What can you learn from a man who used to be your worst nightmare? If he is Nathan McCall, the African American Washington Post reporter who wrote the best‑selling book Makes Me Wanna Holler (Random House, Inc.), you can learn a lot. Earlier in his life, when he was an armed robber, McCall would have been a nightmare for most SEIU members and other hard‑working Americans who worry about safe streets, or fear their children may get involved with gangs or drugs.
Makes Me Wanna Holler is the true story of how and why McCall, a smart boy from a stable, hard‑working family, chose to become involved in a lifestyle that led to gang fights, small‑time drug dealing, sexual assaults, shootings, and armed robberies. Eventually McCall is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison, where he begins to turn his life around. After being paroled, he goes to college and begins a newspaper career that eventually takes him to the Washington Post, one of the most important newspapers in world.
Makes Me Wanna Holler is a powerful and disturbing book that does a great job of expressing the macho thinking that leads so many young men to self‑destruction. Parents who read Holler will find that it helps them understand why their sons may have such a need to be "cool" and hang out with hoodlums who seem headed straight for jail. "Alone, I was afraid of the world and insecure," McCall writes. "But I felt cockier and surer of myself when hanging with my boys .... We did things in groups that we'd never try alone." While McCall is honest about the feelings that drove him to crime, he never makes crime or drug dealing seem glamorous. In fact, when he is finally busted, McCall is relieved he didn't end up shot to death in a holdup like so many of his other friends from the 'hood.
McCall's story also holds a hopeful message for the thousands of SEIU members who are police officers, prison guards, cooks, probation officers, or others who work with inmates and criminals. The book shows that the criminal justice system can make a positive difference in people's lives. McCall found prison a depressing, dangerous place where inmates play vicious games with each other's minds. But prison also taught McCall to think before he acted, and to find some satisfaction in hard work.
Holler makes a strong case for fighting against cutbacks in educational and counseling programs in prisons and jails. In prison McCall reads some of the classic books of African American literature including Native Son and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Going to prisons with well‑stocked libraries and decent vocational training probably saved McCall's life. "I'd always wanted to think of myself as a bad nigger," he writes. "After reading about Malcolm X, I worked to get rid of that notion and replace it with a positive image of what I wanted to become. I walked around silently repeating to myself, 'You are an intelligent thinking human being. You are an intelligent thinking human being."
Makes Me Wanna Holler can also remind us of the role SEIU and other unions can play in solving the crime problem by showing young people honest work can help them feel good about themselves. One of the most important reasons McCall and his friends turned to crime and hustling is they didn't want to be like their fathers, who each day went to jobs where they were never treated with dignity or respect. Many of the older men turned to drinking to relieve the stress. As McCall notes, "They slept when they weren't working and drank when they weren't sleeping. They looked downtrodden and were so burdened and preoccupied ... that they seldom talked much with their children."
If McCall's father had belonged to a union that stood up for his rights on the job, perhaps his son would have grown up feeling he could make a decent life for himself in the working world. Children are a big reason SEIU works hard to make sure its members are treated with respect and don't have jobs so stressful they're driven to drink. After seeing how his father was treated at work, McCall believed that his only options were a humiliating job or a life of crime. SEIU works every day to ensure that no one ever has to make that choice.
Paul Ruffins is a Washington writer working on a book about the black community's response to crime.