Ever since the publication in London in 1789 of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, a saga of his kidnapping, various sea voyages, servitude in the West Indies, and subsequent career as a missionary, the expectation of autobiographies written by blacks is that they will tell of the journey from Can’t to Can. That slave narratives existed at all implied a satisfactory conclusion to the journey—the attainment of literacy, the escape to the place where one could reflect on the experience of bondage and the flight to freedom, and, in the early days of the slave trade, the conversion to Christianity.
Slave narratives had their greatest influence on public opinion and on literature in the US between 1830 and 1860. After Reconstruction’s defeat, their urgency of tone was replaced by the softer one of reminiscence. William Wells Brown created a sensation with his bitter fugitive slave narrative in 1847, when he was still haunted by the memory of hearing his mother beg for mercy as she was being whipped. But Brown published another kind of memoir of the South in 1880, My Southern Home, as if the times demanded from him humorous vignettes of his plantation days before he could go on to mention, almost as an afterthought, the poor state of the public schools for blacks fifteen years after slavery had ended.
Frederick Douglass had charged the air with rebellion and redemption, and these in turn had supported him in the heat of abolitionism. But the atmosphere changed to one of repression after the Civil Rights Act of 1875. By the mid-1890s widespread application of the tactics of the “Mississippi Plan”—massacres of black voters, literacy tests, complicated ballots, and poll taxes—had successfully excluded most blacks from political life throughout the South. When it became clear that the federal government would not protect them, blacks found themselves with little choice but to accommodate.
John Mercer Langston, elected to Congress in 1890 as the first black representative from Virginia, though he held office only one year, gave to his autobiography, From Virginia Plantation to National Capital (1894), the subtitle “Self-Reliance: the Secret of Success.” But he meant self-reliance differently from Emerson’s aversion to conformity, to society’s “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” That definition of self-reliance may have been a transcendent goal for the white, but it could end in a lynching for the black.
In Langston’s thick book of recollection, written in the third person eleven years before Henry Adams printed privately his own third-person master-piece of self-loathing, self-reliance is modified to mean not independence of mind but the self-satisfaction of having been born light-skinned to a fair-minded master, of having acquired a country retreat and an extensive library in French. Abolitionism left its legacy in the belief that if educated blacks in the South could not be politically equal to their white neighbors, they could be culturally superior to them as the spiritual heirs of the type of man who filled the white Southerner with a sense of inadequacy: the cultivated, morally confident, victorious New England gentleman.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery, but his autobiography of 1901 was read as the definitive black success story in the forthright, unpretentious tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s memoirs, with its praise of the virtues of hard work and self-denial. While literacy was the emblem of success during slavery—the document in which the black argued for the recognition of his or her humanity was ironic proof of that black’s humanity—in the Age of Progress of the late nineteenth century, the autobiography was not in itself evidence so much as it was a compilation of evidence, a means of documenting the progress of the race. The emphasis on how much blacks, as a people, had accomplished in such a short time was a way both to respond to and to share in the national obsession with industrial invention and economic expansion. The record of a black’s personal history was also testimony to the dedication of the pioneers of the race, and was written in the same spirit as the reports and almanacs that celebrated the growth of new black institutions, primarily black colleges, which were training future Negro achievers. It was their compensation for being legally disenfranchised and segregated.1
Blacks were, in the main, desperate to conform, to make a distinction between themselves and the people in the colonies the US had taken from Spain, to see their own worthiness and abilities honored. Whites may have read the success stories of blacks as limited, and therefore reassuring Jim Crow gestures, but for the other readers of these stories, education-bound blacks, they were promissory notes on the life to come. The tale of the exemplary black represented the possibilities for the whole.
The success story concentrated on humble beginnings transcended, on obstacles surmounted. From post-bellum days well into the 1960s, the autobiographies of educators, church figures, activists, politicians, physicians, and entertainers were written in this mood of uplift, of slowly coming through, as the old folks used to say, though there were exceptions—books by people who had their lives on the line. One such was Let Me Live (1937), by Angelo Herndon, who went on trial in 1932 for inciting a riot and faced twenty years on a Georgia chain gang.
