NOW that Nathan McCall, a reporter for the Washington Post, has achieved a ``stable gig,'' the story of his violent youth in ``Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America'' becomes all the more chilling and ultimately instructive. His book offers black and white readers a rare view of the hellish and racist underbelly of American society.
What McCall didn't have as a youth growing up in a black, working-class neighborhood in Portsmouth, Va., was deep insight into himself or his condition. Nothing in Portsmouth - parents, school, church, sports, community center, or role model - helped him to step back, reflect, and change.
This capacity to change is tough enough for any teenager these days. But to be black, to live in the South in the late 1960s and early '70s, and to be conditioned by family, TV, community, school, and daily life to believe that black is inferior to white, all this completely overwhelmed and stunted McCall.
On the receiving end of racism, he withered. He and his gang became a wolf pack, alienated from the most common acts of decency. They raped, plundered, and slaughtered whites and blacks. McCall shot people, robbed stores and homes, and dealt drugs. Contributing to his condition was the powerful influence of violent films, particularly the 1972 black exploitation movie, ``Superfly.''
``Superfly influenced the style, thinking, and choices that a lot of young black men began making around that time,'' McCall writes. ``I know it deeply affected me.'' The music, style, and attitudes in the film swept up young blacks who had no positive role models to follow. Even the black political revolutionaries of the day were inconsequential to McCall and his gang. And ``For a lot of guys, Superfly brought home the economic potential in selling cocaine,'' McCall says.
McCall's long-suffering and hard-working mother and step-father tried desperately to save him and his brothers from destruction. Curfews, threats, nothing worked. Their own limitations and the lure of street life, as McCall relates, were too much.
The irony is that McCall, brighter than most, stayed in high school while his street life worsened. Along the way he fathered several children. Eventually, he was caught trying to rob a McDonald's with a gun and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
As it did for Malcom X and others, prison forced a reckoning. McCall's intelligence and hope began to crawl out of the muck. He wondered why he survived while so many of his friends were dead, maimed, or crazed. For answers he explored the Bible, kept a journal, and eased into Islamic beliefs. That was the beginning of his own perspective, the capacity to change from within.
Released on parole, he married, divorced, and earned a journalism degree. After jobs at other newspapers he landed a job at the Washington Post on the second try.
McCall's vivid, clear writing matches his courage in telling the horrifying details of his teenage years, and reveals the moral and racial struggles that continue for him today. As brutal as it is, this is an important book that explains the causes of violence and rage in black youths today. And by extrapolation it indicates the terrible price society will pay until racist attitudes are defeated.
McCall concludes: ``For those who'd like answers, I have no pithy social formulas to end black-on-black violence. But I do know I see a younger, meaner generation out there now - more lost and alienated than we were, and placing even less value on life.''