‘IT’S ME AGAINST THE WORLD’Part II
The Washington Post
January 30, 1994, Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE; PAGE W21
LENGTH: 6060 words
(PART II OF II)
I WAS SITTING outside on one of the building stoops, staring across the prison yard one day, when two of my homies, Joe Ham and Pearly Blue, came into view about 50 yards away. They bopped down the sidewalk toward the chapel and approached two white inmates standing there. They talked a moment, then Joe Ham hauled off and sucker-punched one of the whites in the face. Pearly Blue tackled the guy’s partner, and the four of them got it on. Reflexively, I got up and started to run over to jump into it. Then I stopped and considered. In that instant, a bunch of guards ran over and broke up the rumble. They slapped handcuffs on all four inmates and led them away to solitary confinement.
The word on the yard was that the fight stemmed from a gang-related beef over mash, homemade whiskey that some inmates sold. Joe Ham and Pearly Blue were tried by a prison panel and each was placed in a dark isolation cell. Had I gone over to help them, I would have gotten locked up too, and hurt my chances of making first parole.
The incident brought home the fact that there was a lot going on at Southampton that I needed to avoid — and made me realize that I needed to figure out where I fit in. Gang rivalries ran deep, and my homies from Cavalier Manor were in the thick of it. They led one of the two largest gangs at Southampton. Known as the Tidewater Gang, it was made up of inmates from Portsmouth, Norfolk, Newport News and Virginia Beach. Its main rival was the Richmond Gang. The Richmond Gang’s members could be recognized by their dark, Ray Charles-like sunshades and the black silk stocking caps on their heads. The Tidewater and Richmond gangs each had their own football and basketball teams, sizable interests in the mash market at Southampton and a firm handle on drugs, street liquor and other contraband smuggled into the place. They even competed for control of gay men — whom they called “boys.”
There were other, weaker gangs made up of black inmates from smaller locales, and gangs of whites, who banded together for protection. There were more whites at Southampton than in the Norfolk jail, but still, they were the minority. Inmates with no gang ties and those from other states had to fend for themselves. Those who couldn’t hold their own got eaten alive — turned into somebody’s boy, ripped off or taken advantage of in some other way.
The gang scene posed a dilemma for me. Hanging with my homeboys offered guaranteed backup, which practically every inmate needs to live in peace. But it also made it harder for me to break with the past. Once it became clear what some of my homies were into, I spent less time with them and joined a group of guys who had formed a Christian fellowship. In weekly meetings held in the basement of one building, we read Scripture, sang and talked about God. Some of my homies thought I was faking a religious conversion to try to make parole the first time up, but the spiritual change was very real to me. For the first time in my life, I was consciously involved in an ongoing search to understand the meaning of my existence, and the searching itself gave me a sense of purpose that I’d never known.
It didn’t take long for my homies to notice that I’d distanced myself from them. One day, Pearly Blue came to me and said, “Yo, man, why ain’t you hangin’ with the other fellas?”
I told him, “Hey, man, you know I’m trying to move in a different direction. I can’t hang out and do that too. That would make me a hypocrite . . . Nobody don’t have a problem with that, do they?”
“Naw, man, we just noticed that you hang with them Christian dudes and always reading books. That’s no problem with us. But you know, other guys on the yard might start thinking maybe you turned to God ’cause you can’t handle the time. They think you weak when you get into that Christian bag . . . You know, this ain’t exactly the best place to be turning the other cheek.”
I WAS STANDING in my cell doorway, checking out the scene on the floor below, when a white convict appeared in the doorway across from mine. He stood stock-still and looked straight ahead. Without saying a word, he lifted a razor blade in one hand and began slashing the wrist of the other, squirting blood everywhere. He kept slashing, rapid-fire, until finally he dropped the razor and slumped to the floor, knocking his head against the bars as he went down.
Other inmates standing in their doorways spotted him and yelled, “Guard! Guard! Guard!” Guards came running, rushed the unconscious inmate to the dispensary and ordered a hallboy to clean up the pool of blood. Later, when I asked the hallboy why the dude had tried to take himself out, he said, “That time came down on him and he couldn’t take the pressure. You know them white boys can’t handle time like us brothers. They weak.”
It was a macho thing for a guy to be able to handle his time. Still, every once in a while, time got to everybody, no matter how tough they were. Hard time came in seasonal waves that wiped out whole groups of cats, like a monsoon. Winter was easiest on everybody. There was the sense that you really weren’t missing anything on the streets because everyone was indoors. Spring and summer were hell. The Dear John letters started flowing in, sending heartbroken dudes to the fence for a clean, fast break over and into the countryside.