In the 1930s, when The Journal of Negro History published some of the first articles on slave narratives and the WPA was interviewing the last survivors of slavery, black private high schools, most of them run by missionaries, used these nineteenth-century autobiographies as both literature and history texts. In the 1940s, Against the Tide by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (1939), A Colored Woman in a White World by Mary Church Terell (1940), and A Man Called White by Walter White (1948) became part of the black college Negro history curriculum, along with works by W.E.B. Du Bois. The cult of achievement made them celebrities along with Duke Ellington, Hattie McDaniel, and Joe Louis, who in turn were regarded as race leaders, like Ralph Bunche or Mary McLeod Bethune. Their celebrity had a great deal to do with the way their lives were savored in the black press, which enjoyed considerable deference at the time. Until the trickle-down theory of happiness in the celebrity culture of our own day—“I’m not black, I’m rich,” the Afro-Anglo pop star said—for years every autobiography by a star involved that same struggle to move from Can’t to Can.2
But something happened in 1945 that eclipsed every previous autobiography, challenged the conclusions inherent in the success story, and restored the prestige of protest literature—Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Whereas Up From Slavery has so much charm that it distracts one from its mildness about Jim Crow, Black Boy is full of negatives, even about black culture. Wright hated everything about the South. He was as unforgiving about his absent father, religious grandmother, and back-country school as he was about white bosses, white librarians, white hotels, and white lynch mobs. When Black Boy first appeared, black students were protected from it until they entered college.
Something else happened right along with the event that was Black Boy. Wright had been persuaded to drop the second part of his autobiography because it dealt too directly with radical politics. The full story was not to emerge until 1977, when it was published posthumously as American Hunger.3 Wright’s Communist connection had been considered too provocative in 1945, even though he also expressed in it his disillusionment with John Reed clubs, and complained of having been pushed from picket lines by Party members, who distrusted his intellectualism.
When Paul Robeson published his brief autobiography, Here I Stand, in 1958, he was still a commanding figure, though the brightness of his star had been diminished by resentment of his politics—his condemnation of racism in the US and his support of the Soviet Union. Here I Stand scarcely lays out the story of his early years in racially backward Princeton, where his father, a resolute minister, instilled in him a drive to excel, or gets to give his account of the beginnings of his career as an athletic champion at Rutgers, before it turns into speeches in which Robeson defends his left-wing political opinions and activities. The book was not reviewed anywhere in general circulation periodicals.
For Du Bois himself the line between autobiography and the history of the race was blurred, as in the essays in The Souls of Black Folk, and autobiography held scant interest for him as a form, which is why his autobiographies, Darkwater (1920) and Dusk of Dawn (1940), are willful mixtures of genres, of poetry, essay, and historical inquiry. He took the manuscript of his third autobiography into exile. It was not published until 1968, five years after his death and by International Publishers at that. It is as though Black Boy had got through the net by the sheer power of its negatives, by the force of Wright’s pessimistic clarity. Perhaps Native Son four years earlier had prepared the way, a private path for Wright alone. Black Boy set a standard of intensity that went unmatched until The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land. Up from slavery, out of the ghetto.
Malcolm X, according to a recent biography,4 romanticized his father’s character and the facts of his death, but the contempt Claude Brown’s narrator has for his parents, for their backwardness, the fear they betray in juvenile court, represents the psychological break the children of the migration made with their Southern heritage. The parents are depicted as being unconscious of where they are, unable to cope with the viciousness of the ghetto, but Brown himself is street smart at the age of nine, uninhibited in his appetites at the age of thirteen. This was the sudden, dangerous voice of the city, the rooftop sophistication of the young.
Their view of black life was immediate and could not be imitated. The authorities on the protest behind the social crimes of young black men were the angry youths themselves. Their look back into the urban depths was like recalling what had happened yesterday, the writers were so young and the circumstances of their upbringings so continuous. Claude Brown was not yet thirty when his story of coming up fast and bad in a Harlem newly overrun by heroin was published in 1965. Malcolm X died before his fortieth birthday. The autobiography, as a literary form, was revived, for blacks, no longer as a historical document, but as a sociological indictment, and at a time when black scholars were once again questioning the convention that sociology as a discipline was “value-free,” neutral in its assumptions.
Where Manchild in the Promised Land ends at the threshold to maturity and deliverance by education, Malcolm X’s rehabilitation through radical consciousness set the tone for the best sellers of the Black Power era and continues to do so, given that this conversion tale, more than any other work, figures in recognition scenes in so many autobiographies by a later generation of blacks. However, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has a Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained problem: the language is riveting until he embraces Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger. Hell always has more details. This is the burden for those in the new generation who have recast the success story as a conversion tale. The generation writing in the 1960s and 1970s looked for refuge in Black Power politics, but the latest generation is wondering what rescue there is in the stability of professional status. Out of the ghetto, into the middle class.
