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30 Years After Its Release, Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler Still Resonates

When journalist Nathan McCall released his 1994 autobiography, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, my mother was among the first wave of people to purchase a copy.

She didn’t buy the book for me as a young aspiring journalist who was still in college at the time, although I’m sure she would have. Rather, my mother bought McCall’s book for herself because – like many readers – she was riveted by a report on NPR about McCall’s remarkable foray into the newspaper business after having served time in prison for robbing a McDonald’s. She was particularly taken aback by the fact that McCall had gotten tougher treatment for the armed robbery than when he tried to shoot a Black person – an indication, McCall wrote, of how little regard the system had for “the value of Black life.”

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, by Nathan McCallMakes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, by Nathan McCallEven though I was a part-time crime reporter still in college at the time, I took an interest in McCall’s book for reasons that went beyond his prior life of crime.

For me, the most memorable passages were not about McCall’s street endeavors or his time in prison, but rather his claim about how Black journalists often find ourselves “on guard” because of constant skepticism about our skills. Every Black journalist, McCall wrote, has heard these whispers of inferiority “a million times” in their careers.

“Success in journalism is tied directly to a writer’s psychological state. You need to be relaxed to write well,” McCall wrote. “Because of the myths, I could never seem to settle down and relax and write with flair the way I knew I could under normal circumstances.”

When I first read those words, I thought maybe McCall was making excuses. He survived prison but couldn’t hack it in a newsroom? Besides, even “normal circumstances” at a newspaper are often stressful – not relaxed – especially for a reporter who is on deadline for a breaking news story.

But now – as we approach the 30-year anniversary of McCall’s groundbreaking book, and as I approach what is presumably the third or fourth quarter of my career – I’m in a much better position to assess McCall’s analysis of the conditions that exist for Black journalists.

Are predominantly white newsrooms still so hostile to Black journalists that they can be psychologically debilitating? I’m afraid they are. I make this observation as a veteran Black journalist who has written for some of America’s top newspapers and magazines. I’m also speaking as an adjunct professor at one of the nation’s top journalism schools.

THE QUEST For Control

In my opinion, the biggest challenge for Black journalists is not achieving some sort of numerical parity by having the percentage of Black journalists be proportionally reflective of the Black population in the U.S., which it still isn’t after all these years.

In 1997 — just three years after McCall’s book came out — Black people represented about 12% of the population, but only 5.42% of the newsroom workforce. Not much has changed since then. A 2022 survey [puts the figure at 6%]. The proportion of minorities — not just Black journalists — who were managers in 2018 is 19%, same as it was in 1997.

To me, the biggest challenge for Black journalists isn’t rectifying our numerical representation. It’s being able to exercise more autonomy and editorial control over what we produce and how it is presented. After all, if the stories of Black journalists are being distorted, whitewashed, or suppressed, what good is proportionate numerical representation?

In my view, a lot of the psychological distress mentioned by McCall emanates from this lack of power within the newsrooms where Black journalists work.

As the Minister Louis Farrakhan stated during a 1996 speech at the annual NABJ convention in Nashville, Tennessee — which I attended — most of us were Black journalists “that work for white institutions.”

“And white folk did not hire you to really represent what Black people are really thinking,” Farrakhan stated at the time. “And you don’t really tell them what you think because you are too afraid of [losing] the little cheap gig that you have. And this does not protect democracy, and it does not represent the Black community.”

Farrakhan acknowledged that some Black journalists are involved in some “horrible fights” at the newsrooms where they work. As a 30-year veteran of the profession, I can attest that what Farrakhan and McCall said in the 1990s is as true in 2024 as it was back then.

Catering to white readers

I learned early on in my career that often editors want you to write for whomever they perceive as their audience. At one newspaper in my native Milwaukee, white journalists told me on two separate occasions that I should “write for the folks in Whitefish Bay.”

For those who don’t know, Whitefish Bay is an affluent lakeside enclave just outside Milwaukee. Some people, as noted by The New York Times, call it “Whitefolks Bay.”

One of my biggest gripes at this particular newspaper was the last-minute removal of certain phrases deemed as too Afrocentric or the obliteration of key quotes. For instance, when I referred to ancient Egypt as an “ancient African civilization,” a white copy editor removed it — purportedly to “whittle” a paragraph down in length in order to make it fit on the page. I suspect the real reason is because many people do not want to associate the antiquity and greatness of ancient Egypt with the continent of Africa.

Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude BrownManchild in the Promised Land, by Claude BrownIn another case, when I got an exclusive jailhouse interview with a man being held for a 1998 shooting at Milwaukee’s African World Festival, the man told me bluntly: “I don’t make guns. The white man makes guns.” I thought this was a provocative statement about the longstanding role that the white-led gun industry has played in perpetuating Black violence, including through what Warren C. Whatley, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Michigan, and other scholars have identified as the vicious “gun-slave cycle” that contributed to the transatlantic slave trade. But the quote got paraphrased as he “blamed white people” for the shooting, which made the shooter’s claim sound less nuanced and silly.

Street knowledge

More recently, in my quest to write for a certain publication, an editor made what I took as a snide remark by stating that they don’t let “just anyone off the street” write for them.

The irony is I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today if it weren’t for people “off the street.”

For instance, Manchild in the Promised Land — a 1965 bestseller written by the late Claude Brown during his time at Howard University — played a major role in helping me to develop a certain autobiographical consciousness and voice that gave birth to my writing career. Notably, McCall’s book is often compared to Claude Brown’s Manchild.

Claude Brown’s book is a major reason why I teach journalism today — he and a slain 13-year-old boy from Washington, D.C., by the name of Karon Blake.

You see, when Karon was shot and killed in January 2023, allegedly while breaking into cars with his comrades, it reminded me of the very first page of Brown’s autobiography, where he recounts being shot at age 13 while stealing bed sheets with his gang.

Since my mother had given me Brown’s book when I was 13 and gravitating toward gang life myself, Karon’s death affected me personally. I took a day off to attend his funeral. At the chapel where his service was held, I encountered one of my journalistic idols, longtime Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who wrote an insightful account of Karon’s final sendoff.

Whereas some people castigated Karon as a car thief, Milloy described Karon’s potential: a “young scholar in the making, a college-bound kid from a low-income housing complex called Brookland Manor.”

When I wrote about how Karon’s death reminded me of Claude Brown, I shared it with a fellow Black crime reporter. He was so impressed with my writing that he told the dean at the J-school where I now work that they should bring me on as an adjunct. Which they ultimately did.

And so, I don’t view being “off the street” as an insult. Claude Brown and Nathan McCall were “off the street” but became bestselling authors. McCall went on to become an African American studies professor at Emory University.

And so, when I think of how these “street” people made positive strides in the field of writing and journalism, I’m reassured. Because for every doubtful editor who tries to keep me down, there are people “off the street” — like Nathan McCall and Claude Brown — who inspire me to rise up.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a former reporter for Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. He is currently the education editor for The Conversation and an adjunct professor of journalism.

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