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McCall, Nathan 1955–

Nathan McCall 1955


At a Glance

Planning a Different Future

Success Without Compromise


Nathan McCall understands the violence and hopelessness gripping African American youngsters perhaps better than any other modern writer. A reporter with the Washington Post, McCall is himself a former felon who spent three years in the Virginia prison system for armed robbery. He used his period of incarceration to educate himself and to begin an ongoing process of self-determination and success in the white mans worldwithout compromising his defiance of racist America.

San Jose Mercury News reporter William J. Drummond wrote: Like Eldridge Cleaver before him, McCall [was] reshaped on the unyielding anvil of prison life. He learned the hard way to consider the consequences of his actions. Drummond concluded: A reporter with [McCalls] background is necessary if a newspaper is ever to come to grips with the cycle of violence. Street dude McCall not only brings diversity to the newspaper staff, he brings real variation.

The story of McCalls rise from street thug to respected journalist is chronicled in his memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, published in 1994. In the book McCall uses stark language and unsparing honesty to detail his years as a violent youth, his prison sentence, and his subsequent years as a college student and a reporter. Once so ashamed of his criminal record that he sought all means to conceal it from would-be employers, McCall has come to grips with his past and the debt he had to pay to right his wrongs.

To quote a Newsweek correspondent, Makes Me Wanna Holler provides a riveting, first-person account of how even a bright young black man can be lured into a life of crime. The book also underscores the power of envy, frustration, and rage in the making of a criminaland the way those same emotions can be turned into positive, motivating forces for self-improvement.

One of five children, Nathan McCall was born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, a thriving town just a few miles from the Atlantic coast. His family was neither poor nor dysfunctional. His mother stayed at home to raise the children, and his stepfather earned a good wage working in the local naval shipyard. Both parents preached the gospel of education, hard work, and self-denial. McCall himself was a promising student with close ties to his mother and grandmother.

A childhood in a Southern town during the 1960s left its mark, however. In his memoir McCall remembers how his stepfather was a victim of racial slights at work, and how he, Nathan, was beaten up by white students at junior high school. Although his existence in the middle-class neighborhood of Cavalier Manor was comfortable enough, McCall began to resent his status in a racist society. He felt that his eventual success would be limited because he was black, so he began to pay less attention to school and more attention to his friends in the neighborhood.

At a Glance

Born in 1955, in Portsmouth, VA; stepson of a shipyard worker, son of a homemaker; twice divorced; three children. Education : Norfolk State University, BA

Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter, 1989. Previously worked as a general assignment reporter at the Virginian-Pilot and the Atlanta journai-Constitution, Author of Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Random House, 1994.

Address: OfficeWashington Post, 1150 15th St N.W., Washington, DC 20071.

By the time I reached the 7th grade, Id learned that a dudes life had no meaning unless he hung with someone, McCall stated in Makes Me Wanna Holler. I discovered the strength and solace in camaraderie. It was a confidence booster, a steady support for my fragile self-esteem. Alone, I was afraid of the world and insecure. But I felt cockier and sure of myself when hanging with my boys. I think everybody felt more courageous when we hung together. We did things in groups that wed never try alone.

Those things eventually included gang rape, burglaries, stickups, assaults, shoplifting, and drug-dealing. By the time he turned 17, McCall was carrying a gun and abusing alcohol and marijuana. He also became a father when his high school sweetheart gave birth to a son. Even though he was engaged in criminal activity, McCall managed to graduate from Manor High School in 1973. He attended Norfolk State University briefly the same year but dropped out when his drug use increased. He and a group of friends robbed pedestrians at gunpoint, sold drugs, and plotted bigger heists. McCall wrote in his memoir: The futility of my life ran so deep that it festered and churned inside me, quietly making gunpowder. I walked around feeling tense all the time. The only way I could balance the tension and the deep depression was to stay highall the time.

In 1974, McCall shot another young man at point-blank range during a quarrel. The young man survived, and McCall was given the light sentence of 30 days in jail and a $300 fine. He wound up serving only eight days in jail, all of it on weekends. The following year his luck ran out. He and two friends tried to rob a McDonalds restaurant in an ill-planned attack. As they left the restaurant in their car they were surrounded by police vehicles and arrested. McCallwho had brandished a gun during the crimewas sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was 20 at the time.

Planning a Different Future

In theory, prisons exist to rehabilitate people. Nathan McCall was one inmate who sought to change his life almost from the moment he arrived in jail. Knowing that he would be eligible for parole in three years, he adopted a regimen of discipline and good behavior that would help him to secure early release. He began working in the prison library and was thus led, for the first time, to literature that spoke to his condition as a black American. One book that had a profound influence on him was Richard Wrights Native Son, a novel about a young black man dehumanized by racist society, who eventually murders two women.