Any adaptation of a genre develops historically around precedents of style and theme. It is easy to forget the works clustered in the shadows of the old holies, Douglass, Washington, Wright, and X. Because autobiographies by blacks are US history in a way that autobiographies by whites only sometimes are, the similarities within each period are as inevitable as the differences in literary ability. These clusters have depended on occupation as much as on geographic fate. The Schomburg Series of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers includes adventure stories by free black women in service occupations as well as the spiritual narratives of evangelists. This is a corrective to later nineteenth-century writings by black men who were for the most part ministers.5 The autobiographies written in the long shadow of Up from Slavery were the stories of educators, heads of institutions.6
We are now deep into another cluster of related black autobiographies—all written by journalists who are, for the most part, middle-aged in the youthful manner of our cultural moment and for whom the common conscience of the Civil Rights era functions as shared ancestry. Their authors’ personal histories may vary, but these books converge in meaning when they begin to talk about moving on up to corporate times as just another combat landing for blacks. Their grievances sometimes make these books read like depositions in a class-action suit.
Brent Staples is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, but that fiefdom lies outside the scope of Parallel Time, as do reflections he has offered elsewhere on the topical subject of the reaction of black women to his going out with white women.7 Adult quarrels and insider thoughts wouldn’t fit the mood of blamelessness of his coming-of-age story. Though his gaze is directed mainly toward the past, it addresses the price of self-interpretation that is asked for walking into the asylum of integration.
Born in 1951 into a family of nine children, Staples grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania. The shipyards had closed and the city was crumbling by the time his family was dodging bill collectors in a neighborhood called The Hill. “We’d had seven different addresses by the time I reached eighth grade.” While the lights in other houses blazed, his family was reduced to eating by “the sepia glow of hurricane lamps.” His father was a truck driver who drank up most of what he earned. Staples remembers his father trying to force a washcloth down his mother’s throat one night and knifing her on another occasion. These rages did not make Staples his mother’s ally: she once broke a platter of eggs on his head. For a childhood lived out in a haze of petty and felonious cruelties, Staples’s presentation of his formative years is calmly elliptical, completely deadpan. Perhaps this refusal to rise up swinging is a strategy of detachment and survival learned early. When Staples was sixteen, his father sucker-punched him and knocked him out. “I parted company with my family. Physically I remained with them, but mentally I was gone.” Not surprisingly, Staples characterizes himself throughout his autobiography as a daydreamer.
Shoveling coal and hauling ash were the routine of domestic imprisonment, but humiliating errands of mediation, such as going to shop on credit, got him out of the house. It fell to him at the age of eleven to make the regular visits to the children’s ward after his four-year-old sister was burned over two thirds of her body. Though his family remains shadowy, the little he discloses goes a long way. Staples concentrates on what he found on the streets and it is the better-lit, so to speak, part of his narrative. As he grew older, he arranged to be out prowling the city as much as possible. Beyond affection, trying to insinuate himself into any circle of approval, Staples found stealing a solitary pleasure, as were reading comic books and spying on adults. A local bar was “the center of the universe,” a kind of neighborhood entertainment of stabbings during pool games. Cousins were murdered, cousins or brothers became addicts. Sometimes, Staples admits without embellishment, he was gratified by the misfortunes of others.
Parallel Time takes up the story of getting an education where Manchild in the Promised Land leaves off, but if Staples’s escape is explained, it is not necessarily examined. He was not part of the college-prep elite at his high school, but then he also wasn’t in the “bottom caste” of those who studied welding and metalwork. In commercial studies for those who would become clerks, tellers, he could look forward to wearing suits and leaving work with clean hands. “I was going nowhere,” until he entered Penn Morton College, where, thanks to the insistence of its lone black instructor, Staples enrolled in a boot camp-like study program, Project Prepare. At Penn Morton, Staples discovered a lust for high marks, which took him eventually to the University of Chicago graduate school and a doctorate in psychology.
White people had not been altogether alien in Chester. There were Ukrainian and Polish Catholics resentful of being stuck so close to blacks, raw faces waiting to ambush a black kid at a bus stop. In 1967 Chester High was “70 percent black and growing blacker every year.” Not every encounter with whites was hostile: Staples recalls an English teacher who had a talent for reaching students. The Quakers who ran a coffee hangout asked him to think twice about joining the military after high school graduation. And there were white roommates at college, suburban minds to perplex with Huey Newtonesque poses. But once Parallel Time shifts to the University of Chicago there is a strong sense that Staples has been locked inside a lonely White World, as opposed to just having social interactions with whites.
Staples’s black politics were theatrical, a test of limits, in imitation of the militant black students at Swarthmore whom he admired when he was still in high school nearby. The reason there were none in Chicago is not only that “doing something”—boycotts, sit-ins—had been a youthful episode, a feature of student life that had swept across even small campuses in the late 1960s when anger was “the uniform of the time,” or that those times had begun to recede by 1973 when Staples entered graduate school. The University of Chicago itself represented the power of the unamused White World. Staples recalls a dinner with the board of trustees of Penn Morton College, “people who ran cities, companies,” who ignored him: “You may think that you are hot shit, railing on in the local papers, drinking beer on the steps of Old Main, shooting off your mouth with the faculty, but you are nobody to us. I got the point.”
