Advanced Search
Nathan McCall
Nathan McCall
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
ISBN: 0679740708
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
Mr. McCall discussed his book, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, published by Random House. Mr. McCall's memoir discusses his childhood in Portsmouth, Virginia, his time in prison and rehabilitation, and his eventual employment with the Washington Post. The book describes his life and his coming to terms with the increase in crime and violence in cities and how it has affected him personally. He focuses primarily on his anger, his "blind rage" as a teenager, and the constructive uses of his anger as a journalist.
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
Program Air Date: March 6, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nathan McCall, author of "Makes Me Want to Holler," where did you get the title?
NATHAN MCCALL, AUTHOR, "MAKES ME WANT TO HOLLER:" I got the title from an old Marvin Gaye album, "What's Going On." The album came out in 1971 and it is a classic. There was a song on the album called "Inner City Blues" that I really could identify with and they had a line in there that said, "Makes me want to holler and throw up both my hands." I used that line in a piece that I wrote for the Washington Post, and so it sort of caught on.
LAMB: What was the purpose of the line?
MCCALL: The line was talking about -- well, the song itself was talking about the times, the social strife and some of the same issues we're dealing with today: crime, depression, the struggle of black people -- and that was the theme of the song. And so, Marvin Gaye, in singing the song, was expressing his frustrations and that it all makes him want to holler.
LAMB: Where were you born?
MCCALL: I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia which is about three and one half hours south of here.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
MCCALL: I lived there -- well, we lived there for a couple of years. My stepfather was in the navy and so we traveled quite a bit. We lived there a couple of years and lived in Morocco and in Key West, Florida, and then when my stepfather got ready to retire from the Navy, we moved back. I guess I was about nine years old or so. So we lived there from the time I was nine years old. My parents still live there.
LAMB: And what are you doing now?
MCCALL: I'm a reporter for The Washington Post. I'm on leave. I went on leave to write the book. Right now I'm on book tour.
LAMB: Let's go into a couple of little things about your life, and then we can come back and go into them in great depth. How many different jobs have you had in your life?
MCCALL: I guess I'd have to count the jobs in my career as a journalist. My first job I got at the Virginia paper, The Ledger Star, which is the hometown newspaper, I got that job right out of college. My second job was at The Atlanta Constitution. I held that job for about six months. And then, I went from that paper to The Washington Post. Prior to that I held some odd jobs, really odd jobs.
LAMB: How many times you been in prison?
MCCALL: I've been in prison once. I was locked up more than once. I was locked up once for shooting a guy. I got a thirty-day sentence and served about four weekends, but that wouldn't be considered prison. I spent that time in the local jail and several months later I committed an armed robbery and shortly thereafter was sentenced to serve twelve years in prison. I served three years and got out on parole.
LAMB: How many times have you been married?
MCCALL: Twice.
LAMB: And are you married now?
MCCALL: No, I'm divorced.
LAMB: How many children do you have?
MCCALL: Three.
LAMB: Why did you write the book?
MCCALL: Well, the book stems from a piece, a prospective, that I wrote for The Washington Post. I had moved here from Atlanta and as soon as I moved here I realized, I mean I could feel it, that there was a difference in the intensity in the crime, in the violence, than in Atlanta. Atlanta had and still has problems with crime and violence, but the level in D.C. was different, and so I noticed that. The other thing was that in moving here it brought me closer to my hometown. When I lived in Atlanta it was an 11 or 11 1/2 hour drive to Portsmouth and so I only got home maybe once or twice a year. Well, after I moved here, I was able to go home much more frequently, and so I'd go home and visit my parents and hear about all that was going on with some of the guys I grew up with on the streets.

You know, some of them were being killed, some of them going to jail, some of the same things I was hearing about here in Washington. And it struck me that the difference was that when I read about these stories here in Washington, they were stories about faceless people -- you know, the stories don't humanize the people, but when I went home and heard some similar stories, I often knew the people who were involved who were either the victims or the perpetrators and I knew the stories behind the stories.

