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Face to Face, Race to Race : Blame and guilt. Guilt and blame. The uproar over Nathan McCall's angry memoir underscores that the search for understanding between black and white has barely begun.

March 11, 1994|BOB SIPCHEN

As a restless adolescent, Nathan McCall had a sure way to vent his rage: He'd get together with his buddies and thrash a passing "white boy." Any white boy.

Beating a victim with sticks, kicking him in the testicles and stomping on his head as it gushed blood, "made us feel good inside," McCall writes in his autobiography, "Makes Me Wanna Holler--A Young Black Man in America."

McCall and his pals also had a way to release sexual tension: They lured unsuspecting neighborhood girls--African American girls--and gang-raped them.

Coming of age in the 1960s and '70s, McCall committed burglaries, took drugs, dealt drugs, robbed people, did drive-bys and shot a young black rival in the chest point-blank.

"In that moment," McCall writes, "I felt like God."

Twenty years later and on the road to promote "Holler," McCall looks dazed as he enters the glistening lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

In many corners, television and radio hosts have adopted the handsome author with the hip goatee--now a reporter at the Washington Post--as their latest media darling.

But last week, McCall stepped into the crucible of L.A. talk radio and abruptly became a lightning rod for a city brimming with its own rage about violence, race and responsibility.

During Michael Jackson's KABC radio show, listeners learned that McCall received a 30-day sentence for shooting that black man, but later got 12 years for robbing a white-owned McDonald's. To McCall, the message was clear: "The Establishment holds very low regard for the value of black life as opposed to the value of white property."

"No," Jackson interrupted, the civility draining from his British lilt. " You hold very low regard for black life. We haven't tried to kill anyone. You have."

Callers were no more gentle.

An hour later, McCall, 40, took off his African-style cap and laid his sports coat on one of the hotel room's two queen beds. Slumping into an antique chair, his head lolled back like a slug-drunk prizefighter's.

"It was clear to me early on that the interview was going to be more like a feeding frenzy than a dialogue," McCall says, his words slipping out in a long sigh.

But what can you expect? he asks. Jackson made him sound as if he hadn't transcended his criminal youth, hadn't grappled with the convoluted meaning of his actions; made him out to be "just another black man making excuses."

Jackson is not the only reader to find McCall infuriatingly adept at blaming "the white man" for his failings. "Black rage by itself, deeply justified though it is, is no longer news," the New York Times Book Review said, later adding: "Mr. McCall does not sound like an easy person to live or work with."

But other critics heap praise on McCall for what they see as his unflinchingly honest insight into America's cycle of responsibility and blame.

Indeed, while McCall gets hammered and soothed, his book may be emerging as a painful catalyst for people struggling toward a higher and more complex level of race relations.

*

Nathan McCall grew up in Cavalier Manor, a working-class black neighborhood in Portsmouth, Va. Built in the early '60s, the neighborhood boasted big homes and streets named after prominent African Americans: Belafonte Drive, Basie Crescent, Horne Avenue.

McCall's stepfather, retired Navy, worked weekdays as a guard at the naval shipyards and did weekend gardening jobs in a white suburb. Nathan and his brothers lived a "Huck Finn" childhood, playing cowboys and Indians, skinny dipping in a nearby lake and mowing lawns for spare change.

Cavalier Manor was the sort of supportive community that pundits mourn these days, where neighbors watched each others' children for signs of misbehavior and teachers and parents chatted after church.

As Nate and his friends edged uneasily into adolescence, though, a flood of influences swept away their innocence. While concerned parents talked about self-respect and the dignity of work, the dudes on the corner taught that peers conferred street respect. And that respect accrued most readily, he writes, to "a crazy nigger or a baad nigger." In a long series of small decisions, McCall evolved from mischievous scamp to petty criminal to dangerous thug.

His conscience spoke up from time to time, urging him, for instance, to explain himself to the mother who had tried so hard to insulate him from the ugly life he embraced. But, McCall writes, "I couldn't process my confusion sufficiently in my own head to explain it to someone else."

Likewise, remorse occasionally flickered through his consciousness after a criminal act. But added respect on the street invariably chased that soft emotion into hiding.

McCall finally went to prison for pointing a .32 caliber pistol at a McDonald's manager's head during a robbery: "Intuitively," McCall writes from his then-19-year-old perspective, "I sensed he was an Uncle Tom, one of those head-scratching niggers, willing to put his devalued life on the line to protect the white man's property."

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