The university’s fortress presence had been a matter of contention since Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s discussion of restrictive covenants against black residents and “the white island” in their landmark study of Chicago, Black Metropolis (1945). The administration successfully resisted student demands during the electrified days in the late 1960s. “Faculty members walked among the demonstrators and identified them for disciplinary purposes.” Even the spirit of pickup basketball games at the university gym differed from those on the nearby playgrounds on the South Side. Staples was not comfortable in either setting. At first, he whistled cheerfully to reassure white couples on the streets at night, but frustration led him to turn these predictable, galling scenarios of apprehension into jeering moments where he got some of his own back.
Perhaps the isolation and gloom are familiar to any graduate career. Had Staples said that stories of Milton Friedman standing over Thomas Sowell with a ruler in hand were current in his day the mood would not have been violated. Given the legacy of Hyde Park’s troubled relations with the black community, it is curious that Staples makes so little of the black presence within the university. The psychologist Allison Davis, the first black to get tenure, was among the first to question the accuracy of IQ tests in determining the abilities of children from low-income homes. Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier were also distinguished alumni of the graduate school, whose studies over the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s on racial tension, black migration, and the black family helped to define the themes and methods of the sociology that had an enormous impact on public policy. What was a laboratory for Allan Bloom was also home to William Julius Wilson, whose book on some of the economic causes of inequality, The Declining Significance of Race (1978), was unfairly denounced as neoconservative simply because of its title.
That Staples felt himself under suspicion as an ambassador from the world of academic “risks” estranged him from the university’s milieu more than did its reputation for turning out formalists. Failure to adjust, for blacks, can appear to be self-inflicted in a setting that radiates Opportunity; doubt becomes a time bomb only certain families have deposited among the baggage of an offspring’s personality. After an upsetting initial meeting with a psychology professor, he checked his previous academic record to remind himself that he was not “a foundling who’d gotten into college by accident.” One notes, however, that rather than exploit the pride clause of demanding that classes be relevant, he chose to keep up and soon mastered the reading for Paul Ricoeur’s class on Freud, mastered the reading in philosophy, in decision theory. The invigoration of the grind must have cured him of being intimidated, because he doesn’t mention another crisis of confidence through all the episodes of shit jobs and high-powered interviews for better jobs that followed graduate school.
The determination perhaps came from what he thought he would fall back into should he fail. It is impossible to overcome one world without having glimpsed another. Staples was most in awe of Saul Bellow. “I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame.” He confesses to having stalked Bellow. “I wanted to steal the essence of him, to absorb it right into my bones.” Humboldt’s Gift was one of the first novels Staples read outside the classroom. Inspired, Staples kept a journal and was amazed to find that Dangling Man is told as a series of journal entries, that its narrator captures all that he himself felt about Chicago’s weather. Though these novels spoke to his situation, in his twenties and wondering what to do, and to his ambition, Charlie Citrine ascendant as his mentor declines, Staples remarks on the spoiling moments when, say, a black man comes out of nowhere to slit a white woman’s throat. “These passages made me angry.”
He is particularly troubled by the representation of decay in Mr. Sammler’s Planet by the figure of a black pickpocket who silently corners the Polish-born “Britannicized” journalist and exposes an elaborately described “large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing.” Bellow returns to it often, Staples claims, as a symbol of what Sammler regarded as the “sexual niggerhood,” the “galloping impulses,” that were sweeping over everyone, including his unhappy daughter, in the Sixties. Though Sammler’s face is “civilized” while the pickpocket’s shows “the effrontery of an animal,” Bellow doesn’t return to it “often” so much as Sammler is questioned extensively about the incident by intrusive, voyeuristic friends and relatives. Toward the end of the book the pickpocket tries to choke a friend of Sammler’s to make him give up the camera he’d used to catch him in the act of stealing. A mixed crowd stands around and watches. When Sammler orders his son-in-law to intervene, he smashes the still silent pickpocket’s skull. Sammler is horrified, having come to see a princeliness in the pickpocket’s barbarism. Staples is not appeased. “I expected more of a man who could see to the soul,” he laments, as only the devoted who feel betrayed can.
In Dangling Man, Joseph makes a scene in a bank when spoken to as though he were “an immigrant or a young boy or a Negro”; elsewhere Joseph notes that his somewhat comical maid has “high standards for white conduct.” The “pork chop” who chases Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, the relief-check farce of “Looking for Mr. Green” in Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories, The Dean’s December in its entirety—we sometimes skip over what pricks sensibilities, because writers don’t live outside their times, and we don’t care about or aren’t surprised by their opinions. Bellow complained not long ago that “no writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally.”8 However, the pickpocket is not in Sammler’s head, he is in Bellow’s. He is an abstraction used to make a point about what poor Sammler is up against. Bellow may have made the pickpocket without speech, but Bellow can’t turn Sammler into a Mistah Kurtz. The landscape isn’t even a Henderson myth.