And so I decided I write about the feelings of going home and hearing about all these tragedies and how it compared to being here and reading about the tragedies and just my ambivalence about it all and how I was grappling with it in my own personal life and what my journey had been like. Well, I wrote this piece and it appeared in the Outlook section of the Washington Post and I was scared to death. I had never written about my life. You know, as a journalist, I could always write about other people. And I wrote about my life and the response was overwhelming. I got a lot of letters, I got a lot of phone calls and I got some phone calls from book agents as well. They said, "You know, I think you've got a book here." And so I settled upon an agent and things started happening and so we got the book contract. That's how it happened.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken and what are you wearing?
MCCALL: The picture was taken on some street in D.C. They wanted an urban setting and they found a building which had some graffiti on the walls and so they told me to come dressed like I might dress ordinarily. And so it was summertime -- that's generally what I would wear in the summer: a t-shirt, just dressed lightly.
LAMB: What do you call this cap?
MCCALL: I call it a cap. Some people call it a kufi. It is similar to the hat that Muslims wear but it is not Muslim. It is more ethnic than Muslim.
LAMB: What's your anger level at this point in your life?
MCCALL: My anger level is about the same as it was when I was a teenager. The only difference now is I know what to do with it. I know how to direct it. When I was a teenager I had this blind rage in me. I knew I was angry. I knew I was angry at someone. But if you asked me to define it I wouldn't have been able to do it. Now, I understand. I understand the source of that anger. I know what to do with it. I know how to take it and turn it into something constructive rather than something self-destructive.
LAMB: You will understand why I'm asking this question based on what's in the book, but how would you feel -- what's the difference the way you would feel -- me, a white person, interviewing you versus a black man sitting here?
MCCALL: What's the difference?
LAMB: What do you see when you look at my face compared to if my face were black? What's the difference in your head?
MCCALL: In my head, I would think that someone black who was interviewing me would understand a lot more than you would about the nature of my journey and the source of my anger. You know, I think for you it would be more difficult to understand. The difference of course, I would assume, a black person interviewing me would have also experienced some of the same things I have experienced -- you know, working in the mainstream with the same frustrations and even out on the street. And so they would be able to identify more I would think, than you, with some of the things I would talk about.
LAMB: As you know, it's not once, it's several times in the book you say, "I hate whites." Do you still hate whites? And if you do, or don't, tell us where you are in your evolution of the feeling about whites.
MCCALL: You know, for a long time I hated whites. That was part of that blind rage because I felt, you know, that my life had been shaped by forces much larger than me, by institutions which were much larger than me that I had no control over and very little access to. And all I knew was that those forces and those institutions were controlled by white people. And the lives of most of the people around me, including my parents, were shaped by those forces and so you know, it was easy to say, "Hey, white people are evil. I hate white people." And that's how I felt for a long time. And I carried that kind of anger right up to the time that I went into the white mainstream to work as a journalist.

When I first went into the mainstream, I did not trust white people. And I met white people who were very friendly and who were anxious to help in whatever ways they could. And I wasn’t really expecting that and I didn't know, I didn't quite know how to respond to it. And so, on the first job, I still kept my distance, you know, though just the demeanor of some of the whites made me wonder. It made it a little more difficult for me to say all white people are bad. When I went to my second job at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the same thing happened. And I met a guy, I was in this newsroom, and there was this guy, white guy who came to work for the paper who sat near me, and the guy was just very friendly...
LAMB: What's his name?
MCCALL: His name was Danny, I wrote -- there's a chapter
LAMB: Baum.
MCCALL: Danny Baum, right. There's a chapter in the book called "Danny." And this guy is the kind of guy who's a stranger to no one. Who'll just walk up to you and extend his hand and say hey, "I'm Danny, how you doing?" And I didn't feel the same kind of baggage or reluctance that I often felt from whites. I didn't feel that from Danny. And Danny was able to encourage me to lower the barriers and open up a little more. And we began talking and spending time together away from the job. We both enjoy riding bicycles and we'd get on our bicycles on a weekend and ride and talk, and we would talk very candidly and ask each other questions, the kind of difficult questions that whites and blacks often don't ask each other. And we have open dialogue, the kind of dialogue that we don't have enough of out here.

And he'd ask questions sometimes that would piss me off. Just anger me. And I'd ask questions, you know, I'd ask him questions about white people and he'd respond. And it heightened our understanding of each other and over time I began to see that this guy, this guy really isn't different from me. And I think he saw the same thing. And so my relationship with Danny inspired me to take another look at other people, other white's around me who were similar. And these were people in the newsroom. And so I decided, I made a conscious decision that I would open up, that if anybody extended their hand in friendship to me that I would be receptive to them.

