Friday, April 6, 2012

The Reading List: Makes Me Wanna Holler

Makes Me Wanna Holler; A Young Black Man in America
Nathan McCall, 1994.

The first eighth of this book, which is all I could get through, is about Nathan McCall's upbringing in Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s. As the title indicates, McCall purports to being telling the story of what it is like to be black in the United States. Obviously, he's got some insight into the matter.

Now, nothing looks more foolish than white people (of whom I am one) saying that African Americans bring on their own problems through a lack of personal responsibility. It’s an absurd and arbitrary smear that one sometimes hears leveled at a tenth of the population who, as a group, have had more than enough crap to deal with over the decades. So here comes Nathan McCall, a skilled and articulate African-American writer, and constructs a memoir in which he frames a life of gross brutality strictly as a sociological outcome, doggedly declining to accept any personal responsibility for his misbehavior. (… or at least, this is the case in the first eighth of his book. Maybe he spends the last seven eighths in pained humility, but that didn’t seem to be the way things were going.) Why he would put his readers in the position of having to point this out to him – because he’s clearly way too smart not to have realized that it is what he was doing – is beyond me.

By McCall’s "misbehavior" I mean organized theft, random beatings of strangers, and routine gang rape. His first active participation in a gang rape is a particularly nasty example, described over eight harrowing pages. As the victim became aware what was in store for her, he writes:
She looked so sad that I started to feel sorry for her. Something in me wanted to reach out and do what I knew was right -- do what we all instinctively knew was right: Lean down, grab [her] hand, and lead her from that room and out of that house; walk her home and apologize for our temporary lapse of sanity; tell her, "Try, as best as possible, to forget any of this ever happened.
Next four sentences:
But I couldn't do that. It was too late. This was our first [gang rape] together as a group. All the fellas were there and everybody was anxious to show everybody else how cool and worldly he was.
Well, obviously this is among other things a very confused group of young men. McCall certainly thinks so, looking back several pages later:
It wasn't until I became an adult that I figured out how utterly confused we were. I realized that we thought we loved sisters but we actually hated them. We hated them because they were black and we were black and, on some level much deeper than we realized, we hated the hell out of ourselves.
Except, this line of thinking is so vague as to be meaningless, and it is discouragingly cavalier. It boils down to “It wasn’t our fault; it was the hate what done it.”

There is of course plenty of evidence out there that when any class of people is systematically deprived of resources, this is going to have a negative effect on its internal dynamics. If an individual is abused, we know that there are things going on at the social and biological levels both that are going to make him or her more likely to become more abusive. Certainly, young Nathan McCall was under the influence of forces he could not control.

Yet young Nathan McCall also knew that he oughtn't participate in the destruction of other people's lives, but he did so anyway. As an adult discussing the events at a remove, perhaps it is merely unseemly for him to take refuge in sociology -- if we give him the benefit of the doubt that this is what he's trying to express with the "some level much deeper than we realized" business. Perhaps we are supposed to take his personal remorse as a given. Perhaps he deliberately left expressions of regret out of the book in order to leave unclouded his argument that his behavior was born of a greater social dynamic.

But I'm not sure that works. Because for all that McCall wants to present his life as the African-American norm -- "A Young Black Man in America" -- it isn't the African-American norm. Obviously. Even if we didn’t have recourse to common sense, and if Makes Me Wanna Holler (or rather, of course, the first eighth) were the only evidence on the table, it is clear that McCall's peer group was a pathological fringe. To read McCall's account is to learn that to be A Young Black Man in America was to be eternally desperate to separate yourself from those black people who dressed badly, those who studied too much, those who were gay, those who were religious, those who weren't interested in sports, and those who fit into a long litany of other feared categories. In McCall's narrative, they exist only in the negative. But, were they not Young Black Men in America?

Sure they were. Indeed, I think it is safe to assume that, under its surface, Makes Me Wanna Holler (first eighth!) contains more than sufficient evidence that a majority of Young Black Men in America do not, and did not, randomly assault strangers and join together in packs to rape young black women in America. This raises the issue for McCall that he might not have behaved as he did out of "deep" existential issues of racial self-loathing. He may, indeed, have had some level of personal complicity in the events of his youth.

Has Nathan McCall ever thought this through? I have to think he has. He's clearly an intelligent dude. But writing about a youth spent so malevolently without bringing in the issue of his own personal responsibility is at best extremely disturbing. It is, to use an arguably cheap but I think reasonable metaphor, something like writing a book about the agricultural labor force of the antebellum South without mentioning the institution of slavery. It is grossly distorting, and it makes the author look monstrous.

Makes Me Wanna Holler is no doubt a valuable piece of first person testimony; one young black man's experience of life in America. It is well-written from sentence to sentence and from chapter to chapter. Its moral disingenuity, however, makes it deeply, deeply unpleasant to read. Despite its presence on my Reading List, I am entirely comfortable with the affirmative decision to abandon Makes Me Wanna Holler, and to get on with my life.


mrs.5000 said...

I peeked into this book--just read a couple of pages in the last eighth, in which he was put in jail for not paying child support--a situation blamed on his treacherous ex-wife, his attorney's insistence on being paid, and the high cost of living in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth said...

Try "The White Boy Shuffle" by Paul Beatty as an anodyne to this. It's at the library.

Rebel said...

How did this book get on your reading list? How was it recommended to you?

Michael5000 said...

It was Chuckdaddy's. He was particularly interested in a section further on in the book where McCall talks about being a street level drug dealer, and how that is -- unlike what many people would expect -- an incredibly demanding and exacting job that pays almost nothing. Which is indeed interesting, but it's something I already know about and so not worth the cost of the ticket for me here.

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry about that. But that last 7/8 was incredible! Just kidding, I read it a long time ago, so I can't really defend it too much. I don't remember loving it, just really remembering some parts. Those being the aforementioned drug dealer part (how bad he was it), when applying for jobs saying his time away was him "trying to find himself" (instead of admitting he was in prison), and how he really was just a regular middle-class kid until puberty when he hardened.

My memory was it written fairly simplistically, but I don't remember being bothered by what you did. I think I saw it less as blamey and more as honest to the point that he didn't care how bad he was coming off. But it was a while ago and I apologize for the traumatic 1/8th! In the future maybe I'll just tell people the parts I liked-


sister jen said...

I have this book (as part of a fairly large and not necessarily curated) collection of nonfiction associated with a class I teach (and personal interest in the form). It's been years since I read it. My memory of it was that McC was trying to illustrate a "phenomenon" that had not, perhaps, been as fully explored at the time as we are now used to...but it's been a long time, as I say, and I also remember the somewhat cavalier sense of the discussion. I was mostly interested in the idea he presents of it being impossible to return to one's "old neighborhood" after having gotten out and experienced a different way of life. That comes later in the book, I think. (Kinda makes me squirm on principle, I think, to have a strongly worded review--positive or negative--of only the first eighth of a book...) and I'm now pretty curious how you came to be so familiar with the specifics of drug sales. From a book, I hope!

Michael5000 said...

It certainly makes ME squirm. The first draft had a long boring paragraph about how trapped I felt between the rules of the Reading List, which dictate that I had to write something about this book, and my increasing unwillingness to p ick it up. It's important to me to "have a book," especially in the wet season, so I jettisoned this one as a kindness to myself. In my defense I was very up front about my 1/8th-ness, but yes, as you were kind enough not to spell out: lame. I know.