The black pickpocket isn’t the problem; it’s the dance of the uncut “thing,” because as symbolism it’s cheap. The portrayal of black youths in the courtroom in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is hardly homey friendly, but their pimp-roll walk is undeniable, concrete, absolutely convincing. In the end, Staples took Dangling Man to heart and honored Bellow, because his own writing life began with his wish to reveal thoughts similar to Joseph’s instructive anxieties, his nervy disappointment in Goethe.
Staples cites Frank Conroy’s Stop Time in his acknowledgments, but the book that Parallel Time brings to mind is John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984). The similarities of structure and theme have to do with what was going down back in the places they themselves were able to get away from. Wideman left Pittsburgh for the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford, but in 1975, when he was teaching in Wyoming, his youngest brother was involved in the robbery of a fence who was shot and killed. After an interstate flight, the brother was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Staples had a sister who did time at Leavenworth. He wasn’t worried about her, because she was tough. But a brother ten years his junior got caught up in the drug trade in Roanoke, Virginia, and in 1984 he was gunned down outside a tavern.
Parallel Time is offered as atonement, and as such it is constructed around the fate of Staple’s brother, framed by an excerpt from the coroner’s report at the beginning and by lines from the trial transcript at the end. It also lends his book that city-desk touch of grit. His brother’s killer was sentenced to seven years for second-degree murder, the import being that this was a perfunctory matter, because it involved drug dealers. Staples, like Wideman, ponders the protection of distance, the guilt in having elected to save himself, but whereas Wideman can be called back to share trouble in a way that makes Brothers and Keepers a sort of collaborative effort—parts of it are in the brother’s voice—for Staples there is nothing left to salvage, no reconciliation. “Choose carefully the funerals you miss.” Wideman’s brother may have been a heroin addict who deluded himself into thinking he was Superfly, but experience with the justice system allows Wideman to recreate him as a political prisoner. For Staples, the union of street life and rebellion has been dissolved, even the disguise of revolutionary acts is gone, leaving only doomed players in the treacherous underground economy of cocaine and weapons.
It is hard to recall the days of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” in which the hipster receives his cultural dowry from blacks, or the days when Iceberg Slim, pimp emeritus, was an existential hero of the Ivy League. Back then, the urban adventurer was a dissident, the hustle a sly nonconformism, and the State was thought to have the monopoly on violence. But in the 1960s, the wrong arrest on the wrong night turned over vehicles and set buildings on fire. No one, not even blacks, was prepared. Fearless utterance seemed like strength, defiance like a bid for community control. Black Power provided a backdrop of exoneration for Nathan McCall and his running buddies, hatred of The Man and of The Man–imposed future justified the dangerous thrills they accepted as rites of passage.
Born in 1954, McCall, a Washington Post reporter, launched into a stormy adolescence of theft and assault in Portsmouth, Virginia, from a home of relative security and good intentions. McCall’s black neighborhood, Cavalier Manor, was working class, full of active or retired military personnel. “Middle-class” values prevailed. His stepfather worked two jobs when he retired from the Navy, but none of McCall’s friends wanted to be like “the old heads,” their fathers, who labored every day and then looked for release in alcohol or Cadillac ownership. Brent Staples sailed gladly out of Chester on a Danforth fellowship, but McCall’s youth was an anarchic campaign to avoid the summons to an adulthood ruled by the customs of the White World.
Makes Me Wanna Holler opens with a sensationalistic scene of beating up a white boy. McCall observes that stomping whitey’s ass made him feel good inside. The scene says, Movie—voice-over intro, then flash-back to how it all got started—and it lets us know where we are: the ‘hood, pre-Terminator X. Not Public Enemy, but musicians like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. The attention-grabbing device of opening with a stomped white ass also announces the conflict lurking in the narrative: brutal stories must be punctuated by either the clenched fist or lowered head of social understanding. Telling it like it was has a high purpose in an all-absolving autobiographical tradition. As Hannah Arendt said of Saint Augustine, “Every sin is confessed in order to magnify the power of redemption.”
The irony of Cavalier Manor’s “well-off” blacks being separated by only a commercial boulevard from the city’s poorest whites was lost on no one in Portsmouth, especially the whites, and a white cruising the black side of the asphalt strip was watched as an ominous tiding. “Without knowing what they were doing, a lot of adults in black families passed along notions to their young about white folks’ superiority.” McCall’s grandmother, who lived with him and his four brothers, doted on the children of the white people whom she worked for as a maid. Television and the sight of blondes at the beach, blondes in convertibles, said “White people have more fun.” In 1966, McCall was sent to help integrate a white school, but was harassed so unmercifully he learned reciprocal scorn and begged to be transferred. He entered the social arena of the black school up the street and, alert to the pressures of the Style Police, slick guys and fly girls, he rapidly transformed himself from “a solitary lame” into a dude who could hang.