And I was surprised. I discovered that there are a lot of good white people and I had to re-think my whole value system so that I eventually reached the point where I am now; I understand that there are good white people and there are bad white people just as there are good black people and there are bad black people. The same applies for Asians and everyone else. And so, no, I don't hate white people. I dislike a lot of the things that I see coming from the white establishment, but that's not the same thing as hating white people. You know, just a blanket hatred of white people: no.
LAMB: Who was Scooby D.
MCCALL: Scobie -D.
LAMB: Scobie -- because you ended up calling him Scobe.
MCCALL: Yeah, we called him Scobe for short.
LAMB: S-C-O-B-I-E, I guess.
MCCALL: Right. Scobie.
LAMB: Who was Scobie-D?
MCCALL: He was a guy -- this was a cat in my neighborhood. He was an older guy. He was about four or five years older than me and he had a reputation in the neighborhood of being a really tough guy. The guy was bad in the real sense of the word. And the young guys in the neighborhood admired Scobe because it was a big thing in our neighborhood, you know, to be tough, to be able to fight and that had to do with some kind of perverted ideas we had about manhood, masculinity, and so Scobe represented the embodiment of that. I looked up to this guy and I admired this guy and I decided at a very early age, he was somebody that I wanted to be like.
LAMB: Where is he now?
MCCALL: He's dead.
LAMB: How? What happened?
MCCALL: He shot his wife and turned the gun on himself and killed himself.
LAMB: How long ago?
MCCALL: I think that was in 80, maybe 1979, 1980.
LAMB: Who’s Shell Shock?
MCCALL: Shell Shock was my best buddy. We grew up together. I called him my hanging partner and my crime partner.
LAMB: Where is he now?
MCCALL: He still lives in my hometown. In Portsmouth. He, the last time I heard, had a job at the shipyard, and he was just sort of living a regular life.
LAMB: What kind of hanging did you do with him?
MCCALL: Shell Shock and I did everything. We fought on the street, we stole, we burglarized houses, we robbed people, everything.
LAMB: What years?
MCCALL: What years? I met him when I was in the fifth grade which would have been the sixties, and then we began hanging tough in the seventies, so it would have been early seventies on up to the time I went to prison.
LAMB: How old are you now by the way?
MCCALL: I'm thirty-nine.
LAMB: You graduated from what school?
MCCALL: Norfolk State University in Norfolk.
LAMB: With honors?
LAMB: For what subject?
MCCALL: Journalism.
LAMB: Your parents, are they alive?
LAMB: Where do they live?
MCCALL: They live in Portsmouth, the same house where I grew up.
LAMB: What do they think about what you're doing now?
MCCALL: They are both surprised and amazed. They've been surprised and amazed for a long time now. You know, they were surprised by the changes that I made in my life. Very surprised.
LAMB: Did you ever come to close to either dying or killing somebody? Tell us examples, why were you in that type of situation?
MCCALL: Both. I came close to getting killed a couple of times. Once you know, I belonged to a group, a gang, and we used to fight on the streets and one day, some guys caught me -- we were involved in a gang war with some other guys and they caught me and my buddy Shell Shock and another guy and they jumped us. And they beat us with lead pipes and they stomped us and they did everything.
LAMB: Why?
MCCALL: Well, we were just at war. I think it was a turf thing. They had started coming to our bus stop in the mornings and we would compete for girls' attentions and we didn't like them coming to our corner talking to girls who lived in our section of the neighborhood and so we jumped them one day and they retaliated. We jumped them and I put a gun to one of the guy's heads and they retaliated. And so they caught me and beat me pretty bad. They cracked a few ribs, I had a brace around my neck. They busted my mouth up pretty badly, you know, and they beat me with these pipes. I felt then, there was a moment there where I actually felt that I was going to die. Because I kept waiting for them to stop beating me and you know, I remember, "They've just got to stop, they've got to stop eventually." And they just continued and I felt myself losing consciousness. And somehow it stopped and someone helped me home and I was all busted up and bleeding. I felt then, though, that I had come pretty close to death.

Another time, some buzzards and I went across town and it was during the time that we were involved in a gang war with crosstown guys. And we went to see some girls that lived across town and these guys caught us in the neighborhood and they were coming down on us with these sticks and they had guns and we were unarmed and they pulled out the guns and started shooting at us. Pow pow pow pow. And so we started running and you know, I was running and feeling at the same time that one of those bullets was going to get us and I was fortunate enough to get away. And so I had so many close scrapes like that. I came close to killing people several times. I guess the closest time was when I shot a guy. He and I had had some run-ins.
LAMB: Plaz?
MCCALL: Yeah, Plaz.
MCCALL: Yeah. P-L-A-Z.
LAMB: What does that mean?
MCCALL: I don't know what it means. That was his nickname. He was an older guy and we had had some run-ins over the years . And he said something offensive to my girlfriend. And that was like the last straw. And my girlfriend and I were at a carnival one day and Plaz and some of his buddies walked up to us and he put his finger in my girlfriend's face and threatened her and then looked at me and according to the street code that wasn't something that I could let him get away with. He had disrespected me. You hear young black guys talk about that now. They call it dissing. You know they say he dissed me.

