BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nathan McCall – author of the new novel, ”Them,” and ”Makes Me Wanna Holler” from 14 years ago – I’ve not seen you for 14 years. We chatted here 14 years ago.
NATHAN MCCALL, AUTHOR: Right.
LAMB: What have you been doing?
MCCALL: I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing and teaching.
I left Washington in 1998, and returned to Atlanta, where I had lived before I came to the ”Washington Post.” And since I’ve been in Atlanta, I’ve been teaching at Emory University, and working on this book project.
LAMB: I lost total track of you after ”Makes Me Wanna Holler.” Did you drop out for a while?
MCCALL: Well, I mean, yes and no.
I did another book, ”What’s Going On,” a book of essays. When I finished ”Makes Me Wanna Holler,” you know, I wrote an ending, but there was still so much more that I wanted to say. And so, I was trying to figure out how to say it. And so, I did this book of essays about politics and race.
And then I began thinking about this third project right before I left Washington.
And so, part of it was sort of regrouping after ”Makes Me Wanna Holler.” This book had a tremendous impact on my life. And so, I had to figure out where to go from there.
LAMB: Is it still in print?
MCCALL: Yes. Oh, yes. Oh, it’s still selling well. I’m still getting royalty checks.
LAMB: Give us some examples. Here’s the book. Give us some examples of how it’s impacted your life.
MCCALL: Well, when the book first came out, and in subsequent years, I was inundated with letters and phone calls from people who wanted to talk about the book. And we’re not just talking about media types. I’m talking about everyday people who could relate to the book in some way or another.
I would do book signings. And I’d get black men who would come to the signings, and a lot of them would say, ”Man, you told my story.”
And some of them would say, you know, ”This book helped change my life.”
And I would get a lot of women who would come to the book signings or write, because they were concerned about their husbands, their sons, their fathers.
And a lot of these people wanted to share, but a lot wanted answers and help, as well. And I hadn’t anticipated that. I’m not a therapist, I’m a writer.
And so, it got, you know, overwhelming at one point, because I started out trying to respond to every letter that I received. And eventually it took a kind of emotional toll, because some of the stories were so wrenching and painful. And I could relate, and at the same time, I couldn’t handle it all.
And so, it was a real challenge, just trying to regroup and figure out how to respond to it all, and then where to go from there.
LAMB: How did you – did you step out of the spotlight completely for a couple years?
MCCALL: Yes, yes. Not completely. Because after the book was published, I – you know, I did the book tour and then the lecture circuit. And so, I spent a good deal of time traveling the country, speaking at colleges and universities, and also visiting jails and detention centers and talking to young men there, talking to organizations that are interested in helping young men – and young women.
And so, I’ve been quite busy in that regard.
LAMB: How many copies of the book have sold?
MCCALL: You know, I don’t keep track of that, but I think somewhere around 600,000. And if you count the number of copies or the number of people who have read them in prison, always say, you know, you can probably tackle another million.
I get a lot of people who come to the book signings talk about having read the book in prison, and then what they’ve done with their lives afterward.
I was doing a signing at a bookstore in Atlanta on Sunday. And a guy came through, and he saw me and he stopped. And he said, ”Hey, man, I was doing six years in Florida, and I read your book. And I told my mother that I didn’t read anything but sports literature, but I read your book. And when my mother visited me, I told her about this book. And I told her that I wanted to turn my life around.”
And then he got on his cell phone for a second and said, ”Mama, guess who I’m talking to.”
And so I said, ”Let me speak to her.”
LAMB: Let me run from March 6, 1994, the ”Booknotes” program we did, a clip of yours, and you can see what you looked like then and see what you were talking about, and see if anything has changed.
LAMB: What’s your anger level at this point in your life?
MCCALL: My anger, Brian, my anger level is about the same as it was when I was a teenager. The only difference now is that 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 I couldn’t – you know, if you asked me to define it, if you – I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Now, I understand it. I understand the source of that anger, and I know what to do with it, you know. I know how to take it and turn it into something constructive rather than 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 that the way you would feel – me, a white person interviewing you versus a black man sitting here interviewing you?
MCCALL: What’s the difference?
LAMB: Yes. 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.
I think for you it would probably be more difficult to understand. The difference, of course, being that – you know, I would assume that a black person interviewing me would have also experienced some of the same things that I have experienced, you know, working in the mainstream, some of the same frustrations – and even out on the street.