“You had no identity unless you belonged to a group.” At twelve years of age belonging meant, among the usual escapades, shoplifting, which introduced him to juvenile court. He was released on probation and then thrashed by his stepfather. His parents didn’t understand, because their mean idea of raising children was to make sure they were clothed, fed, and protected. “They didn’t hold conversations with us. Love was understood rather than expressed, and values were transmitted by example, not word of mouth.” He attempted half-heartedly to run away at age fourteen.
McCall claims to have been scared of the world and to have had his insecurities settled by belonging. “A two-parent home is no better off than a single-parent one if the father is fucked up in the head and beaten down. There’s nothing more dangerous and destructive in a household than a frustrated, oppressed black man.” One could argue from McCall’s example that a frustrated teen rates as a close second.
Stealing made sense as a hanging rite, the challenge of taking something from someone else and getting away clean. Frequent “trains”—the rape of a girl by several guys at one time—McCall also recalls as a rite, the consummation of alliances, a sealing of bonds between dudes, like rumbles. “I always wondered what went on inside girls’ heads when that was happening to them.” When he attended a predominantly white high school, the unwritten code held that defeat at the hands of a white boy “brought the most disgrace.” The aim of it all was to win a reputation for being a crazy nigger who would “shoot, stab, bite, or do whatever he could to hurt somebody who disrespected him.” After McCall was savagely beaten in a revenge attack by downtown blacks, he discovered the deranging power, the ejaculatory excitement, of packing a piece.
A white English teacher had shown just enough interest in him to get him to stick around, but his high school diploma meant only that the life of drudgery was closing in. His girlfriend was already several months pregnant, and though he wanted to go away to Howard University, he had to settle for nearby Norfolk State, where he was bored, discouraged by not having the money to dress well. He dropped out. The army was not an option. McCall tore up his Selective Service notice and never heard from the draft board. “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali had said.
McCall was sniffed at by white kids when he went to apply for summer jobs, because they felt that they were entitled to be there and he was an interloper. The overwhelming theme of his youth seems to have been that a drawbridge was going up and anyone not middle class, that talismanic phrase, was lost. Lower-middle-class blacks are more defenseless and stigmatized now than they were in McCall’s youth, but for him it was as though his family’s improved standard of living meant that he personally had to raise what was considered the poverty level in order to be down with it, in the bad dude’s corner. What James Baldwin wrote about Harlem, that poverty was expensive or that children don’t need to be told why they are where they are, still resonates. Because McCall explains his wild behavior as being predetermined, the result of his having internalized the culture of oppression, Makes Me Wanna Holler suggests that the most significant change since desegregation was that McCall didn’t have to come from what used to be called a deprived background to be poisoned by a culture of exclusion and hurt.
McCall and his friends caressed their .25 automatics, .44 Magnums, and .357s. “We worshiped those guns.” Goodbye to the razors of Claude Brown’s day, when disaffected youth did not ornament themselves with hardware. In 1974, when he was nineteen, McCall shot a man, who survived. His parents found him a good lawyer and he got off with a light sentence on a reduced plea. Though he’d been frightened by what he’d done, because he’d gotten away with it he could be proud of the deed that made him a bona fide crazy nigger, saunter by the 7-Eleven, and give the man he’d wounded the eye that mocketh. Returning black veterans brought race consciousness to McCall’s streets, a stern respect for one another, and an Afrocentrism that contradicted the lesson of Baldwin’s youth that he had no choice, that if he didn’t make Western culture his own he would have none. For McCall and his friends Western culture meant only “middle-class” values that were synonymous with the ease and comfort of the White World. Not accepting menial labor made them street renegades of black pride. However, McCall would be the first to admit that he was no urban guerrilla, that his quest for power usually meant preying on other blacks.
Their interpretation of black pride was a terrible misunderstanding, McCall asserts. He and his friends failed to note the anti-drug, pro-black message of Superfly. They bought platform shoes and hatched schemes to circumvent the system, to free themselves of the necessity of having to deal with The Man. But the reefer business was time-consuming, the necessary bookkeeping a drag. “My problems dealing drugs didn’t help my self-esteem any.” Drugs destroyed his group’s cohesion and trust. He and his friends turned on one another. He went back to what he knew best: stick-ups. “Guys were going to the penitentiary and getting killed like there was nothing to it.” In 1975 he was convicted of armed robbery—at a McDonald’s—and sentenced to twelve years in prison. “It doesn’t get more fucked up than that.”