In Makes Me Wanna Holler, McCall noted: I developed through my encounter with Richard Wright a fascination with the power of words. It blew my mind to think that somebody could take words that described exactly how I felt and put them together in a story like that. Most of the books Id been given in school were about white folks experiences and feelings. I spent all that time learning about damned white folks, like my reality didnt exist and wasnt valid to the rest of the world.

Continuing, McCall recalled that in school, the only time wed really focused on the lives of black people was during Black History Week, which they set aside for us to learn the same old tired stories about Booker T. Washington and a few other noteworthy dead black folks I couldnt relate to. But in Native Son I found a book written about a plain, everyday brother like myself. It inspired me to look for more books like that. Before long, I was reading every chance I got, trying to more fully understand why my life and the lives of friends had been so contained and predictable, and why prisonliterallyhad become a rite of passage for so many of us.

McCall studied literature and philosophy on his own in jail. He attended Christian worship and discussion sessions. He also kept a journal, recording his own thoughts as well as motivating poetry and quotations from other writers work. In his third year behind bars, he was transferred to a minimum-security facility where he learned printing and design layout. McCall had already made a decision, though. He wanted to become a journalist.

The idea seemed far-fetched for a convicted criminal with only a smattering of college, but McCall researched the qualifications for the field and decided he could someday meet them. Then he wrote a letter to the head of the journalism department at Norfolk State University, inquiring about the possibility of enrollment there should he be paroled. The professor there encouraged McCall to enter a scholarship contest sponsored by the journalism department. McCall won it, securing a one-year tuition scholarship even before he was granted parole.

Because he had served his time without incident and had both a stable family and college plans on the outside, McCall was paroled from prison after serving three years of his sentence. I remember clearly that snowy February day in 1978 when I was released from the joint, he remembered in his memoir. My homies gathered on the sidewalk that morning and watched me leave. As I climbed into the car and my mother drove off, I cast a long, hard look at the prison, and tears began streaming down my face. I felt a strange mixture of pain and pride. I was mostly proud that I had survived, and I told myself, then and there, I can do ANYTHING.

Success Without Compromise

McCall attended Norfolk State University and graduated with honors. Almost immediately he secured a position as a reporter with the local newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot. As he began to experience a measure of success in the mostly-white world of print journalism, McCall was haunted by the possibility that his prison record would be held against him. He fabricated a story to explain the three-year hiatus between his high school graduation and his entry into college. He also searched the clippings file at his first newspaper, removing all stories about him and his crime. The secrecy followed him to his second job, at the bigger Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Then he reached a crisis point as he interviewed with major newspapers such as the Washington Post.

It was during the interview process with the Post that McCall decided to be honest and admit that he had served time in jail. The honesty proved to be the right tactic. The Washington Post hired McCall as a reporter for the Metro section in 1989. Except for a leave of absence he took to promote his first book, McCall has been on the staff there ever since.

McCalls Makes Me Wanna Ho//erwas published in 1994 and created something of a sensation. A lengthy excerpt of the book appeared in Newsweek magazine, and the author was interviewed by print and television journalists all over the country. The memoir was also optioned for a major motion picture by Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton. Most reviewers cited the work for its uncompromising look at urban violence and the social forces that foster it.

Emerge magazine correspondent Sylvester Monroe, for instance, wrote: What distinguishes Makes Me Wanna Holler is McCalls powerful, up-close and personal account of just where all that pain, anger, and alienation comes from. Ultimately, this book is not about how much black people, particularly black men, hate white people. It is a book about how if a people are constantly shown and told long enough that they are inferior, that they are worthless, even the brightest and strongest among them will begin to doubt themselves and believe it.

In McCalls case, lessons learned from books read in prisonas well as from the wisdom of other inmateshelped him to break the cycle of self-hatred and alienation. The author concluded in his memoir: Although it had been the most tragic event in my life, prisonwith all its sickness and sufferinghad also been my most instructional challenge. It forced me to go deep, real deep, within and tap a well I didnt even know I had. Through that painful trip, Id found meaning. No longer was life a thing of bewilderment. No longer did I feel like a cosmic freak, a black intruder in a world not created for me and my people. No longer were my angry feelings about the vast white world simply vague, invalid impulses dangling on the edge of my mind.

McCall, the father of three, described in the final pages of his book, what he found deep inside himself: I knew the reasons for those feelings now. I understood them better, and, most important, I could express them precisely as they arose. I knew that there was purpose and design in creation and that my life was somehow part of that grand scheme. I had just as much right to be alive and happy as anybody else, and I wasnt going to let anybody, especially not white folks, make me feel otherwise.


Emerge, February 1994.

Entertainment Weekly, March 4, 1994, pp. 56-7.

Newsweek, February 7, 1994, pp. 46-2.

Publishers Weekly, January 3, 1994, p. 37.

San Jose Mercury News, March 13, 1994, p. 19.

Time, March 7, 1994, p. 68.

Washington Post Magazine, January 30, 1994, p. 6.

Anne Janette Johnson

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