So, they would be able to identify more, I would think, than you, with some of the things that I would talk about.
LAMB: What’s your reaction?
MCCALL: My reaction is that I would – if you asked some of those same questions today – I would probably give you the same responses, even about the level of anger.
LAMB: What was the original source of anger for you?
MCCALL: The original source, I think, was that when I looked around in my immediate environment and beyond – from my household to my communities, to beyond – and I saw the possibilities, the life possibilities for African-Americans, I tended to think that those possibilities were very limited, despite what the society says about America.
You know, we like to think that America is a meritocracy, that if you work hard enough, that anybody can achieve anything. And I know that it’s not that simple, and that there are clear contradictions to that.
And so, as a young person the anger was about having the sense that that was a lie – an out-and-out lie. And that I would eventually have to go out into this world where the cards were stacked against me.
And the evidence that I saw was, as I said, when I looked in my household and I saw my parents, who were hardworking people, particularly my stepfather, I saw him – he always worked two jobs to try to get ahead. And he drank heavily, and most of my friends’ fathers drank heavily and also worked hard. And I knew that they were being oppressed in some way.
And so, part of the anger was seeing what I saw, comparing it to what I was hearing about America and the promise of America, and then knowing that one day I was going to have to go out into that arena and possibly experience what my father experienced, and what my friends’ fathers experienced. And so, I was just pretty upset about that.
LAMB: For those that have never heard about the book or didn’t see the interview in ’94 – and by the way, a transcript of it is on our Booknotes.org Web site, they can read it – go back and give us a minute synopsis on what ”Makes Me Wanna Holler” is about.
MCCALL: It’s essentially a memoir about my journey – my life and my journey. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Virginia.
And I talked about my experiences as an adolescent being – and my first experiences with race – being sent across town to a predominantly white school and not even understanding, as an 11-year-old, what was going on at the time on the racial front. And the level of hostility that I felt directed at me at this school as a young person, and how it traumatized me. And how it essentially also defined or impacted my definition, my sense of what was happening in this country as it related to race.
And I went on as an adolescent to become – to take that anger and channel it in some very destructive ways. I began to hang on the streets. I began to commit crimes, to sell drugs. I got into a conflict with a guy and shot him when I was 19 years old – almost killed him, and ended up being caught robbing a store and was sent to prison for armed robbery.
And it was in prison that I began to read and think and try to understand my life. And it was there that I made the decision that I was going to turn my life around.
And so, the book essentially maps that whole journey from the streets to prison, to coming out of prison, and the struggle to try and move my life in a different direction.
And by then, I had decided that I wanted to write. And I went to college and majored in journalism. And as you know, I got a job at the ”Virginian-Pilot” and went to the ”Atlanta Journal and Constitution,” and ended up here in Washington at the ”Washington Post.”
LAMB: It was Portsmouth, Virginia, where you lived?
LAMB: It was Norfolk State University where you went to college?
LAMB: When were you in prison? What year?
MCCALL: I went to prison from ’75 to ’78.
LAMB: So, you were in there three years.
MCCALL: Three years.
LAMB: You were how old when you were in prison?
MCCALL: I was 20 years old when I was sentenced.
LAMB: And how old are you today?
MCCALL: I’m 53.
LAMB: You live in Atlanta. What do you do full-time for a living?
MCCALL: I teach and write.
LAMB: And who do you write for?
MCCALL: I do an occasional op-ed piece for the ”Atlanta Journal and Constitution,” or whoever – you know, whoever will take it.
LAMB: Emory is in Atlanta.
MCCALL: It’s mostly …
LAMB: And you have this new book, which is your first novel …
LAMB: … called ”Them.”
LAMB: Give us a one-minute synopsis on that.
MCCALL: Well, ”Them” is a story about a black man who lives in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr., was born – a historically black neighborhood. And he decides that – on his 40th birthday, he decides that it’s time that he should buy the house that he’s been renting.
And as he’s saving up to buy this house, he notices that white people are moving into the neighborhood. The neighborhood begins gentrifying. And a white couple moves into the house next door to him.
And the woman in the household, Sandy Gilmore, who is very liberal, and she tries to strike up a relationship with this guy. And he is reluctant, because he has had some bad racial experiences.
And so, the story sort of evolves around them while tensions flare up in this neighborhood around gentrification.
The two of them – his name is Barlowe Reed and her name is Sandy Gilmore – hold conversations over the backyard fence about race. And they try to break down the barriers and get to know each other.
