Newspaper Page Text
Clark A tlanta University Panther
January 30, 1991
The Black Male: An Angry, Brooding Breed
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following are excerpts of an
article that appeared in the Washington Post.
By NA THAN MCCALL
Washington Post Staff Writer
Makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands:
It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my
— From “Inner City Blues ”
By Marvin Gaye
Two Christmases ago, I went home to Portsmouth,
Va., and some of the boys from my old days on the
block — Tony. Nutbrain and Roger — dropped by to
check me out. We caught up on the years, and their
stories revealed that not much with the old gang had
changed: One had just gotten out of jail, he said, “for
doing a rain dance” on his estranged girlfriend.
Another had lost his house and family to a cocaine
habit. A third friend had recently gotten his front teeth
bashed out with a brick in a soured drug deal.
We learned that another old friend was back in town
and decided to pay him a surprise visit. We crammed
into my car, stopped at a store and bought a bottle of
cheap wine — Wild Irish Rose. 1 think —just like the
old days. I slid Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s Going
On?’ into the cassette player and, while cruising along,
it struck me: It really was like old times — them
passing the wine bottle from hand-to-hand; Roger and
Nutbrain arguing and elbowing each other in the back
seat; and everybody playing the dozens — trading
insults left and right.
When our friend answered the door, he seemed
surprised but not glad to see us. Within minutes, we
knew the reason for his nervousness. There was a
knock followed by whispers and the stealth entry of a
scraggly-bearded man and a disheveled woman.
Clearly, the three of them were about to do some
drugs, just like old times.
Lately, with the mounting toll of homicides, drug
abuse and prison stints threatening to decimate a
generation of young Black men, I’m still wondering
— not as an outsider but as one who came
perilously close to becoming a fatal statistc myself.
These days, my visits home have become occasions
for mourning, soul-searching and anger. On one
recent visit, 1 saw a story, splashed across the top of the
newspaper about the police busting up a $20-million
narcotics ring. Listed in the article were several people
I’ve known most of my life.
Trips to my old neighborhood, a large Black
community called Cavalier Manor, bring a
distressingly close-up view of Black America’s running
tragedy. When I’m there, it dawns on me over and
over again that this “endangered species” thing is no
Most of the guys 1 hung out with are either in prison,
dead, drug zombies or nickel-and-dime street hustlers.
Some are racing full-throttle toward self destruction.
Others already have plunged into the abyss: Kenny
Banks got 19 years for dealing drugs. Baby Joe just
finished a 15-year bit for a murder beef. Charlie Gregg
was in drug rahab. Bubba Majette was murdered.
Teddy sleeps in the the streets. Sherman is strung out
on drink and drugs. Since I began writing this story
several weeks ago, two former peers have died from
drugs and alcohol.
Many of my former running pals are insane —
literally; I’m talking overcoats in August and voices in
their heads. Of the 10 families on my street that had
young males in their households, four — including my
own — have had one or more siblings serve time. One
of my best buddies, Shane, was recently sent to prison.
He shot a man several times, execution-style. He got
Before I was 20, I’d seen people shot and was shot at
myself. When I was 19, in a running rivalry with some
other thugs, I shot a man in the chest at point-blank
range. He survived, and the following year he shot and
killed a man and went to prison.
Many people are puzzled about the culture of
violence pervading Black communities; it’s so foreign
to them. Some wonder if there is something innately
wrong with Black males. And when all else fails, they
reach for the easy responses: “Broken homes?”
“Misplaced values?” “Impoverished backgrounds?”
Shane and I and the others in our loosely-knit gang
started out like most other kids. Ebullient and naive.
Yet somewhere between adolescence and adulthood,
something inside us changed. Our optimism faded.
Our hearts hardened, and many of us went on to share
the same fates as the so-called disadvantaged.
A psychologist friend once explained that our fates
are linked partly to how we perceive our choices in life.
Looking back, the reality may well have been that
possibilities for us were abundant. But in Cavalier
Manor, we perceived our choices as being severely
1 think once we resigned ourselves to that notion, we
became a lost and angry lot. Many of us could not bear
to think about a future in which we were wholly
subject to the whims of Whites. We could not see a way
out of that. Morevoer. like many African Americans,
then and now, we coudn’t make the connections that
seem so basic in the world where 1 now live and work.
There were plenty of role models in the
neighborhood who were not our parents — teachers,
postal workers and a smattering of professionals. But
even those we respected seemed unable to articulate,
or expose us to, choices they had not experienced
themselves. Besides, they were unappealing to us as
heroes. They couldn’t stand up to the White man. They
didn’t fulfill our notions about manhood.
Instead, we revered the guys on the streets, the thugs
who were brazen and belligerent. They wore their hats
backwards, left their belt buckles unfastened and
shoelaces untied. They shunned the White
establishment and worshipped violence. In our eyes,
they were real men.