And so I had a gun on me at the time and I decided that I had to shoot and he was about as close to me as you are. He was actually a little closer because he was ranting and pointing his finger at me. And so I pulled the gun out of this pouch that I was carrying. I pulled the gun and I shot him. And I aimed it at his heart. And after I shot him he fell and I went toward him and I was going to shoot him again and there was a friend of mine who was out there at the time and he saw it and he called my name and he said “Nate, no, you don't want to do that.” And he ran up behind me and he grabbed the gun. Plaz was down on the ground then. And so that gave Plaz just enough time to get up and I saw him get up and he was holding his chest and he got up and he ran off into the parking lot and I saw him collapse between some cars. And so I went home afterward and I told my stepfather that I had shot someone. And he said, that we needed to go to the police station and I needed to turn myself in.

So we went down into the police station and we were sitting outside this office and we had been sitting there for a long time and this detective came out and he spoke to my stepfather and he said, "I'm sorry it's taken so long, but the guy that your son shot has been taken to the hospital and they think he's going to die. And so, we're going to wait and see what happens because if he dies we're going to charge your son with murder." Well, I was 19 and even though I knew that I had shot this guy, it hadn't occurred to me that this guy might die. You know. I think a lot of teenagers don't think like that. They don't think about the consequences -- you look at TV and you see some guy get shot and he holds his arm, or maybe he ties a tourniquet around his arm and he may go off somewhere and do several other things before he goes to see a doctor. And that was sort of the notion that I had -- you shoot a guy, but he's not going to die.

So when this detective said that he might die, it dawned on me that I might be charged with murder. And that was the first time that the whole notion of consequences registered in my mind. And later, the detective came back and he said, "Well, I've talked to the people at the hospital and they think he's going to pull through. And they said the bullet just barely missed his heart and if it had been a little closer he would have died." I had been praying for this guy to live because I didn't want -- I hadn't intended to kill anybody. And so, you know, I was glad that this guy pulled through.
LAMB: What'd you get?
MCCALL: I was sentenced to serve thirty days in jail and given a three hundred dollar fine. I ended up serving four weekends in jail.
LAMB: The McDonald’s incident. Explain it.
MCCALL: That one happened about eight months after the shooting. I was on probation and some brothers and I, we were going to go and rob a hotel. We went to the hotel
LAMB: The Omni?
MCCALL: No, that's the Sheridan.
LAMB: In Norfolk.
MCCALL: Yeah, Sheridan Hotel. It's at a shopping mall. And we went there to rob this hotel and things weren't set up the way we thought they were going to be ...
LAMB: You mean there were people in the lobby.
MCCALL: There were people there. I mean, one of my buddies, a guy we called Nutbrain, who was actually -- I mean his name implies that the guy wasn't very smart, but he was street smart. He would go and check these places out in advance. He would do the advance work and lay out the plan and then we would go and execute. And so he had checked out this hotel and according to the plan as he laid it out, the lobby was supposed to be fairly empty. We'd go in and we'd hit them at the registration desk and then make our dash. And we got there and they were having some king of formal event. The lobby was crawling with people. In addition to that, they had security guards there.

And so we left, and we were riding around just trying to think of something else to do to get some money and Nutbrain said well, "Let's do this McDonald’s," and so we initially we were going to time the pick-up man. There was a guy who went to the McDonald’s at a certain time every night to pick up cash and then take it and deposit it somewhere else. And we got there and this guy was just leaving. And I had the gun and I was feeling nervous that night. You know I've always had this strong sense of intuition and I was feeling nervous that night. I saw the guy and he walked right on past me. And so I walked into the restroom instead of pulling the gun and robbing him. I walked into the restroom. And so my buddies came in behind me and said, "Look, we just missed the guy. So what are we going to do?"

