Makes Me Wanna Holler Summary

Nathan McCall

Makes Me Wanna Holler

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Makes Me Wanna Holler Summary

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Author and journalist Nathan McCall’s memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America (1994), looks at McCall’s life as an African-American male in America and considers his time in prison, as a journalist, as a troubled father, and his continued work for racial equality. The title comes from his persistent sense of racial injustice and his fear that he cannot protect his children against its evils, a situation that makes him “wanna holler.” The work was praised for its unique tone and consistent honesty and is a New York Times bestseller. It was criticized for its depiction of black women and its inconsistent empathy. Its themes include human anger against persistent racism, the possibility of redemption, and the effects of gentrification.

The memoir opens with a startling scene of McCall, with a group of black teenagers between fourteen and fifteen years of age, assaulting a white eighteen-year-old who rode his bicycle in a predominantly black neighborhood. The group kicks the young man in the genitals and McCall recalls how he thought this violence was retribution for the constant racism he experienced.

McCall describes growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia, in a poor neighborhood called Cavalier Manor shaped mostly by economic and racial injustice. When the family first moves in (McCall has two older brothers, and will become the middle child after two more children join the family) it’s a decent looking area, and they’re surprised to no longer be living in the drab apartment they once occupied.

From the beginning of his memory, McCall says that white people dictated his status and the status of his family. Consequently, he maintained a great distrust of all white people he met. Some of his first memories from when he was seven years old are of watching TV ads and shows that featured white people; the overwhelming message was that white people had more fun, were smarter, and were generally better than black people. From a young age, McCall internalized white superiority. Even his mother, when her children misbehaved at the dinner table, would tell them to stop acting so black.

Because of his academic promise, McCall is sent to the seemingly superior white school to receive a quality education. This is during the time that George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, threatened to shut down all public schools rather than integrate white and black students. As the only black child in the school, McCall is constantly harassed and called the N-word. He details the ramifications of living in a Jim Crow society.

As McCall reaches adolescence, he holds less respect for his father, a man with a reputation for working hard and not giving white people trouble. Unlike previous generations, the cohort McCall grew up with in the 1970s was more militant for civil rights than their predecessors and more willing to harm other races with more social power. McCall, who has felt oppressed by white people his entire life, refuses to act obsequious to a white boss and instead turns to a life of crime.

One day, he and some friends rob a McDonalds. He is sentenced to ten years but serves three years, being released for good behavior. McCall has several run-ins with the law, the most serious of which is after he shoots a black man; for that crime, McCall only receives probation. But when he robs a white manager, McCall is sentenced with no leniency. While the harsher second sentence is due in part to his previous offense, this oversized judgment confirms for McCall what little value the criminal justice (and society at large) places on the lives of black men.

In jail, an older inmate counsels him on how he can survive within a racist, middle-class America upon his release. He gains some training in printing and plans on setting his life straight after jail through college and regular employment.  He recalls the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. McCall analyzes this as a case of black self-hatred. He admits to taking part in multiple gang rapes of young girls.

After prison, McCall enrolls for a journalism degree at Norfolk State University. He graduates in 1981 and begins working for the daily newspaper the Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star. Years later, he gains a position at the more prominent newspaper Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eventually, he works his way up to The Washington Post. Though he has very tense conversations about race with his white, fellow journalists, he shows himself to be a fine reporter.

McCall fathers a son, Monroe, with his teenage girlfriend. He dabbles in Islam. He eventually settles down with Debbie, a serious career woman whose goals more closely align with his own. Though they have two children and are initially happy, McCall soon feels overwhelmed in the marriage, and they divorce after several years of marriage. McCall then struggles to pay child support for three children. At one point, he falls behind in payments, briefly returning to jail.

When he returns to his Portsmouth neighborhood, he’s surprised to find it even worse than before. Neighboring areas that house predominantly white people, however, are flourishing.

One day, his first-born, Monroe, says that he wants to live with him. McCall, now approaching middle-age, welcomes him but fears to what degree he’ll be able to protect his child. As he has experienced, it’s frequently dangerous for black men in America.