's old neighborhood in Portsmouth, Va. and not one of them carried a gun, dealt drugs, or gang-raped their female friends. Why not? What was happening in their lives that did not happen in young Nathan's?

Similarly, most members of today's generation of black men are far more likely to graduate from college and move into the mainstream than any generation before them. And even if they do not enter the professional world, the majority will respect life and property -- shunning the promise of a quick dollar through crime and accepting the nickels and dimes of a workaday job instead.

The issue for the black community, for all of us, is to understand why a small minority of young men and women remain so totally disconnected from the rest of society; why they put so little value on their own lives; why they see so little hope.

Unfortunately, we have become so fixed on the salacious aspects of inner city crime that even blacks have adopted a distorted view of the black experience. Black stereotypes about black people warp our attempts to understand the roots of violence -- and constrict our search for solutions.

With a loud and all-but-unified voice, blacks are saying to the community at large: "Yes, all of those terrible things you used to say about us are true!"

Makes me wanna holler. And throw up both my hands.

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