And so Nutbrain said, "Well, we got to rob the store now." And so we burst into the employee's entrance of the McDonald's and I pulled the gun and told everyone to go over to the corner and all the employees did as they were told and Nutbrain and my other partner went over to the cash register and got these McDonald's bags and began loading money into the bags while I stood watch with the gun and while I was standing there the manager tried to ease his way into his back office. I guess, I assume to call the police.
LAMB: The manager was black?
MCCALL: Right, he was black. And so, I warned him, I pointed the gun at him and warned him, "Don't move." And then a few minutes later he tried it again. And so I pointed the gun again and put my finger on the trigger and I said, "You move again I'm going to bust you." And at that moment, I was trying to decide whether to shoot the guy. I know he was scared. I was scared too, I was just as scared, but I had decided that it he moved again, I'd have to shoot him. And, you know, I always remember the feeling of having my finger on that trigger -- because I was contemplating whether or not to squeeze it. And I believe to this day that if I had squeezed the trigger I would have shot that guy and that guy would probably have died. And I would have gotten into much more trouble than I did.
LAMB: You called this guy, and I wanted to ask you about this term, "a head- scratching nigger." What's that mean?
MCCALL: Right. Well, I said, and I wrote that, putting myself in the frame of mind I was in at the time. And my thinking at the time was that this guy was what we call an Uncle Tom. You know, here this guy was a black manager in an establishment that I assume was white-only and he was putting his life on the line. He was risking his life for this business. And it angered me that this guy would, number one, risk his life for this establishment; it just struck me that it wasn't worth it, and it also angered me because I didn't want to shoot him and I just felt he was going to do something crazy to force me to shoot him.

And so, you know, I had all these emotions going through me and I found myself getting angry with this guy. And that's how I thought about him. I thought about him as a head-scratching nigger, you know, somebody they used to talk about -- you probably heard people talk about house slaves and field slaves in the slavery times -- the way the story goes is that some of the house slaves began to love the master and protect the master's possessions as if they were his own. And that's how I viewed this guy, as a house slave.
LAMB: What's the difference – what’s the word, both the N-I-G-G-E-R and "nigga" and if I call you a nigga or you call me one or you call another black man, what does that word mean?
MCCALL: You know, it means a lot of things. It's one of those words. I mean the English language is crazy like that. One word can have so many meanings and so many implications depending on how its used; context is everything. Nigger is one of those words. If you call me a nigger and smile about it, I'm going to be highly offended and maybe want to fight because of the history of the use of that word coming from whites referring to blacks. If Shell Shock were to call me a nigger you know he might say, "Hey, you my main nigger," it's a term of endearment and when its spelled N-I-G-G-A or N-I-G-G-A-H that's just like the street pronunciation of that, a modification. That's how we pronounce it. So, a guy might say, "You're my nigga." And there's a lot of debate in black communities now, you know, today, about whether we should use it at all, you know. And it's a legitimate debate because some people say, “Well, look, if you're offended if white people call you nigger, you should be offended if anybody calls you nigger."
LAMB: What's a redbone?
MCCALL: A redbone is a light-skinned black woman.
LAMB: Why? Where is the term from?
MCCALL: It's a street term, it’s a street term, you know. We come in all complexions, you know, from blue- black to redbone, redbone being the lightest complexioned black person that you can imagine. So it's just our way of describing a very, very light complexioned black person.
LAMB: Johnin.
MCCALL: Jonin.
LAMB: I knew I'd get that wrong. Jonin, J-O-N-I-N.
MCCALL: Yeah. J-O-N-I-N. Right. It's a term we use to mean joking. You know, in our community, where I grew up, it's a big thing to be able to jone on someone. You hear people today call it ragging. To jone on someone. Another term is playing the dozens -- where you get two people together and they make fun of each other, just for fun. And its an art, it's a competitive art. It would be like if you and I sat here and we start jonin and I might hone in on your tie. You know. And you might look at my turtleneck and say, "Where'd you get that funny looking turtleneck?" Then I might look at your shoes and say, "Where'd you get those shoes?" And then you might take my jacket, you might hone in on my jacket. Then I'd say, "Well what about that funny haircut?" And we'd go tit for tat, and it draws a crowd.