And so, the story sort of deals with the complexity of that, and the difficulty, and their frustrations.
LAMB: Where did you get the name Barlowe Reed?
MCCALL: I’ll tell you, I was driving my car one day and had some car problems, and stopped in this neighborhood. And there were a bunch of guys all standing off to the side, drinking wine.
I had my hood up, and this guy came over and he said, well, maybe it’s this, and maybe it’s that. And initially I said, you know, forget about it.
Then he said something else. And so, I let him come over. He came over, tinkered under my hood for a second – fixed it.
And I said, ”Hey, man, what’s your name?”
And he said, ”Barlowe.”
So I said, ”Well, do you have a card or something? Do you work for a mechanic shop? I’d like to bring my car to you.”
He said, ”No. Don’t want anything to do with the system.” And so …
LAMB: So, where did you get Reed?
MCCALL: Oh, Reed, you know, I just pulled it out of the air.
LAMB: What about Sandy Gilmore?
MCCALL: Oh, pulled it out of the air.
LAMB: Any part of this novel have something to do with an experience you’ve had?
MCCALL: Yes, the opening of the novel.
LAMB: And that is?
MCCALL: And that is, Barlowe walks into a post office on the day that he is to mail his tax returns, and he wants to get stamps. And the only stamps that they have are American flag stamps. There’s a stamp that – one particular stamp of a black woman, Marian Anderson. And he wants that one, and they’ve run out of Marian Anderson stamps.
And so, the guy tells them, ”The only stamps you can buy are of the American flag.” And he refuses. He doesn’t want them.
And so, he – one thing leads to another, and he puts his money in the machine and loses it, and bangs on the machine. And the glass breaks. And of course, they called the cops on him, and come and take him away.
LAMB: Was that you?
MCCALL: No, no. It was me only in the sense that I went into the post office one day. I generally buy the black heritage stamps. I did go into a post office one day, and I wanted black heritage stamps. And all they had were these American flag stamps.
And I had been thinking. I had been just looking around. This was after 9/11. And I had been giving a lot of thought to just how the flags were popping up everywhere, and how we embraced this sense of unity in this country. And at the same time, you know, we still have this disunity.
And so, I had been thinking about that anyway. And so, when they told me that the only stamps they had were the American flag stamps, I got a little annoyed, but I didn’t bang on the machine.
LAMB: Back when we talked 14 years ago, you said that you had been divorced twice, and that you had three children.
LAMB: What’s your status today?
MCCALL: I’m married. I’m married again – happily married. And the children are grown. My youngest daughter is in college, in her final year at Mississippi State.
LAMB: What did they think, both your new wife – how long have you been married …
MCCALL: Eight years.
LAMB: … and your children about ”Makes Me Wanna Holler”? Have they all read it?
MCCALL: Yes, they have. Yes, they have. I think they’re still bewildered. I think they’re – you know, they’re befuddled about the public response that they’ve seen. They’ve gone to book signings with me, and they have seen people’s responses to it.
And so, I think they’ve been trying to make sense of it all, because they – you know, none of them experienced the kinds of things that I experienced. They didn’t hang on the streets, and they didn’t get into trouble with the law.
And so, that’s territory that they’re not familiar with – thankfully.
And so, I think they’ve, you know, tried to figure it out and tried to, like many people, tried to determine how I made this journey.
LAMB: Here is another clip. I asked you back then about your attitude toward whites. Let’s watch.
MCCALL: For a long time I hated whites. And that was part of that blind rage. Because I felt that my life had been shaped by forces much larger than me, by institutions that 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, it was easy to say, hey, you know, then if – you know, white people are evil, and, you know, I hate white people.
And that’s how I felt for a long time. And I carried that kind of anger, right up until the time that I went into the white mainstream to work as a journalist.
LAMB: What’s that feel like listening to it today? Anything changed?
MCCALL: Oh, yes. I love white people now.
LAMB: Why? I mean, we are sitting here with a very popular black man in contention for the Democratic nomination.
LAMB: And what impact does that have on this whole – your feeling about the country?
MCCALL: Well, since that interview – I was just kidding just then. Since that interview, I’ve developed a much more nuanced view about whites. And I’ve done a lot more studying and a lot more thinking, had a lot more experiences.
And one of the things that I’ve come to conclude is that in many ways, many whites are just as much victims of American propaganda as anyone else.
