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Focusing Only on Racism Blinds Author to Sexism

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--and do what we all knew instinctively was right: Lean down, grab Vanessa’s hand and lead her from that room and out of that house. . . .

But I couldn’t do that. It was too late. This was our first train together as a group. . . . If I jumped on Vanessa’s behalf, they would accuse me of falling in love. They would send word out on the block that when it came to girls, I was a wimp. . . . There was no way I was gonna put that pressure on myself. . . .

After that first train, we perfected the art of luring babes into those kinds of traps.

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It’s unfair to judge a book by a single chapter, but after reading “Trains” in Nathan McCall’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” I felt too sick and disgusted to read the rest of the book.

McCall, the 40-year-old Washington Post reporter whose memoir has been called his generation’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” has plunked a chord that reverberates as deep as the racism he sees or imagines in every facet of his life. Incarcerated for three years for armed robbery and seemingly headed for an early grave, McCall reclaimed himself in prison, went to college, and has created a career he remains deeply ambivalent about--working in the “Establishment” he so despises.

Yet, had he been caught and convicted for even a fraction of the crimes he admits, he’d be writing from behind bars to this day.

And so the book has made McCall into a lightning rod for discussions about the roles of racism in personal responsibility in crime. People respond to his name as if they are gazing at a particularly disturbing inkblot. Everyone has a strong opinion, whether or not they have read the book.

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I didn’t think I could stomach spending 404 pages with a man who recounts his participation in the gang rapes of neighborhood girls as if merely an unfortunate part of a sacred male-bonding ritual. But last weekend, I changed my mind and read the book.

Now I can say with certainty whenever his name comes up that McCall deserves plenty of the praise--and the scorn--that come his way.

Despite the fact that he too often confuses human nature with racism, McCall is worth the time. He is complicated, challenging, annoying, hypocritical, inspiring and compelling.

And--unfortunately--he constantly undercuts his complaints about racism with a blind acceptance of that other, pervasive evil: sexism.

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McCall is a puzzle, even to himself, and for that, there are no truly satisfying answers in this book. He grew up in a pleasant, working-class suburb of Portsmouth, Va. He describes his early childhood years as a Southern idyll, lazy days filled with “innocent mischief.” (Not to burst his Huck Finn bubble, but I see an innate--and prophetic--streak of cruelty in a child who puts a frog in a jar, “poured in gasoline and torched it.”)

McCall’s stepfather worked hard and tried to instill a work ethic in his stepson, but seeing the older man toiling in the gardens of affluent white families was humiliating to McCall. Beating up white people would prove far more rewarding than working for them.

With his homeboys--because it was easy, because they were there--he slipped into the life of a petty hood and street hustler. The why of it is never fully answered, because McCall himself doesn’t seem to know. Racism is his catch-all explanation, and there is disturbingly little analysis or appreciation of the part his family life played in his bad choices.

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Belonging to the streets eventually required the ritual degradation of women. And even though he knew instinctively that what he did was wrong, doing it doesn’t make him a bad person, you see, because racism makes good people do bad things:

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It wasn’t until I became an adult that I figured out . . . that we thought we loved sisters but that 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.

You can almost see the light bulb appear belatedly over his head, then, when McCall beholds his own newborn daughter years later and thinks:

A girl? . . . The fellas and I ran trains on girls! How will I help get her through that?

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It’s hardly surprising that none of McCall’s relationships with women work. His outrage when his wife, Debbie, becomes pregnant with their second child is almost comical. He sees his life going down the drain. The reader sees a man who has impregnated at least four women and still doesn’t get the concept of bearing responsibility for birth control.

When that marriage hits the skids, the disingenuousness of a man who viciously beat people for fun and gang-raped who-knows-how-many young women is truly shocking: One day we were arguing in the bedroom and (Debbie) pushed a stereo speaker on me and hurt my hand. Another time, she got mad and hit me--hard--with a lamp. I learned through those and other experiences with Debbie that some women are as abusive in relationships as some men.

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Who’s zoomin’ who?

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Why is it important to call someone like Nathan McCall on sexism?

As a black American who finds racism at the root of all personal and professional grief--his descent from working-class kid into hardened criminal, his problems maintaining relationship with his children, conflicts with in-laws, divorce, difficulties in the workplace, discomfort in social settings--he should know better. He should own up to the damage he has inflicted on women instead of rationalizing it away.

He owes it to Vanessa, at the very least.


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