People would stand around to see who could jone the best and if you got the best of me then someone in the crowd might take you on and you'd have a jonin session. And you take it from the top, you know. And he'd say, "Look at that funny shirt you have on." You know, "You bought that shirt from Sears." And you might look at him and say, "Actually, no. Your mommna bought me this shirt." And so sometimes it was very friendly. Sometimes it would get very vicious. And sometimes you'd have these guys who would jone each other so hard that one person would get mad and want to fight.
LAMB: What's the reaction that you've gotten out of this book?
MCCALL: The book has been out a couple of weeks now and I've had people calling me and calling The Washington Post to just tell me what they thought about it. Also, they ran excerpts from the book in The Washington Post Magazine and Newsweek Magazine ran some excerpts. And the response has been great, really, really great.
LAMB: And, what have they been telling you?
MCCALL: One of the things that I hear most often is that people will say they were impressed by honesty in telling this story. And that's one of the things that I set out to do. When I sat down to write this book I said I wanted to be brutally honest. I wanted to be honest about myself, about my life, talk about the pain I felt in life, the pain that I think a lot of black men feel. I wanted to write about things that a lot of black men don't publicly discuss.
LAMB: What are they surprised about? What do people come up to you and say, "I've never read this before?"
MCCALL: Well, people who know me are surprised about all the things I did. I have relatives who said, "Boy, I knew you were doing some things, but I didn't know you were doing things like that. I had no idea."
LAMB: By the way, let me just stop you, because if I had said "boy" to you, then you would what? What would your reaction be?
MCCALL: I would be offended.
LAMB: Why?
MCCALL: Because of the history of the word, the use of the word boy coming from white people. Historically white men referred to black men as "boy." And it was a degrading term. So, we consider it to be offensive. If a person in our community, particularly an older black person -- they'll say, "Boy, how you doing," we understand that they don't mean anything by it.
LAMB: Let's go back to the reaction. Let me drop into this, though. You talk about your current office at The Washington Post and some of the reporters. You name them and teams that you've been in. Eric Pianin is one of them and three others. What did they think when they read it?
MCCALL: I don't know. I haven't ...
LAMB: Talked to them?
MCCALL: No, I haven't
LAMB: Been in the newsroom since you wrote this book?
MCCALL: Yeah, I've been in the newsroom several times. I've been in the newsroom to do photo sessions, things like that.
LAMB: What did you write in here about your own wife, your colleagues that you worked with? How long you been at The Post?
MCCALL: Four years.
LAMB: Talk about that section, that chapter.
MCCALL: The chapter, let's see, actually there's a couple of chapters.
LAMB: Yes.
MCCALL: You mean, the chapter, "The Big Time."
LAMB: Well, what I'm getting at is you've been rather straightforward, honest. They may disagree with your approach to this. You have talked about people you're working with today. Why?
MCCALL: Well, because ...
LAMB: And, is there racism at The Post?
MCCALL: Oh, yeah, definitely. Well, I felt that if I'm going to be candid about my life, where I've been, you know, where I've come from, things that I've done, I'm gonna be candid in the first part of the book. I'm going to be candid throughout the book. That was my challenge. And I decided I wasn't going to pull any punches anywhere. So I write about what I did outside the mainstream, the white mainstream I called it. And I also write about what it was for me crossing over into the mainstream and how this world that was controlled by white people looked at me and how it felt to me. And I wrote about my experiences at The Virginian Paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post. And the section that I wrote about, the chapter that was about The Post, I talked about the racism.