And I say that, because I’ve run across many white people who I see struggling with issues of race and sense of superiority, and things like that. They might not have figured it out yet, but I see them struggling with it.
And I came to the conclusion at some point that, you know, given the nature of white privilege, which is that white people – as a white person, you don’t have to learn anything about me as an African-American, and it will not have an adverse impact on your career at all.
I have to learn about you as a white person, if I’m to succeed in this society.
So, any white person who does take that step and wrestles with issues of race is doing something special in a sense.
And so, I determined at some point that any white person who is engaged in that struggle, if there is a way that I can help, if there is a way that – I will certainly be open to them.
And I’m seeing more whites now who are engaged in trying to come to terms with race and the history of this country.
And so, that’s why I say my view is a lot more nuanced now.
LAMB: What do your classes look like at Emory? What are you teaching?
MCCALL: My classes are predominately white. Emory is a majority white institution with about – I guess about a 10 percent minority population, student population, which is interesting when you think about it.
I love it, because I get to challenge all of these white students around the issues that I study and think about and am interested in. And it’s amazing to see it when the light bulb comes on for them.
I teach one course called ”African American Images in the Media,” in which I do a whole history of the images of black people from the start of this country, to show how they have evolved, so that the students can understand how stereotypes have become so entrenched, so that it is almost impossible for us to get away from them in this day and time.
LAMB: Do you ever get under their skin in that course where they come back at you?
MCCALL: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I love to get under their skin.
LAMB: What do they say? When do you tick them off?
MCCALL: When do I …
LAMB: Tick them off.
MCCALL: Tick them off?
LAMB: When do you make them mad?
MCCALL: Oh, when I talk with them about white privilege, when I tell them how privileged they are as white students.
I had one student say to me one time, he said, ”You know, you’re always talking about white privilege and how powerful we are.” He said, ”I don’t have any power.”
And I said, ”Oh, yes you do. Yes, you do. You woke up this morning and you did not have to even think about the possibility of someone insulting you as a white person during the course of this day.”
I wake up every day, and I have to be prepared to be insulted. And I have to be prepared to respond in the appropriate way.
That’s power. That’s power.
LAMB: So, the next course is what?
MCCALL: The other courses that I’ve taught, I taught a course on ”Images of Ethnic Minorities in America.” And so, in that course we dealt with African Americans, we dealt with Native Americans, we dealt with Asian Americans and Latino Americans.
And in that course I have sort of the evolution of how the media has covered ethnic groups historically in this country, and I give examples. And I show how images have changed according to our purposes.
For example, Latinos. Years ago, when we were really oppressing them and taking their land, Latinos had the image of being lazy, stereotypical. The stereotype of Latinos was the, you know, the dirty Mexican with the sombrero taking a siesta. You know?
And I tell my students about the commercial that used to air on TV about the Frito bandito. I don’t know if you remember that one.
LAMB: Of course.
MCCALL: This was a guy who was a criminal, and who would rob people for their Frito – you know, for their Frito corn chips. And of course, my students are too young to have known that, and so I have them look it up.
And they look it up and they run the clip, and they’re fascinated, because they look and they see that there was a time when Latinos were stereotyped as being lazy. And now they are stereotyped as being very hard workers.
What’s brought about the change? Stereotypes change according to our national needs.
And so, those are the kinds of things that I deal with.
LAMB: When you – how many years with the ”Washington Post”?
MCCALL: God, I forget. I came there in ’89, and I left – I formally left in ’97, I believe.
LAMB: Now, let me just make some assumptions. Tell me when I’m wrong.
The first book, Random House.
LAMB: Was there a white person that selected you to be able to write that book? I mean, to be able to publish that book?
MCCALL: You mean a white editor?
MCCALL: Yes. Oh, yes.
LAMB: Why were they even interested? How did you get their attention?
MCCALL: I got their attention by virtue of an op-ed piece that I wrote in the ”Washington Post” about what it feels like for me as a black man, when I go home and visit my old neighborhood. And I would go home, and I would see a lot of the guys that I grew up with, hanging out on the same corner that we hung out on when I was a teenager.
And I talked about my sense of pain about seeing that, and also my sense of ambivalence about having gotten away from it and survived, and somehow been able to move on to the next level.
LAMB: Here’s a clip of a fellow that you might remember, Shell Shock
By the way, is Shell Shock still alive?
MCCALL: Shell Shock is still alive, yes.
LAMB: Are you in touch with him?
