Promissory Notes

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America

by Nathan McCall
Vintage, 404 pp., $12.00 (paper)
Brent Staples
Brent Staples; drawing by David Levine


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…

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