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A Change in Perception : MAKES ME WANNA HOLLER: A Young Black Man in America, By Nathan McCall (Random House: $23; 404 pp.)

March 20, 1994|Edward J. Boyer | Edward J. Boyer is a Times staff writer

His girlfriend--the mother of his child--had been threatened right in front of his face. Such disrespect called for swift retaliation.

The inevitable confrontation followed, culminated by a bullet that wound up only an inch from the offender's heart. The next shot would surely have been fatal had not a friend intervened and persuaded him not to fire.

It is a drama played out daily in the desperate lives of so many young black men in America. And because it is so commonplace, this carnage goes unchronicled for the most part now, except in street lore, which compounds the tragedy by elevating the shooter to new status.

This particular shooting would have remained unremarkable had not the gunman, Nathan McCall, taken hold of his psyche while serving a prison sentence for another crime. After being paroled, McCall returned to college, earned a degree in journalism and now works as a writer at the Washington Post.

In his angry, eloquent and powerful biography, "Makes Me Wanna Holler," McCall remembers that when he fired that bullet into his rival, "I felt like a God. I felt so good and powerful that I wanted to do it again."

In a world where young men from America's ghettos and barrios perceive avenues to anything remotely resembling power as irretrievably closed, McCall's reaction is all the more ominous, given the swelling tide of would-be deities slouching toward gun dealers to be born.

McCall's story is a painfully familiar recitation of a promising black child's descent to street fights, burglary, penny-ante stickups, gang rape. But somewhere in a far corner of his consciousness, the spark of his own humanity refused to succumb to the sociopath.

Long after he had moved beyond his old life of violent crime, McCall's prison record hampered his attempts to move into the American mainstream. He believes the Louisville Courier-Journal changed its mind about hiring him after he told them he was an ex-con. He landed a job on the Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star, where he had interned, after "a tough, close vote" on whether to take him on despite his record. He kept his secret later when the Washington Post decided to take a good look at him, but lost out on that job when Post editors discovered his record on their own.

He also didn't tell interviewers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his record when he moved there from Virginia. Living in fear of discovery, he set about building a solid track record as a reporter, covering city hall and local politics, traveling abroad on assignment with then-Mayor Andrew Young, looking behind the facades of civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and Coretta Scott King.

After he mustered the courage to tell editor Bill Kovach that he had served time for armed robbery, Kovach's only response was: "Is that all? . . . If anybody gives you (expletive) about it, let me know." End of nightmare.

Two years later he found himself with another chance at the "big time," winning a spot on the Washington Post's staff on his second try.

As much as "Holler" is the story of McCall's life, it is also an essay on race--that most enduring of American dilemmas--and the crippling images that too often burden African American youngsters early on with self-hatred. McCall also passionately challenges a whole litany of simple diagnoses for urban ills, such as the absence of black fathers.

In the working class Cavalier Manor neighborhood of Portsmouth, Va., where McCall grew up in the 1960s, families owned their own homes and the fathers were present.

"I never heard my friends say they wanted to be like their fathers when they grew up," McCall writes. "Why would we want that when we knew our fathers were catching hell? . . . A two-parent home is no better off than a single-parent one if the father is (expletive) up in the head and beaten down. There's nothing more dangerous and destructive in a household than a frustrated, oppressed black man."

He remembers accompanying his stepfather to do gardening in an affluent suburb and realizing that America has two distinct worlds--one white and "full of possibilities of life," and the other "dark and limited."

McCall traces the assault on his own self-image to television commercials, racial taunts and fights with white bullies at a newly integrated junior high school. He couldn't understand being hated at school simply for being black and alive. "I wondered, Where did those white people learn to hate so deeply at such a young age? I didn't know. But, over time, I learned to hate as blindly and viciously as any of them."

For all of his conflict with whites, he packed his hair with pomade and brushed it mercilessly in a vain attempt to make it look more white. And dark-skinned girls were avoided in favor of the more desirable, light-complexioned "redbones."

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