MCCALL: No. No.
LAMB: Let’s watch this, and you can respond.
LAMB: Who’s Shell Shock?
MCCALL: Shell Shock was my best buddy. We grew up together. He was my – I called him my hanging partner and my crime partner.
LAMB: Where is he now?
MCCALL: He still lives in my hometown, in Portsmouth. Last time I heard, he had a job at the shipyard, and he’s just sort of living a regular life.
LAMB: And what kind of hanging did you do with him?
MCCALL: We did – Shell Shock and I did everything. We fought on the streets. 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 in the ’60s, and then we began hanging tough in the ’70s. So, it would have been like early ’70s on, up until the time I went to prison.
LAMB: Now, you say you’re not in touch with him anymore? Why not?
MCCALL: Well, some of the people, after I wrote ”Makes Me Wanna Holler,” there were a lot of people in my hometown who were very proud and who loved the fact that I told their story. And there were also people who were not so happy about the things that I wrote about.
And so, my understanding – I haven’t spoken with him – but my understanding is that Shell Shock was one of the people who was not particularly pleased with the things that I revealed in the book.
LAMB: You know, I look back at my notes when I read your ”Makes Me Wanna Holler” the first time, and I listed Shell Shock, Sean (ph), Cooter (ph), Kenny Banks, Whiskey Bottle, Turkey Buzzard, Bimbo, Nut Brain, Charlie Greg (ph), Mo’ Bettuh (ph) – I mean, all these names.
Any of those folks that you ever talk to? Or are you in a different place in your life?
MCCALL: Half of them are dead. Half of them are dead.
LAMB: From what?
MCCALL: From various things. Let’s see. Shane (ph) died in prison. He was serving a life sentence for killing a man. And he had a heart attack in prison and died. I wrote about that in my second book.
Turkey Buzzard died, I think, of cancer. A few others have died – not just, you know, not taking care of themselves, drug-related deaths – a range of things.
The other half, some are making it, doing OK.
LAMB: Who else is making it like you?
MCCALL: That’s a good question.
LAMB: Any of them?
MCCALL: That’s a good question. Yes. I would say – this guy we called Ton. We called him Ton, because he was a big guy, and he looked like he weighed a ton. And he played football.
And he used to like to box. And he’d keep these boxing gloves. And so, if you walked by his house and you wanted to box, and then you put on the gloves and you go at it. And Ton would knock you out.
Well, Ton graduated from high school, went to college and played football in college, and graduated – he had a shot at the pros – graduated and became a chaplain. And so, he now lives in Missouri.
And you know, he’s – Ton is a striver (ph). And so, I would say that among the guys that I hung out with, he is one of those who, like me, tried to move in a completely different direction.
LAMB: Were you a drug user in those early years?
MCCALL: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What kind?
MCCALL: I did everything except heroine. And I remember, just before I was arrested for armed robbery, I was contemplating heroine, just to try it. But I never – it was interesting. Drugs were around me. I tried selling drugs. But I never became addicted the way that some of my friends did.
I remember becoming concerned when I found myself beginning to get high earlier and earlier in the day. You know? And that was an indication to me that I was moving in that direction. You know, when you drink a beer when you first wake up in the morning, it’s – you know, that’s not a good thing.
And so, I never became addicted.
LAMB: So, do you ever have any desire at all to go use drugs again? And when you – you know, you look at your former life, is there ever a time where you, in the last 14 years since we’ve seen you that you were going to fall off of any wagon?
MCCALL: The only wagon that I fear, or have feared falling off of, is the anger wagon.
As I said in the clip, the difference between me now and me then is that I know how to channel that anger. And I still know how to channel that anger.
But I still have experiences that sometimes send me into a rage. And I am acutely aware that I have to respond in, as I said, ways that are very appropriate. I’ll give you an example.
I was in a store buying some luggage one day, not too long ago. And I was talking with the clerk, asking him some questions. And a white woman walked up, as though I wasn’t there, and began talking to the clerk and asking her questions. And so, my anger meter sort of went up a little bit. And I said, you know what? I’m going to let this slide.
The old Nathan would not have let it slide.
I walked away, went and looked at some more luggage, came back to the clerk and began talking with him again.
Minutes later, the same woman walked right up – did not say excuse me or anything – and began talking with this guy, demanding his attention and his service, as though I were not there.
And I exploded. You know?
I looked at her and said, ”Don’t you see me standing here, talking to this guy?”
