Random House; 1994
Recent statistics from the U.S. Justice Department reveal that black males represent more than half the prison population. There are more African-American men in prison serving lengthy sentences, than in college, and a large percentage of these prisoners are unable to read. It is quite clear that all high school dropouts, with emphasis on minority youth, are more likely to end up in prison, or worse, dead from street violence and drugs.
Nathan McCall is one of these black males who ended up in the prison system. His book, Makes Me Wanna Holler, provides a compelling view of how he got there, and how he was able to make the necessary changes to become a positive contributor to his family and community.
He begins by sharing his early childhood experiences of growing up in Virginia, where peer pressure steered him into outrageous behavior. A favorite game in Portsmouth, his hometown, during the late sixties-early seventies era, was "get back". It afforded the youthful, black participants with immediate gratification by striking out against those perceived as the enemy: the whites. Thus, white kids were beat down often, in an effort to obtain compensation for three hundred years of racial oppression. The rage reflected by this game continued through most of McCall's life, in prison and the work force.
During his youth, McCall was troubled whenever he was compared to his white peers by others. This started with his grandmother, Bampoose, a domestic maid who guilt-tripped him with positive references to the white children of her employer. Similar comparisons were made while he was working during his adult years for two major publications - the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Washington Post - where double standards were the order of the day. He was constantly being told to "stop showing your color" whenever he acted up in public, while he saw the same behavior by white peers being tolerated.
Throughout the book, McCall echoes a belief held by African-Americans that white people attribute the action of one individual to the entire race. For example, he felt under pressure to act like his stepfather who performed garden work for white households, even though it reminded him of downtrodden sharecroppers and field slaves. McCall - like many other black men - felt the weight of a nation on his shoulders because any sense of failure reflected not only himself, but also his family and his entire race. These same dynamics can be observed in the OJ Simpson case. Most African-Americans don't believe that OJ is guilty of the vicious killings for which he has been charged; they simply don't want to accept that a black man could act in such a savage manner, providing additional fodder for critics to slander the black race.
McCall brings up another significant issue when he discussed the treatment of black people by each other. "Black on Black" crime has not typically been given much attention since the civil rights era because the spotlight has been focused on governmental malpractices and the abuse of police powers. But it is a serious issue. Makes Me Wanna Holler resonates with the pain of the woman forced to be involved in a "train" of group sex by young men; echoes the suffering of the child without any explanation of the disappearing father; and cries the desperation of the drug addict to rob or assault another poor soul "from the hood". The clarity of McCall's description can be truly felt by readers who have experienced similar incidents. Whether one has been the perpetrator or the victim, by reading chapters such as "Trains", "B & Es" and "Freedom", it is possible to walk by the side of Cavalier Manor, do a few years at Southampton Prison, and confront the difficulties of seeing acceptance in a racist society.
The chapter "Denial" begins with a quotation about African-American men by George Jackson, a black revolutionary killed by authorities inside California's infamous San Quentin Prison in 1971 that continues to be relevant twenty years later. Jackson states that he, like most black men in America, was prepared for prison by virtue of the humiliation and oppression of black men before him: slaves with no hope of emancipation. McCall may have been similarly destined to end up in prison, but in Makes Me Wanna Holler he makes it clear that he did not have to remain there.
During the initial phase of his incarceration period, he learned the game of life. Another prisoner taught him to play chess and that "in life, the person who plots his course and thinks ahead before he acts, wins". McCall learned to use critical-thinking techniques as he confronted various situations inside prison, as well as at places he worked and within his family circle. He was more fortunate than most prisoners who lack family support, both while in prison and post-release, and end up returning to the community without available resources. Religion played a very significant role in his life behind the walls and Islam was the primary connector between McCall and Dr. Naim Akbar, an Islamic scholar and former Norfolk State professor.
Another issue that McCall highlights is the absence of black men as active fathers to their children. He tells of his own experience, helping the reader understand, not excuse, the consequences of irrational behavior by men who abandon their children with the mother. McCall's blood father, JL, left his wife and three kids to start another family only a few miles away. Only two years old when his father left, McCall would be 27 before he saw his father again. Even though a black adult male was present in McCall's household while he was growing up, his biological father was absent and there were no explanations. McCall became determined not to repeat the mistakes of his father.
In McCall's own life as an adult, he separated from his first wife and child and began another relationship. However, he sought to maintain a strong connection with his young son and was successful, even after the mother and son moved away. Because of the anger and pain he carried with him about the abandonment by his own father, from early childhood to adulthood, he realized that to break the cycle, he must be present to guide the development of his son and later, his other children. He saw his bonding with the children become even more crucial, as he observed the increasing rate of fatherless families in the black community.
Nathan McCall has lived a life that includes abandonment, racism, drugs, violence, criminal activity, and even prison. But rather than allowing these demons of his past to help him build walls, he miraculously constructed bridges instead.
A success story of this nature is quite rare. Readers should celebrate it by enjoying the contents of this book and passing it on to another. Makes Me Wanna Holler inspires one to think about yesterday without regret and to focus on tomorrow without fear.