Reporter Nathan McCall recalls another life on meaner streets LOOK BACK IN ANGER

March 06, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Washington -- When Nathan McCall writes about the gang violence in American cities, he isn't just another journalist crunching statistics and venturing out for the occasional homeboy-in-the-street interview. He has strutted down such streets himself, armed and angry, and soon enough incarcerated.

It's the brutal experience of someone who has been there that fuels his autobiographical book "Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America," recently published by Random House. In it, this 39-year-old Washington Post reporter talks about racial tension in this country by way of his own life story.

Mr. McCall's unflinching book has been touted by the literary likes of historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and author Claude Brown, whose "Manchild in the Promised Land" it often resembles. Beyond the book world, Columbia Pictures has bought the movie rights for director John Singleton ("Boyz 'N' the Hood").

The early chapters of Mr. McCall's book immediately debunk the notion that his youthful criminal career was the result of a broken home. He was raised by his mother and stepfather in a working-class neighborhood in Portsmouth, Va. At the time of his worst criminal spree, he was in college.

Yet, even with such a support network, he did everything from steal an ice cream truck to shoot a man in the chest at point-blank range.

Nathan McCall was 20 years old when an armed robbery of a McDonald's landed him a 12-year prison sentence. He served three years of that sentence, and in the intervening years has remade his life so completely that he sometimes wonders if his book isn't about two different people.

As he states in the book: "Sometimes, when I sit back and think about the crazy things the fellas and I did and remember the hate and violence that we unleashed, it's hard to believe I was once part of all that -- I feel so removed from it now that I've left the streets. Yet when I consider white America and the way it's treated blacks, our random rage in the old days makes perfect sense to me. Looking back, it's easy to understand how it all got started."

As the leanly built Mr. McCall discusses his book during an interview in a Washington restaurant, his voice is so low and calm one has to lean forward to catch some of his words. "Sometimes I wrote things and then went back and read them a couple days later as if reading something about another person," says Mr. McCall, who lives in Mitchellville, in Prince George's County. "I feel so far removed from that in terms of how I live now and how I respond to things. I'm still quick to anger, but I don't respond the same way now."

Although Mr. McCall forthrightly condemns much of what he did in earlier days, he is no less blunt in describing the racism that has kept so many young black men unemployed, bitter and ready to lash out. He still strongly identifies with what they're up against and feels that white Americans and black Americans live in separate cultures and that blacks who attempt to assimilate do so at the risk of their cultural identity.

"There are times when I feel very much in touch with a brother I'll be talking to on the street," he says. "We're talking slang, and then I'm more comfortable with that than I am with the white man's dream. I'm still doing a balancing act in two worlds, and I still don't feel completely comfortable. There are a lot of black people who are trying to cross over to the white man's dream and assimilate to such an extent they almost nullify what's real for them.

"Psychologically, it's not healthy for people trying to handle that juggling act. They try to deny they're different than anyone else. We are different -- and that's OK. But they don't feel it's OK. I see that kind of denial most often from the black conservatives," he continues, citing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an example. "It's so apparent they hate themselves and try as hard as possible to deny their own reality in the hopes they'll be accepted by someone else. It's the black conservatives who say race is no longer a major factor in our lives."

Nathan McCall's viewpoint was influenced by the reading he did while working in the prison library. Books such as Richard Wright's "Native Son" and Malcolm X's autobiography brought him to understand the larger social forces at play.

Upon his release in February 1978, he went back to school and graduated from Norfolk State University. Having kept a journal in prison and studied journalism in college, he got a job at the Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star and later the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Much of the second half of his book deals with the racism he feels minority journalists encounter in newsrooms.

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