Inner City Blues, Twenty Years Later
by La Juana Green
Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God Knows where we’re heading
It makes me wanna holler
Marvin Gaye – 1971
My introduction to the work of Nathan McCall came in the early 90s while I was a working with the NYC Department of Juvenile Justice. I was teaching English to some of New York’s toughest and most dangerous kids whose crimes ranged from rape to murder. Their troubled adolescence was only equaled by their backgrounds of nominal interest in school and education. The challenge I faced was finding an access point to engage this young cohort. A colleague recommended Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall. I read the book, immediately introduced it to my class, and quickly built a lesson plan around it. It was very successful, particularly, since I taught young African-American males. The kids became actively engaged in McCall’s autobiography of a young black man’s coming of age in Portsmouth, Virginia. They shared his pain of racism, incarceration and other struggles that young African-American males face.
McCall is a master at storytelling. I met him in New York while he was promoting his book in 1994. I later tried to reach him, with the possibility of him speaking to my class. Claude Brown, who had written Manchild in the Promised Land, had been a previous guest in the facility. Unfortunately, we were not able to make the class visit happen.
Placed against the current backdrops of unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Makes Me Wanna Holler is as thought provoking and insightful as the day it was written. It elucidates the journey of a young black man’s ability to overcome incarceration through mentoring. The book goes on to become a New York Times bestseller.
Nathan McCall is currently a senior lecturer in the African-American Studies Department at Emory University in Atlanta.
LG: It has been over twenty years since you wrote Makes You Wanna Holler. Do you think things have changed for African-American men?
NM: Clearly not. If we take a look at police shootings in America, not much has changed with regards to how Black men are treated in this society. It’s clear we are regarded as a target, it infuriates me. The issue that is most prevalent in the so-called millennium is that shooting of Black men has replaced hanging. In measuring the progress nothing much has changed and the push for public concerns is needed. Some people are upset that we are concerned, as if Black life doesn’t matter. The issues that we are faced with are poverty, income gaps, health and education. It’s like we are frozen in time.
LG: Are you familiar with the memoir by Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets?
NM: Yes, I read the book and loved it.
LG: Do you see any parallel between your life as an African-American male and he being a Latino male?
NM: Yes. A very interesting parallel regarding the way we both grew up, perceiving that our lives and options in this world were very limited. Perception is powerful. Our perception impacted some of the bad choices we made as teenagers growing up. Our perception about America was not inaccurate.
LG: The title Makes Me Wanna Holler was taken from the Marvin Gaye song “Inner City Blues’. Why was this title chosen?
NM: “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” that song was one of the most powerful commentaries in America. It came out when I was a teenager, so when I was working on the autobiography, I would listen, to jar my memory. Music helps to stimulate the memory. When I was working on the book I used music from a different time period to stimulate my memory. It was recorded in the seventies and I wrote about it in the nineties and it is still the same.
LG: In certain cultures young boys have rites of passage. Aborigines remove a tooth and cut off part of a finger. Is there a rite of passage for young African-American boys today, and if not should there be?
NM: Clearly, there are some informal rites of passage. The problem is they are not healthy. The rites of passages that are in place are guided by adults to make young people make their transition into manhood. Jews have bar mitzvahs, which is a very important rite of passage. Without those formal mechanisms young people will develop their own. Young Black males, will define what manhood is. When I was coming up, we had to know how to fight and how to deal with girls. There was no formal mechanism in place, so we developed some very distorted notions about relationships. Relationships were about conquest, not intimacy and clearly incarceration is a rite of passage for young Black men today. I saw an older guy in the neighborhood who had just gotten out of prison and I looked at him with admiration. I too, had a distorted thinking by the time I got to prison. I expected to pass through that way.
LG: In the chapter titled, “Trains”, you and your buddies measured the Black woman’s beauty by her skin color. Do you feel that this is still an issue with Black men?
NM: We called it color struck. I have friends who were color struck. Color has never been an issue with me. I can’t identify a pattern in my choice of women. I teach a course on Black images in the media, and we deal with light skinned versus dark skinned. I can’t recall who said it but it was said that “hurt people, hurt people.” People who are damaged are more likely to hurt people. Dark-skinned women clearly get victimized by men who don’t think they are attractive. Light skinned women get victimized by the dark skinned women who resent that light skinned women are held up on a pedestal. I have still have friends that are into the brown bag consciousness.
LG: Also in the same chapter you say, “Using a member of the most vulnerable groups of human beings on the face of the earth-Black females.” Why do you think Black females are so vulnerable, particularly to men of their own race?
NM: Black people in general are subjected to oppression; then women are subjected to oppression. Black women are subjected to oppression times two. There is a huge burden that falls on Black women’s shoulders; they carry the burden and quite often don’t get credit for it.
LG: In your chapter titled “Respect,” men of your generation would use their hands to get and demand respect if they felt they had been disrespected. Are African-American men still fighting for respect? What are the consequences for disrespect today on the streets?
NM: Yes, a distorted sense of manhood is still the same with video images. You can see young brothers are following some of the rules of the street. It is unfortunate. The result is a lot of wasted potential. We used guns too, I carried a gun from the time I was a sophomore until I graduated. They use guns to get respect, but these guns are more powerful than the ones we had.
LG: Do you think young African-American men are angry?
NM: Yeah, they are angry. Understand, they are angry because they are functioning in a system that is stacked against us. This is America, the rhetoric of America doesn’t match the realty and where Black men are concerned, it never has.
LG: Do you have children?
NM: Yes, I have two sons and a daughter.
LG: How have you prepared your sons for the racism that exists against Black males?
NM: Just by talking to them about what is. Not in a formal way but as I see it, and as they experience it.
LG: Are there solutions?
NM: That is a monumental question, because it is a monumental issue. We can’t afford to keep waiting for white society to change it, it would be nice, but in the mean time we need to focus on what we can do to uplift ourselves. For example, voting doesn’t cost anything. If we were to show up in big numbers we could turn the political system on its head just by voting.
La Juana Green is a native of Washington D. C. She holds a B. A. degree in English Literature with a minor in education. She is a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia. Her screenplay Through the Looking Glass won an Honorable Mention and her other screenplay titled Roe was a finalist in the Fresh Pitch Contest. She has just completed a television pilot titled Unjust Justice.