And you know what she said to me? She said, ”You are so rude.”
And that was her white privilege speaking. That was her basically saying, ”Listen. As a white person, I am privileged to be able to do this.”
And I looked at her and – you know, I looked at her and I had one of those moments. And then I had this second moment where I knew that if I exploded, if I got too loud – if the meter went up too high – then the cops get called and I get carried away.
And so, I’m always mindful of that.
I read an interesting article where a psychologist coined a term for it. He said, blacks don’t – blacks today don’t experience the kind of extreme prejudice that we used to in the ’50s and ’40s. But we still experience daily micro aggressions. And that’s what I have to be careful about, the micro aggressions – the various little ways that you get insulted and challenged as an African-American.
LAMB: You know, I know haven’t done justice – and I even went back and read the transcript of the former ”Booknotes” to the – I don’t like to characterize books. But this is a tough book, wouldn’t you say?
I mean, there’s a lot of rough stuff in this book.
MCCALL: Right. Oh, yes.
LAMB: Going back to – you sold 600,000 copies of this book. Did anything – a lawsuit come out of this?
MCCALL: No. No.
I’ve always heard rumors that somebody was threatening to sue, because, you know, some people thought they were entitled to money if their name was mentioned in the book, or something like that. But no, there’s been no lawsuit.
LAMB: Was there much kept out of this book?
MCCALL: No. That’s why there’s been no lawsuit. That and the fact that, you know, I don’t think there’s anyone who can challenge – it’s a tough book, but I don’t think there’s anyone who can challenge the accuracy of what I wrote about.
LAMB: Where did you learn to write?
MCCALL: In prison. I began writing in prison. I began writing a journal. And I began reading a lot.
And as you know, there’s a relationship between reading and writing. And I think I probably had always had the aptitude for writing, but it had not been developed.
And so, this book was – by the time I wrote, began writing this book, I was trained as a journalist, and I had all of these experiences that I had been carrying around inside me. And so, this was catharsis for me.
Even if it sold only one copy, it was still worth it, because I needed to get all of this out of me.
LAMB: Did the ”Post” try to keep you?
MCCALL: Yes. They were very accommodating in terms of allowing me to take leaves of absence to work on this book and to work on my second book. And I knew I wanted to do other books, such as ”Them.” And so, that was one reason why I decided that I needed to move in a different direction.
And that’s why I explored the teaching option.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife, by the way? And what does she do?
MCCALL: I met her here in Washington. And – you’re going to like this – she’s a psychologist.
LAMB: Oh, boy!
MCCALL: I figured you would like that.
LAMB: I can see what you talk about at dinner. Here is a clip from 14 years ago about the movie ”Superfly.”
MCCALL: There weren’t that many movies coming out that had black actors in them. And so, everybody 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, that he wanted to be self-employed, but he didn’t want 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 and earn enough money so that he could eventually start a legitimate business. That was his game plan. And this guy was real slick dressing, a real cool guy. And so, he sold cocaine.
And the end of the movie, you know, he reached his goal and sort of rode off into the sunset.
And I think I was about 16, 17 years old and very young and very impressionable. And me and my buddies were sitting there watching this movie. And it was like, wow. That was cool. That was hip. And we talked about it. Everybody talked about it.
And 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’d see guys in the streets with these wide-brimmed hats like Superfly wore and these long midi 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 beginning to become disenchanted with that. And so, we were looking for alternatives.
And this, for us – for 16- and 17- and 18-year-olds – it looked like a viable 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.
LAMB: We’re right in the middle of a discussion about the sentencing of people who sell or use powder cocaine versus crack cocaine. The mandatory sentence for crack cocaine is five years, and the sentencing commission has suggested changing that.
The statistics may be a little off, but 2.1 million Americans are in jail or prison, and 60 percent of them are black males.
LAMB: I threw all that out just to have you, after 14 years, sum up how you feel about the movie you went to then and where it is today.
MCCALL: Well, the movie – you know, I talked about one movie that had such a profound impact in the black communities. Where we are today is that you have more than one movie. You have these videos – these videos that represent snippets of that ”Superfly” movie – and these videos that send the same message, and often the same objectives.
You know, you want to be self-employed. And if it means having to sell drugs or do whatever, to be self-employed, then you do it.