When I think about how to explain the carnage
amoung young Blacks in our cities — and how to stop
it — 1 think about my hometown. In Portsmouth,
Black males are assumed to have three post-high
school options: the naval shipyard, the military or
college. All of us knew that working in the system
carried a price: humiliation on some level. Among us
was the lingering fear that the racially integrated work
world, with its relentless psychological assaults, was in
some ways more perilous than life in the
At least in the streets, the playing field is level and
the rules don’t change.
Perhaps for the first time in this nation’s history.
Blacks began searching on a large scale for
alternatives, and one option, of course, was the drug
trade, the urban answer to capitalism. "The drug trade
is one of the few places where young, uneducated
Blacks can say, ‘1 am the boss. This is wycorporation.”
says Portsmouth Commonwealth Attorney Johnny
Morrison, who has prosecuted some of his former
friends for peddling drugs.
There is no lack of work ethic in the drug trade. My
best friend in school parlayed $20 into a drug
operation. By the time we were both 18, he had
employed a few people, bought a gold tooth and paid
cash for a Buick Electra 225. College students couldn’t
My friend didn’t get caught, but others who were
selling drugs, burglarizing and robbing did. I was one
Seven months after being placed on probation for
shooting a man, my journey ended: Nutbrain, Charlie
Gregg and myself were caught after holding up a
McDonald’s. 1 was the gunman in the late night
robbery, and 1 came frighteningly close to pulling the
trigger when the manager tried to flee.
After being searched, handcuffed and shoved into
the back seat of the police car, I remember staring out
the window and thinking that my life, at age 20, was
over. How, 1 wondered, had it come to this?
For nearly three years, I was forced to nurture my
spirit and ponder all that had gone on before. A job in
the prison library exposed me to a world of Black
literature that helped me understand who I was and
why prison had become — literally — a rite of passage
for so many of us. 1 sobbed when 1 read “Native Son”
because it captured all those conflicting feelings —
Bigger’s restless anger, hopelessness, his tough facade
among Blacks and his morbid fear of Whites — that I
had often sensed in myself but was unable to express.
Malcolm X’s autobiography helped me understand
the devastating effects of self-hatred and introduced
me to a universal principle: that if you change your
self-perception, you can change your behavior. I
concluded that if Malcolm X, who also went to prison,
could pull his life out of the toilet, then maybe 1 could
My new life is still a struggle, harsher in some ways
than the one I left. At times I feel suspended in a kind
of neitherworld, belonging fully to neither the streets
nor the establishment.
I have come to believe two things that might seem
contradictory: that some of our worst childhood fears
were true — the establishment is teeming with racism.
Yet 1 also believe Whites are as befuddled about race
as we are, and they’re as scared of us as we are of them.
Many of them are seeking solutions, just like us.
1 am torn by a different kind of anger now: 1 resent
suggestions that Blacks enjoy being “righteous
victims.” And when people ask, “What is wrong with
Black men?,” it makes me want to lash out. When 1
hear that question, I am reminded of something once
said by Malcom X: “1 have no mercy or compassion in
me for a society that will crush people and then
penalize them for not being able to stand up underthe
Sometimes 1 wonder how 1 endured when so many
others were crushed. I was not special. And when 1
hear the numbing statistics about Black men, I often
think of guys 1 grew up with who were smarter and
more talented than me, but who will never realize their
potential. Shane, who oftn breezed effortlessly
through tests in school, could have done anythinghe
wanted with his life had he known what to do. Now he
has no choices.
When Shane was caught in a police manhunt a
couple of years ago, 1 considered volunteering as a
character witness, but dismissed the notion because 1
knew there was no way to tell a jury what I was unable
to articulate to a judge at my own trial: How could I
explain our anger and alienation from the rest of the
Most people, I’m sure, would regard Shane’s fate
with the same detachment 1 feel when reading crime
reports about people I don’t know. But I hurt for
Shane, who will likely spend the rest of his days behind
bars and who must live with the agony of hav ing taken
For those who’d like answers, I have no social
formulas to end Black-on-Black violence. But 1 do
know that 1 see a younger, meaner generation out
there now — more lost and alientated than we were —
and placing even less value on life. This new bunch is
totally estranged from the Black mainstream. Crack
has taken the drug game to a more lethal level and
given young Blacks far more economic incentive to opt
for the streets.
One day not long ago, 1 spotted a few familiar faces
hanging out at the old local convenience store. I
wheeled into the parking lot, strolled over and
high-fived the guys I knew. Within moments. I sensed
that 1 was in danger.
1 felt the hostile stares from those I didn't know. I
was frightened by these younger guys who now
controlled my former turf. 1 eased back into my car
and left, because 1 knew then that if they saw the world
as 1 once did, they believed they had nothing to lose,
including life itself.
It made me wanna holler, and throw up both my