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BLACK MAN'S TALE MOVING YET DISTURBING

One of this year's hottest books has been Nathan McCall's autobiography, "Makes Me Wanna Holler," which chronicles his struggle to overcome the crime and violence of his youth. The book spent 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and made McCall a frequent guest on TV talk shows.

McCall, a reporter for The Washington Post, served three years in prison for the armed robbery of a fast-food joint. His book is a compelling story of how even a good kid can go bad, and how even the baddest youth can still be saved.It is also, for me, a deeply disturbing story. I was moved by the redemptive example of McCall's eventual success but disappointed by the implication - which runs throughout much of the book - that the tortuous path that led McCall into trouble was somehow unavoidable, an inevitable consequence of being a young black man in America.

Yet, what happened to McCall was not inevitable - it was possible to make other choices. And many young black men do.

I know, because I was one of them. I'm about the same age as McCall, and I too grew up in a segregated Southern city, Memphis, that was much like McCall's hometown of Portsmouth, Va. If anything, based on McCall's description of his working-class neighborhood, my neighborhood was probably a lot worse. Certainly, my personal circumstances were more desperate. My family, receiving welfare and food stamps, was far from working class.

Yet, I did not choose McCall's path. I struggled with the same fear and peer pressure, the same inner rage, the same deep resentment of whites. But though I knew many of the guys I would pass on the street corner shooting dice, I did not join them. And I didn't want to be like them.

It wasn't just me either. Many of my friends made a similar choice. There was Waverly, who was raised by a single mother in a public housing project, and Curtis, who lived in that same housing project with nine or 10 (I was never sure just how many) brothers and sisters. Lee, another friend, also came from a very large and very poor family. And there was Marvin and Joe and Elmer and many others. None of these guys chose the path of violence and destruction.

Of course, some of the guys in my neighborhood did choose that path. I knew them, too. One member of my own family made exactly the same choices as McCall, but with far more disastrous consequences.

Even the guys who stayed straight weren't choirboys. They got into fights, some smoked pot or drank wine and many had the occasional brushes with police that are fairly common when you grow up in the inner city.

But most of these guys did not, as McCall describes it, "cross the line" into his level of thuggery - gang rape, burglary, armed robbery and attempted murder. They did not become predators in their own community.

The hard truth is that for most black people living in inner-city neighborhoods, the "white man" is a malevolent but distant abstraction. The black teenager lurking in an alley with a gun is real.

The last chapter of McCall's book is titled, appropriately, "Choices." There's power in that word, power enough I believe to strengthen young black men struggling in a still-racist society.

I applaud McCall for turning his life around. He looked deep inside himself and eventually chose manhood over macho. This was a painful process of self- discovery that required strength and determination.

Still, the black men I really admire are those who made different choices early on in life, men who faced the same difficult circumstances as McCall and yet chose a different path.

Their path to manhood is marked by examples rather than victims. They managed to traverse the road to maturity without scarring their fellow travelers in the process.

These are the role models I want my 12-year-old son to look up to. Theirs is the road I hope he follows.

Walking that road, I know, is not easy. It means walking like a man.