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Review: Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America

Nathan McCall. (1995). Makes me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. New York: Vintage, Random House.



(Download Makes me Wanna Holler overview as a PDF)

This autobiography, which became a New York Times best seller, describes how Nathan McCall moved from “a close, protective family in a black working-class neighborhood” to street life and packing guns by the age of fifteen. This life, in/files/Images/Book covers/Makes Me Wanna Holler overview.jpg five years, “would land him in prison for armed robbery.” Makes Me Want to Holler is an urban coming-of-age book, an account of one young black man’s struggle against racism, a description of the transition from jail to journalism, and the struggle from self doubts to manhood and faithful fathering. From the perspective of a journalist, the writer examines the racism that keeps many of his cohorts in dead-end jobs or unemployed, on the streets or in prison.

Holler begins with a depressing incident:

The fellas and I were hanging out on our corner one afternoon when the strangest thing happened. A white boy, who appeared to be about eighteen or nineteen years old, came pedaling a bicycle casually through the neighborhood. I don’t know if he was lost for confused, but he was definitely in the wrong place to be doing the tourist bit.

The cyclist was spotted by one of the homies who alerted the rest.

It was automatic. We all took off after him. We caught him on Cavalier Boulevard and knocked him off the bike. He fell to the ground and it was all over. We were on him like white on rice. Ignoring passing cars, we stomped him and kicked him in the head and face and watched the blood gush from his mouth. I kicked him in the stomach and n—, where I knew it would hurt. Every time I drove my foot into his b—-, I felt better; with each blow delivered, I gritted my teeth as I remembered some recent racial slight: ‘THIS is for all the times you followed me round in stores….’ ‘And THIS is for the times you treated me like a n—–.’ ‘And THIS is for G.P.-General Principle-just ’cause you white.’ …We walked away, laughing, boasting, competing for bragging rights about who’d done the most damage…

A story like this reminds us of parallel scenes such as Rodney King being beaten by white police officers. All too many of these pictures highlight the prophecy of W.E.B DuBois at the beginning of the twentieth century (The Souls of Black Folks, 1901) that racism will be the dominant rift in our society throughout the century. These images ought also to commit Americans to the elimination of racism.

Chapter 3 takes the reader back to an earlier incident in McCall’s life. His parents had sent him to a mostly white school for sixth grade on the other side of town. One day a girl drew a stick figure of Nathan, colored it black, and, while the teacher was out of the room, passed it around the room in derision. It started a fight and when the teacher returned, she learned it was all Nathan’s fault. She sent him to the office and he got a week’s suspension. Even his parents didn’t fully understand the hurt and anger rising in their son’s heart. A week later he was sitting on the gym floor at a school assembly.

…A group of rowdy white upperclassmen began plucking my head and ridiculing me. I got confused. What should I do? To turn and say something to them would start another fight. To get up and leave would require me to wade through a sea of hostile white students to reach the nearest exit. With nowhere to go, I sat there and took the humiliation until I broke. Tears welled in my eyes and started running, uncontrollably down my face. I sat silently through the remainder of the assembly with my vision blurred and my spirit broken. That was the only time, then or since, that I’ve been crushed so completely. (pp. 20-21)

Returning home on his last day at that school, Nathan wondered how “those white people learned to hate so deeply at such a young age.” And “over time, I learned to hate as blindly and viciously as any of them” (p. 21).

A good part of this book is a coming of age account about a young males quest for identity within a group. “By the time I reached the seventh grade, I’d learned that a dude’s life had no meaning unless he hung with someone. You had no identity if you didn’t belong to a group” (p. 33). Group identity was based on style, clothes, dancing, and unfortunately, in this case, setting up a “train” or gang rape of a girl.

Respect is a big part of growing up and life on the streets.

For as long as I can remember, black folks have had a serious thing about respect. I guess it’s because white people disrespected them so blatantly for so long that blacks viciously protected what little morsels of self-respect they thought they had left…It’s as if black folks were saying, ‘I can’t do much to keep whites from dissin’ me, but I d— sure can keep black folks from doing it.’ (p. 55)

That’s why disrespecting or “dissin” someone is so serious, and being cool or bad and juice are so important. Respect is at the heart of a lot of violence; respect on the street often comes from being violent in personal challenges or in rumbles. Naturally guns play an important part in this. McCall traces the small steps from there to gang wars, crime, and prison. Prison can be a graduate school for street and crime education; for a few it is a Bible school.

McCall comes into the light through reading Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and the Bible. McCall did well in prison, learned a trade, passed through a Christian stage, learned about Islam (and later would join the American Muslim Mission for a time), and, most of all, set himself on self-improvement. His developing understanding of racism is reflected in this journal entry as he was about to leave prison:

I have observed that many whites here seem unfazed by their plight in prison. They regard confinement merely as a temporary restraint from their usual lives. And they face the future with optimism, confident that they have only to slip on a coat and tie, get a haircut, and shave for the establishment to forgive their transgressions…But most blacks look ahead with apprehension, afraid that we may never be forgiven for our crimes-or for the color of our skin. January 24, 1978.

Nathan couldn’t find a job, but he did get into Norfolk State on a scholarship he had earned with an essay from prison. He appreciated that college was preparing him for the real world, but this very fact left him with his constant problem with racism.