Eric Pianan was an editor. I covered city hall when I first came here. We had a team of reporters that was supposed to work together and I was the only black on that team. There were four of us, about three or four of us, and we covered campaigns and I felt this competitiveness on the team that I thought was really strange. In this business we compete, you know we focus on, when we think in terms of competition, the competition is other newspapers. There is some competition within the organization, but the competition I felt at The Post was really, really intense and it made me tense and it made me uncomfortable;. So I wrote about it.
LAMB: And you say you have not gotten any reaction from your colleagues.
MCCALL: No, not about that. A couple of colleagues, not the ones I wrote about, but I talked to a few colleagues beforehand. I let them look at the chapter and I said, "What do you think?" Because one thing that I wanted to make sure that I wasn't doing was taking cheap shots at people. And so, you know, I wanted to protect me from myself in case I was doing that. And so there were a couple of my colleagues -- white and black -- I sent them copies of the chapter before the book came out and I said, "Tell me. Give me your honest opinion. Let me know if you think I'm taking cheap shots here. Just let me know what you think." And, you know, the reaction was mixed. Some said, "No, I think you're being honest." And others said, "Well, you're being honest, but maybe you don't need to name names." And then others said, "Yeah, I think it's a cheap shot. I don't think you need that."
LAMB: Did it depend on whether you were black or white as to whether you thought it was a cheap shot?
MCCALL: I don't think so. I think everybody was honest.
LAMB: Tom Lippman.
LAMB: Who is he?
MCCALL: Tom Lippman -- he works at The Post. I met Tom before I started working at The Post. I used to work at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I had gone to this program, this management training program at the University of Missouri. And they would bring these speakers in and they would have these panel discussions about various issues in journalism.
LAMB: What year was this, do you know?
MCCALL: This was 1987 or 88. I think it was 88. It was 1988.
LAMB: And you were in Columbia, Missouri, at the University of Missouri.
MCCALL: Right.
LAMB: For how long?
MCCALL: It was a month-long program.
LAMB: And what kind of people were you there with?
MCCALL: Other journalists -- all races. It was called a multi-cultural management program and we talked about issues. We needed to get more minorities in decision-making positions in newsrooms -- and how important that was.
LAMB: So, how did Tom Lippman come into your life?
MCCALL: Well, Tom was one of the people who came in for a panel discussion. One of the things they talked about was the difficulty in finding qualified minorities for newsrooms. Well, Tom was doing some recruiting and doing some personnel things for The Washington Post, sort of travelling around and doing those sorts of things. Well, I had had some history with The Washington Post, the year before. The year before I went to the program, I was brought here to Washington to interview at The Washington Post for a job. And during the interview, I did not tell them that I had a criminal record. The reason I did not tell them is because I had had some previous experiences where I was about to be offered jobs and then as soon as I came clean and told them about my criminal background, I didn't get the jobs, and it was very discouraging and so, at one point, I decided that if I’m ever going to get a career going, if I’m ever going to get -- make another start, I can't tell them. I have to get my foot in the door first and show them what I can do. And then tell them about my criminal record.
LAMB: Did you lie to them?
MCCALL: No, I didn't lie to them. I didn't lie. Well, some may say it was a lie. You know there are lies of commission and lies of omission. So, it was a lie of omission because I didn't tell them. Maybe I should have, but they didn't ask.
LAMB: They didn't ask.
MCCALL: And I didn't fill out an application. In many organizations you don't fill out a job application until you're being processed for personnel. And I think it would have come up then because on most applications they have that question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" And so I hadn't gone through that. And so I didn't tell them and they found out that I had a criminal record. And so all this came into play a year later when I was at this program at the University of Missouri and we were sitting around at this huge table having this panel discussion with these visitors. And so Tom Lippman was one of the speakers and so he started the session out by saying: "Well, we're having a hard time at The Washington Post finding qualified minorities. Let me give you an example," he said. "There was a young man that we interviewed for a job recently. " And as soon as he said that, I'm sitting there in this room, right, and as soon as he said that I knew he was talking about me. I said, "Oh my God, here it goes, this is my life, this is the story of my life."

He said, "We had a young man who interviewed for a job with us and we liked him a lot. His qualifications were good. He interviewed well. Everybody liked him and we were all set to offer him a job. And come to find out, the guy had done time before for armed robbery." And so I'm sitting there falling, just falling apart. I didn't know what to do. There was a part of me that wanted to stand up, and say, "Wait a minute. I'm that young man, you know and I'm doing better. I'm going straight. I made a mistake. But, I've changed my life." There was another part of me that was just outraged. There was another part of me that wanted to cry. I was hurt. And so he went on talking. And I decided to just sit and wait and see what happened. I was curious to see how other people in the room would respond to that. And so after he finished talking, people began raising their hands and asking questions. And one person asked, "Well what did the relevance of the criminal background have to do with his qualifications for the job?" And then someone else asked, "Well, did you ask him if he had a criminal record?" Things like that.