And so, many of the video messages are impacting young people today the same way that the movie ”Superfly” impacted me and my generation. And so, I think there’s a direct correlation in those messages, the frequency of those messages, the number of young black males that you have out on the street selling drugs. And then, of course, which determines the number of them who are sent to prison.
And then they have to deal with the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine – the crack and cocaine.
The big question is, we have known for years that there have been disparities. Why has it taken so long for us to do something about it?
LAMB: Today, two of the most popular people in the United States are Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. Fourteen years ago, it wasn’t that prominent.
What’s the impact of those two people? And just as – we can talk about it later, and I didn’t get an answer out of you on Barack Obama. What do you think his role in the black community is right now?
MCCALL: Well, I would like to think that the impact of your Oprah Winfreys and your Barack Obamas is very positive. I think these are people who have the power and the visibility to make people sort of pause and rethink their preconceptions about race.
Oprah has certainly been doing that for some time now. And that is certainly a good thing.
Barack Obama is a fascinating phenomenon. My sense is that he – you know, the outcome of this election just, you know, is going to teach us more about where we are in this country than potentially anything else that can come along, because you’ve got a guy who is very dynamic, extremely charismatic and is like Oprah – inspiring people of all races to take a step back and try to look at race through a different lens.
This guy has the potential to change the whole paradigm of the way that we look at race in this country, in the way that we do politics in this country.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
MCCALL: No, I haven’t met him.
LAMB: It’s none of my business, but I’ll ask you anyway. Did you vote for him in the Georgia primary?
MCCALL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I voted early. I got there early.
LAMB: So, you felt strong about it.
MCCALL: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I felt strongly about it.
LAMB: We haven’t talked much about your novel that’s out called ”Them.” How many copies – and this is being published by Simon & Schuster, the last one by Random House. Those are the two biggest publishers in the United States.
LAMB: Why did you switch publishers, for starters?
MCCALL: Well, you know, the – it was Atria Books who, with Simon & Schuster – they were the ones with books. You know, you put it out there. With this one, I wrote this book before selling it. With ”Makes Me Wanna Holler,” I sold the idea, OK. And so, after I wrote the book, we put it out there to see who was most interested. And Atria Books was most interested, and so, we went with them.
LAMB: Do you know what the press run is on this, the first press run?
MCCALL: The first press run is 100,000.
LAMB: Are you doing a national tour?
MCCALL: I’m on the second leg of the national tour. It was released in November 2007.
LAMB: How did that second book do?
MCCALL: Oh, the second book did OK. But it paled compared to ”Makes Me Wanna Holler.” Books of essays, you know, typically do ”OK.”
LAMB: How often do you think of yourself as a role model for young people?
MCCALL: Quite often. Quite often. Because of my past and what I’ve been through, even though I’m older, I know that there are a lot of young people who can identify with my particular journey. And so, I understand that I have a responsibility to give back, and to go back and talk to young people about that journey, and hope that I can help some of them avoid taking that journey.
LAMB: Back to our original interview 14 years ago, as I said, we haven’t seen each other for 14 years. I haven’t talked to you. Didn’t know exactly what happened to you, but …
MCCALL: You didn’t think I’d gone back to jail did you?
LAMB: I didn’t know.
Anyway, but I am still getting my chain pulled for a question that I asked about you – to you – in this interview. And it’s clip seven here, and I want to run it. And just bring us up to date.
LAMB: What’s ”Johnin’” (ph)?
LAMB: I knew I’d get that wrong. Jonin’.
MCCALL: Yes. J-O-N-I-N. Right.
It’s a term that we use to mean joking. In our community, you know, where I grew up, it’s a big thing to be able to ”jone” on somebody. You hear people today call it ”ragging.” To jone on somebody.
Another term is ”playing the dozens,” where you get two people together and they make fun of each other, just for fun.
And it’s an art, you know. It would be – it’s a competitive art. It would be like if you and I sat here, and we were to start jonin’ that I might hone in on your tie. And you might look at my turtleneck and say, where did you get that funny-looking turtleneck? Then I might look at your shoes and say, well, look at those shoes?
And then you might take my jacket, you might hone in on my jacket. Then I’d say, well, what about your funny haircut? You know? And we’d go, you know, tit for tat. And people – you know, it draws a crowd. And people would stand around to see who could jone the best.
And if you got the best of me, then somebody in the crowd might take you on, and you would have a jonin’ session. And you’d take it from the top. And he’d say, you know, look at the funny shirt you have on. That’s – you know, you bought that shirt from Sears.
