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American Journalism Review
A Story of Redemption  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   April 1994

A Story of Redemption   

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
By Nathan McCall
Random House

Book review by Howard Bray
Howard Bray is the former director of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      



Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
By Nathan McCall
Random House
404 pages; $23

Nathan McCall looked like a lot of fledgling reporters. He had worked on his college newspaper, done well as an intern at a mid-size daily, earned a journalism degree and was eager to prove his worth.

But McCall, an African American, was anything but typical. He had shot and nearly killed a man for insulting his girlfriend. He had been a burglar and a stickup man, and used and sold drugs. He had savagely beaten black youths to prove his manhood and stomped young whites to vent his hatred. He had gang-raped girls. He served three years in Virginia prisons for the armed robbery of a McDonald's.

No wonder the bosses at his local newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot/ Ledger-Star, where he had interned, debated long and hard in 1981 whether to hire McCall, knowing he was a convicted felon. But they did. And later the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the Washington Post did too.

"Makes Me Wanna Holler" is McCall's compelling story of growing up with decent, hard-working parents in a comfortable neighborhood in the Tidewater region of Virginia, showing promise in school, then turning into the "baad nigger" he thought he needed to be to get respect, money and sex, and to survive on the street and behind bars.

It is also his pained account of trying to succeed in the predominantly white world of journalism.

McCall wanted to work for black publications as a way to help his people, but couldn't live on their wages. The Black Power movement, he writes, made his generation more militant, less willing to compromise and trust that hard work and patience would overcome the injustices of racism. He comes to the white-owned press with very mixed emotions.

Life on the Norfolk paper was challenging. Covering the courts, he encounters men he knew from prison who are in trouble again. One in shackles shouts at him, "I heard you were out." McCall writes, "That brief encounter reminded me that my life was delicately balanced between two worlds and that, inevitably, my past and present would collide." Fearing other reporters would learn of his record, he removes the two clips about his crimes from the paper's library files.

Trying to escape his past, he takes a reporting job at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. There are many black staffers in the newsroom, but McCall is convinced that management doesn't value them. "Every black reporter who comes into the newsroom comes in on guard, carrying the burden of proving himself.., constantly aware that the slightest error...will be cited as undeniable proof of what white folks have always suspected." Still McCall does well, becoming the chief city hall reporter. In time, the reporter discloses his prison term to Editor Bill Kovach, an Atlanta outsider too, who treats it matter-of-factly. For the first time, he becomes close with a white man, Danny Baum, a reporter who is Jewish. "It's sad, this gulf between blacks and whites. We're so afraid of each other," McCall notes in his journal.

McCall's work wins a job interview at the Washington Post with a prospect of being hired. But McCall keeps his criminal past secret, recalling that years earlier his admission cost him a desired job at the Louisville Courier-Journal. When the Post checks on those three years missing from his resumé, it's no job. (Two years later, as though he had been on probation from that sin against the paper's integrity, the Post did hire him.)

Perhaps all of this professional success would have eluded McCall without those three years in prison. Assigned to work in the library, he plunges into books: Margaret Mead on the Hopis; Chaim Potok's novels; Na'im Akbar's writing on human potential. McCall is stunned by Richard Wright's "Native Son," whose hero, Bigger Thomas, is a black man his own age. Like Bigger, McCall realizes he is "headed down a road toward a destruction I couldn't ward off, beaten by forces so large and amorphous that I had no idea how to fight back."

Despite the risk of losing his prison friends and their protection, McCall sets his life on a new course. Books, religion, the counsel of thoughtful prisoners, shame — all help McCall develop a sense of self worth and inner discipline.

His book gives us a language for understanding the rage and compulsions behind much of the flood of violent crime news. His former schoolmates are murdered, commit suicide, become drug zombies, and wind up in the pen, a literal rite of passage for too many Nate McCalls.

McCall's story is one of perseverance and redemption that seems to be still underway. It belongs in every school library — maybe young readers won't then have to discover it jail.

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