And, one by one the people in the room came to my defense without even knowing they were coming to my defense. None of the people knew that I had a criminal background. And it made me feel so good. And so I didn't have to say anything. After, the session was over though, I got up, and people were standing around talking, and I got up and I went over to Tom Lippman. And I introduced myself and I said, "I'm the young man that you were talking about." And so he was apologetic. You know, he was shocked. He just kept apologizing. He said, "Oh my God. I didn't know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I said, "I would like to say I don't think that's an appropriate example for you to use in trying to explain why it's difficult for you to find qualified minorities. Because the implication is that we can't find any because all of them have criminal records, which is not the case."
LAMB: Have you seen Mr. Lippman since you've been at The Post?
MCCALL: Yeah, I saw him shortly after I got to The Post. I saw him in the newsroom one day and I went over and I introduced myself again, and I think he remembered me and we shook hands and we chatted. It was this sort of discomfort there. And we've chatted several times since then.
LAMB: You say in the book that the movie "Superfly" had an influence on you when you were young. I want to ask you what that impact was and I also want to ask you whether or not the violence on television that we see and the life depicted in the media has had an impact on the people in this country.
MCCALL: Good question. Definitely. The movie "Superfly" came out in the '70s. I think it might have been '72 or '73. And at the time there weren't that many movies coming out that had black actors in them. And so everyone went out, everybody in my community anyway, and I think all over the country, you know, blacks, went out to see this movie. Because it was a movie about a black guy who in his own way was a kind of hero. This was a guy who decided that he did not want to work for white people. He wanted to be self-employed, but he didn't to work in the system. He just didn't feel that it would work for him. And he decided that he would sell drugs and try to earn enough money so that he could eventually start a legitimate business. That was his game plan. This guy was a real slick dresser, a real cool guy. And so he sold cocaine and in the end of the movie you know, he reached his goal and sort of rode off into the sunset. I think I was about sixteen, seventeen years old then -- very young, very impressionable. And me and my buddies were sitting there watching this movie and we were like "Wow! That was cool. That was hip." And we talked about it -- everybody talked about it.

That movie had a profound cultural impact in the black communities. It impacted the way we dressed. You know, people started trying to dress like this guy dressed on screen. It impacted the way we acted. This guy used to carry -- he used to wear a necklace with a coke spoon on it. And you know, you'd see guys in the streets with these wide-brimmed hats like Superfly wore and these long knightly and maxi-coats and they'd have on the turtlenecks like him and the coke spoons around their necks. It really had a profound impact because black people were searching then. We were searching for direction. There was the civil rights movement, but people in my generation were starting to become disenchanted with that. And so we were looking for alternatives. And this, for us, for sixteen and seventeen and eighteen year olds, it looked like an alternative.

And so my buddy Shell Shock, he actually began dealing drugs. He got the idea from that movie. And so there's no question in my mind that young people who watch movies, who watch a lot of TV, are affected by what they watch. And it makes sense because when you're young and immature you don't have the same kind of filtering system adults have. You can look at a movie and say, you can reject the values that are promoted in that movie. You can reject the ideas that are promoted in that movie. You can reject the behaviors that you see in that movie. You can separate reality from fiction in the movie. But young kids get caught up in it. We look for role models. We don't always get them in our households. We don't always get them in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we get them on TV. I think that that's what's happening today.
LAMB: You also said that in your early days that -- and you referenced this -- that the Kennedys all bootlegged liquor during World War II.
MCCALL: Right.
LAMB: And that's how they got to be millionaires. So if you stole a few things, so what.
MCCALL: Right. I wrote about that -- and recalling a conversation my buddies and I were having, we were sitting around talking about alternatives and what we would do rather than go and work for the white men. And somebody in the room said look, think about the Kennedys. They started off with an illegal business, you know. They ran liquor during Prohibition and then earned enough money to eventually open legitimate business. And, you know, to our way of thinking at the time, it made sense and it seemed possible.
LAMB: What are you going to do next?
MCCALL: I don't know.
LAMB: Is there a movie in this thing?
MCCALL: Yes. Shortly after we got the book contract we got a movie deal. I learned a lot about just how closely entwined the book industry and the movie industry are. As soon as we had the bidding war for the book we began getting calls from Hollywood and so we got a good offer from Columbia Pictures and we were eventually able to do a contract. And they bought the rights to the book, to the story. The director will be John Singleton who was the director of the movie "Boys in the Hood." He's about to start on another movie project and they have said that this will be his next project. And so we're having discussions now about what, if any, role I will play in the making of the movie.
LAMB: What about you? Otherwise next, are you going to stay at The Post?
MCCALL: Yeah, I'm supposed to go back to The Post in the Spring.
LAMB: You feel that you're different today than you were before all this writing started?
MCCALL: Yeah, I don't think you can go through this experience and not change in some way -- especially when you write this kind of book. When you write a book about your life, it forces you to sit down and think about your life in a way that perhaps you've never thought about it before. The whole process of writing requires you to think things through. I had to put my life together in a story, in a way that it would make sense to readers and in a way that it would help readers understand the journey that I've taken -- from the streets to the mainstream -- and why I took that journey. And so in the process of thinking through all that I think it changed me some.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It’s a Random House publication. “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” Nathan McCall, thank you for joining us.
MCCALL: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.