And you might look at him and say, ”Well, no. Actually, your mama bought me this shirt.”
And so, sometimes it was very friendly; sometimes it would get really vicious. Sometimes you had guys who would jone each other so hard, that one person might get mad and want to fight.
LAMB: Do you still jone?
MCCALL: If I see one of my buddies from the old days, every now and then, we sort of rib each other and jone a little bit, yes.
LAMB: What’s, in your opinion, after studying this life for the last number of years – what do you say to young people today about their lives? How do you keep them away from drugs, if you can?
And how do you inspire them to do what you’ve done, like write?
MCCALL: I don’t try to inspire them to do a particular thing. I try to inspire them to think about their lives in a positive way, and to see the possibilities for their lives. And I talk with them about how I viewed the world at one point, and how I essentially handcuffed myself in terms of how I saw the possibilities for my life.
And so, I tell them about my journey and how I turned my life around. And I tell them, you know, if you direct your energies in the right way, you can do anything you want with your life, as evident by what I’ve done with mine.
And so, I try to – you know, I try to inspire them to avoid making the mistakes, giving into the peer pressure, hanging on the streets and that sort of thing – mistakes that might actually cost them their lives, or cost them large chunks of their lives and, you know, by virtue of being sent to prison, or something like that.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. The difference, again, in 14 years ago and now is the impact of hip-hop and the video culture on young people. I see – you know, when I was growing up, you had to go out to the street corner to jone, and to learn about crime, and all of that. Now, you know, kids can sit in the comfort of their homes and have those values beamed into them.
And so, I see many of them everywhere, trying to emulate the images that they see out there.
And so, it’s incumbent upon people like me to challenge them on that, and to try to give them something else to think about.
LAMB: When you were here last time, there was talk – and I asked you about it – a movie on ”Makes Me Wanna Holler.”
LAMB: And you were talking about the fact that they’d already bought it. I’ve never seen it. What happened?
MCCALL: You didn’t see it?
MCCALL: Oh, OK.
LAMB: Is it out?
MCCALL: No. Oh, my.
LAMB: What happened?
MCCALL: Well, they bought it – Columbia Pictures bought the movie rights. And they bought it for John Singleton, who was with Columbia at the time. And he had just done the movie, ”Boyz ’n the Hood.”
And so, they thought that this story would be a perfect match for him.
Shortly after they bought the movie rights, John Singleton left Columbia Pictures. And so, Columbia Pictures still owns the rights. I think he went to Universal or somewhere, but he couldn’t take it with him.
And so, the project, basically, is in limbo. And it’s my understanding that happens with a lot of movie projects.
LAMB: Did they pay you for it at the time?
LAMB: So, your – you have no more control over this.
MCCALL: That’s right.
LAMB: Is there still a movie, do you think?
MCCALL: Potentially. If someone takes a – Columbia takes an interest in it. It may languish there, and it’s possible that nothing will come of it. And again, that happens a lot. Look at the movie, ”Malcolm X.” It had several – you know, there were several times that they tried to make that movie. And then finally, Spike Lee came along and made it happen.
LAMB: Just a minute. What have you not done that you still want to do?
MCCALL: What have I not done that I still want to do?
I want to travel the world. I have done some traveling. And I want to write more books. I’ve got enough ideas in my head to last me quite a while.
LAMB: Fiction, non-fiction?
MCCALL: I want to do some more fiction, for sure.
LAMB: So, you look back at these many years ago when you were in the most trouble. Is there a moment where the epiphany came and you changed your mind, and you decided, ”I’ve got to get out of this”?
MCCALL: Oh, yes. The epiphany came when I was in prison. And it was a book that I read by Richard Wright. And it was called ”Native Son.”
And this guy was sent to the electric chair. The main character had killed a woman – had killed a white woman – and was sentenced to die in the electric chair.
And I saw myself in that character. And I cried when I finished reading that story, because I knew that if I didn’t change something in my life, that I would probably experience that same fate.
And so, it’s odd, because I still think about it. Sometimes I’m walking across the campus of Emory University, and it dawns on me that some years ago I was walking across a prison yard. And, you know, it hits me.
LAMB: Our guest has been Nathan McCall, who has two books that – well, you’ve written three, but the two that we’ve been talking about – ”Makes Me Wanna Holler,” which was 14 years ago, and the current novel, a brand new novel, called ”Them.”
And we thank you for joining us again.
MCCALL: Thank you.