Because he would be eligible for parole after having served a fourth of his sentence, McCall was more fearful of situations in the joint that would force him to do something that would ruin his chances than he was of being raped. “I knew I would kill if the need arose.” McCall is anxious to make clear that though macho he was never Genet Bait. Just as McCall remembers street life as a series of rituals, prison is shown as a mad gauntlet of calculations and confrontations, a struggle not to surrender, for once, to environment. He avoided the homeboys in favor of prison library work; gave up the Christian fellowship group for the company of inquisitive and proud old heads. Survival entailed a profound concentration on life beyond the fence, exactly as Malcolm X and George Jackson had promised. Education, McCall decided, was not unmacho after all. Bigger Thomas’s speech made him weep; a Kipling poem became a mantra; he began to keep a journal.
McCall includes brief excerpts from his prison journal. In them, he wonders why he didn’t listen to teachers who tried to tell him there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, and he meditates on the importance of having goals, of being focused. The self-examination in the form of promises to himself sets the theme of his rehabilitation. As a renegade he was looking to dominate others. After prison, he wants more than anything to learn how to control himself and his reactions. When, later on, stress makes him sleepless, he takes the “anguish” as the price he has to pay to be able to live with himself and with the world.
Though Angela Davis was at great pains in her autobiography of twenty years ago to resist making her situation unique, recent memoirs by survivors of Hoover’s crusade against the Black Panthers, Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and David Hilliard’s This Side of Glory, are written in the therapeutic language of recovery. These days social criticism and personal growth are inextricable when the first-person is speaking.
Recovery programs like AA warn members against the syndrome of euphoric recall—relishing war stories of how messed up they were so deeply that the buzz returns. Nostalgia for juvenile delinquency is not implausible when it is, after all, for one’s youth. Youth’s scams are fun and funny to remember, and McCall seems obliged to counter them by stepping aside from his incandescent memories to make feeble moral judgments about himself such as his inability to be a nurturing type of guy who can look upon family life as a way of “being in harmony with the rational order of things.” But making one’s social reality gripping is sometimes not as difficult as controlling the direction of the indictment, lest it turn back on oneself and one’s friends, which is why McCall is relieved to let historical causes such as racial prejudice take over to explain his behavior. The long focus on urban pathologies has elevated a concept of authentic blackness that is all funk and soul. Anything else is Tomming. In some ways, the urban horror story is comforting because it is so familiar.
Thirty years ago whites listened when accused and Claude Brown’s autobiography reassured them that someone like him had stepped up in the world, that the move had been preceded by some process of education. Now it is no longer a certainty that books about having grown up the rough way are primarily addressed to whites of good faith. Because autobiographies of the black urban experience since 1965 are also youth stories, there is bound to be an attempt to speak to black youth as a constituency. Perhaps McCall was moved by the remembrance that he had to wait until he was in prison before he found a book he could “relate” to like Richard Wright’s Native Son. If he comes across like one of the cons sent around to high schools to scare students into thinking hard about what reckless choices can lead to, his been-there-done-it view contributes to a lively performance.
McCall’s narrative has much in common with the careful bravado of gang-leader books, the knowing hip-hop vibe of Ice T’s The Ice Opinion or Kody Scott’s Monster. Perhaps the similarities stem from the fact that black gangs as films depict them have been around for thirty years now, since the aftermath of the Watts riot, though publicity and the symbiotic relationship to rap make them seem more recent.
The macho overlay thus plays to a varied audience, repulsing some, vindicating others, seducing many. McCall approaches the issue so tentatively because to condemn macho would be to capitulate to The Man, to repudiate his past on someone else’s terms, and to put down the running buddies for whom he has sympathy as men denied by racism the everyday joys of being in control of themselves and a few others at work or at home. He is aware that he is a victim of what is called the demonization or hyper-sexualization of the black male. US society’s terror of roaming black men reaches back through physical attacks by white women on black men in defense industries during World War II and tabloid fears during the black migration of the 1920s to respectable social science and anthropology around the turn of the century and to the politics of Reconstruction’s backlash. It must be said that this historical background gives McCall his own sense of entitlement.
The image that gets grief from women, alarms bourgie blacks, and sends flutters down white collars is irresistible. In prison, McCall came to the realization that there was dignity in his stepfather’s work ethic and that women brought sanity to the world, but he could only express remorse after quieting the gut feeling that conscience is feminine, a chump’s liability. There is a line drawn in the dirt against the critique made by black women. The cult of macho involves the notion that to give up the flex would be not only to leave oneself psychologically vulnerable to the White World, but also to acquiesce in being cheated of one’s birthright, as if to say that if the dancing “thing” is so dreaded, then let it hang out. But all social roles, even the face-saving, coping mechanism of macho,9 are artificial, and it is at this point, when he is asked to shed his truculent image for a more cooperative one, that McCall’s narrative updates the class predicaments of the urban experience. “I knew from the get-go that crossover into the white mainstream would be very risky.”