…There was one beef I had with Norfolk State and (black) schools like it. They prepared us to endure a system everyone acknowledged was stacked against us. Professors in the Journalism school and other departments talked all the time about strategies students had to use to survive in the racist media. It struck me as loony that we were actually being taught ways to endure racism. I thought we should be learning how to attack that s—. It made me wonder whether I should even be considering going into the white man’s system at all. (pp. 239-240)

One of the most poignant struggles of the author was in regard to fatherhood. His own father had left when he was two years old. When Nathan was nine years old, his father called and told his older brother he was going to make up for his absence by getting together with them and buying them gifts. There is a sad scene of Nathan and two brothers waiting on an appointed street corner for two hours for their father to appear. He never did nor did he ever call to apologize. Only when he was grown did his older brother get him together with his father a couple of times. The impossibility of healing and reconciliation left Nathan so frustrated, he never saw his father again.

Nathan’s own first son was born to a woman who stuck with him for a while in prison and then drifted away from him to someone else. A much later relationship in Nathan’s life produced a son, by mistake or manipulation. His description of his confusion and sense of inability to father two sons “by two different women, neither of whom I was in love with or married to” presents a most powerful dilemma. He doesn’t want to fit into the stereotype of the “irresponsible black baby-makers.” But he sees no way he can turn the relationship into a successful marriage. Even here there is the racial factor.

Having matured personally and professionally in Atlanta, McCall returns to Cavalier Manor (his neighborhood) in Portsmouth. One paragraph sums up a good bit of the book:

Sometimes, I’d get mad at the brothers, especially those hanging idly on street corners, thinking they were baad. At the same time, I understood why they were having such a hard time getting it together. I knew why so many young brothers, and black people in general, were losing their minds. They look up and see that they’re catching hell from the cradle to the grave, and that the whole f—ing country is pointing fingers at them and saying it’s black people’s own fault that they’re catching hell. They’re beating the pavement, trying to find work, and nobody will hire them, and white folks cite them as examples of people who are trifling and don’t want to work. And those blacks who have jobs are catching hell, trying to move up the ladder, like everybody else, and the same white folks who hold them back accuse them of being lazy and unambitious. (p. 372)

The move from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the Washington Post was an exciting step for McCall as was the move from Atlanta to Washington. Still, this was no escape from racism in terms of the city or personally. In trying to figure a competitive and perhaps racist young colleague, the author makes a telling assessment of American racism in the 1990s: “Race relations in this country have become so complex and convoluted that it’s hard to tell in interactions with whites what’s racial and what’s not.” (p. 394)

For me this book closes with two quotations:

I have come to believe two things that might seem contradictory: Some of our worst fears were true-the establishment is teeming with racism. Yet I also believe whites are as befuddled about race as we are, and they’re as scared of us as we are of them. many of them are seeking solutions, just like us.

When people ask, ‘What is wrong with black men?’ it makes me want to lash out. I am reminded of something Malcolm X once said: ‘I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under their weight.’ (p. 414)

This book is about what it means (for a black man) to be crushed.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How would you compare the beating of the white boy on the bicycle (Ch. 1) and the tormenting of 6th grade Nathan in the gymnasium (Ch. 3)? How are they related, what motivated each, and what damage did each incident cause?
  2. How would you contrast Mapp (the mostly white school) with W.E. Waters (the predominantly black school). What challenges did each pose to young Nathan?
  3. How are personal and group identity related?
  4. Where does the extreme importance of respect, disrespect, joning, and violence (and we might say juice) come from and how does it play out among young men growing up like Nathan McCall?
  5. How would you explain the place of sex in the lives of these young men and women? Where do their attitudes come from? How is sex abused and how injurious are the consequences of this behavior?
  6. How did “trains” play a part in the formation of group identity?
  7. Comment on prison as graduate or finishing school.
  8. The writer’s spiritual life and development is alluded to but not highlighted here. How do you assess it? How would you trace the growth and reformation of the author?
  9. How well do you understand the writer’s quest for personal identity, intimate relationship with a woman, and strivings for fatherhood? What comments or questions do you have about these crucial struggles? (Chs. 30, 31, 34, 38)
  10. What does McCall want to give his two young children? (Ch. 38)
  11. List specific illustrations of institutional racism are provided in Ch. 35.
  12. Trace the steps by which the author became able to related naturally with whites and others. (Chs. 37, 39) Can a white person really grasp what McCall concludes: “I realized how self-centered I’d been as a black man. I had come to think of the word ‘minority’ as being synonymous with ‘black’ “?
  13. How do you explain “the toll that life takes on brothers everywhere.” (Ch. 40)?
  14. In the context of this book, what does it mean to consider “black men in their twenties, thirties, and even their forties, hanging out…frozen in adolescence”? (Ch. 40) How does the author respond to this reality? How does racism try to keep black men as boys?


  1. This book is important for whites, because there is hardly a white person in America who knows enough about what it means to be black.
  2. This book is valuable to African Americans and other minorities because in it they will find a recognizable struggle and hope. It is not a faith hope, but it is a human hope that can be given everyone in this society.
  3. For youth workers, this book provides important insights into identity and cultural issues as well as fatherhood and family. Hip hop has an influence upon most young people today; this is a good introduction to that culture.
  4. Above all, this book challenges the continued existence of racism in the U.S. It is an issue that must be confronted individually and collectively.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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