After his parole in 1978, McCall returned to Norfolk State College, tried to interest his fellow journalism students in starting their own black newspaper, and resented being coached on how to endure in the system, how to dress for success and to behave, as if integration meant assimilation. “A lot of teaching revolved around what it would take to deal on the white man’s turf.” Blending in to enter the job market would be admitting the inappropriateness of the black identity he had constructed from his life, though his earlier need to conform to the code of macho suggests an ability to misplace the self, as does his having given in to the pressure of his (non-Farrakhan) Muslim masjid to marry a woman he says he didn’t love.
McCall became reconciled to his ambitions by declaring himself exempt from what he calls the materialistic motives that drive everyone else. Phrases about evolving into a “higher stage” and trying to reach his “spiritual peak” are consulted like fetishes. By 1981, McCall was on his way—divorced, alienated from the masjid, a college graduate, and a reporter at his home-town paper, The Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star, the only place that would give him a chance, because his prison record was already known there. “I wanted a shot at an establishment gig, but it was hard to feel proud about accepting a job from someone who thought little of you.”
“The big time,” The Washington Post, called out his name in 1989, but six years of hard work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had made him familiar already with the “double standards” of the White World. He questioned himself so much that he was often unable to decide what to do about intentional and unintentional racial condescension, wondering if he didn’t take “typical white male arrogance” too personally, then adding that whites keep a conspiratorial lid on black male aggression because of fear. All an editor had to do, he reasoned, was to tell management that he had a chip on his shoulder. “That’s the code phrase they use when they want to get rid of black men…because no white person wants to run across a black man with a chip on his shoulder. They get images of Nat Turner, slave rebellions, and throat-slashing and shit.”
Behind every door there was a racial stereotype to disprove. Very little experience, as McCall presents it, was individual before it was quickly snatched up by considerations of the collective image. McCall was tempted to go back to the fantasy that street life was a boss-free zone. His apartment was sometimes a safe house for old friends on the run or on a break, some of whom he watched go down to drugs or just plain go down. If he was reluctant to tell his employers about his past, he often felt apologetic or out of place with “real” blacks because he had a different future. Similarly, he could not escape the torment of asking himself how he, nobody special, got off the streets and yet needing to remind himself that he got into a news room because his abilities were as good as anyone else’s. One can’t go backward, at least not honestly. Education can’t be undone. People always know. Homeboys, like Good Old Boys, are sensitive to accent, and that is why one often hears confidences about cultivating two tongues, one for the home folks and another for the workplace. There used to be a joke about a guy being a balanced person when he had a chip on both shoulders.
(This is the first of four articles.)
April 6, 1995
For example, Progress of a Race: The Remarkable Advancement of the Afro-American (1897), edited by W. H. Crogman. Booker T. Washington wrote an earlier version of his autobiography. It was published in 1916, a year after his death, as Booker T. Washington’s Own Story of His Life and Work, updated to concentrate on his fund-raising activities and the building projects at Tuskegee. However, in one of Douglass’s later versions of his autobiography he had to come to terms with one of the great disappointments of his career, the failure of the Freedman’s Bank, of which he had been titular head at the time of its collapse in 1877. ↩
Taylor Gordon, W. C. Handy, Billie Holiday, Joe Louis, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Althea Gibson, Ethel Waters, Katherine Dunham, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eartha Kitt, Willie Mays, Sidney Poitier, Roy Campanella, Jim Brown, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dick Gregory, Muhammad Ali. ↩
Wright published parts of it in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and Mademoiselle in 1945, and some of it appeared in fictional form elsewhere. ↩
Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Station Hill, 1991). ↩
See the Johnson Reprint Corporation Series and the Arno Reprint Series. ↩
Kelly Miller, Out of the House of Bondage (1914), Robert Russa Moton, Finding A Way Out (1915), James D. Corrothers, In Spite of Handicaps (1916), Henry Hugh Proctor, Between Black and White (1920), William Pickens, Bursting Bonds (1923), Benjamin Brawley, The Lower Rung of the Ladder (1925), and even Benjamin Mays, Born to Rebel (1971). ↩
Brent Staples, “The White Girl Problem,” New York Woman, March 1989. ↩
“Papuans and Zulus,” The New York Times, March 10, 1994. ↩
Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. See also Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, editor, Young, Black, and Male in America: An Endangered Species, Reginald L. Jones, editor, Black Adolescents, “Black Males in Jeopardy?” The Crisis (March 1986); Hilton Als, editor, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art; and Marlene Kim Connor, What Is Cool: Understanding Black Manhood in America. ↩