I saw the lifers go through some serious changes about time. Some days, those cats carried theirs as good as anybody else, but other days, they didn’t. You could look in their eyes sometimes and tell they had run across a calendar, one of those calendars that let you know what day of the week your birthday will fall on 10 years from now. Or you could see in the wild way they started acting and talking that they were on the edge. Then it was time to get away from them, go to the other side of the prison yard and watch the fireworks. They went off.
MY TIME started coming down on me when I realized I’d reached the one-year mark and had at least two to go. I tried to cling tighter to Liz, but that didn’t work. After I was transferred from the jail to Southampton, it seemed we both backed out on the marriage plans. She didn’t bring it up, and neither did I. Liz’s visits and letters slacked off, and I felt myself slipping out of touch with the outside world. When Liz did visit, she seemed distant and nervous, like there was something she wanted to tell me but couldn’t get out.
It’s a weird feeling being on the edge and knowing that there’s not much you can do about it but hang on. You can’t get help for prison depression. You can’t go to a counselor and say, “Look, I need a weekend pass. This punishment thing is taking more out of me than I think it was intended to take.”
I didn’t want to admit to myself that the time was getting to me that much, let alone admit it to somebody else. So I determined to do the macho thing: suffer quietly. Sometimes it got so bad I had to whisper to myself, “Hold on, hold on.”
Frustrated and depressed, I went to the prison canteen and bought a green loose-leaf tablet and started a journal, partly out of a need to capture my fears and feelings, and partly to practice using the new words I learned. I adopted a journal theme, a quote I ran across by Oliver Wendell Holmes — an encouragement to keep me pushing ahead:
I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving. To reach the port of heaven, we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it — but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
It made me feel better sometimes to get something down on paper just like I felt it. It brought a kind of relief to be able to describe my pain. It was like, if I could describe it, it lost some of its power over me.
I WALKED into the crowded visiting room and took a seat at the table with Liz. My intuition told me that something was up. She’d come alone, without my parents or our son, and her brown eyes, usually bright and cheery, were sad and evasive. In a letter she’d sent to me earlier in the week she had said there was something she wanted to discuss. I sensed what it was, and I’d come prepared.
We exchanged small talk, then there was this awkward silence. Finally, I spoke, relieving her of a burden I sensed was killing her. “You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
There was a long pause as she waited for my reaction. I looked down at the floor and thought about what I’d just heard. My worst fear had come true. Liz couldn’t hang. I’d have to do the time alone. I understood. She’d done the best she could. She’d been a helluva lot more supportive and reliable than I would have been under the circumstances. The best I could do was be grateful for what she’d done. Take it and grow, as she used to say. I tried to put on a brave face, and I said, “I understand, really . . . Well, nothing I can do about that but wish you the best. I would like you to hang in there with me, but, really, I don’t know when I’m gettin’ outta here.”
She listened quietly and nodded as I talked. When I finished, she didn’t say much. We sat there, bummed out, looking at each other. Liz wished me well. Her eyes watered. Then she said goodbye, and left.
I practically ran back to my cell. I wanted to get back there before the tear ducts burst. It was like trying to get to the bathroom before the bladder gives out. I made it, went inside and flopped down on a stool. I turned on the stereo, slid in one of my favorite gospel tapes, “Amazing Grace,” by Aretha Franklin, and closed my eyes. The tape opened with a song called “Mary Don’t You Weep.” The deep strains of a full gospel choir, comforting the mother of Jesus after His death, sang in a rich harmony that sent shivers through me:
Hush, Mary, don’t you weep.
Hush, Mary, don’t you weep.
When I heard those words, the floodgate burst and the tears started streaming down my face. Streaming. The pain ran so deep it felt physical, like somebody was pounding on my chest. I’d never been hurt by a woman before. I had never cared enough to be hurt by one. I sat there, leaning on the cell door, listening to Aretha and crying. Inmates walked past and I didn’t even lift my head. I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought. I cried until tears blurred my vision. Then I got up, picked up my washcloth, rinsed it in the sink, held it to my face and cried some more. Liz was gone. I remembered that she had once told me, “I’ll follow you into a ditch if you lead me there.” Well, I had led her there, but she never promised to stay.
A GROUP OF US from Tidewater were sitting around, sharing funny tales from the streets and telling war stories about crazy things we’d done. When my turn came, I told a story about a near stickup on Church Street in Norfolk. “Yeah, man, we ran across a dude who had nothing but chump change on him. We got mad ’cause the dude was broke, so we took his change and started to take his pants. He had on some yellow, flimsy-looking pants, so we made him walk with us under a street lamp so we could get a better look at them. When we got under the street lamp, we could see the pants were cheap. And they were dirty. So we let the dude slide, and keep his pants . . .”
Everybody was laughing. Everybody but a guy from Norfolk named Tony. Squinting his eyes, he leaned over and interrupted, “Did you say the guy had on yellow pants?”
“Goddammit, that was me y’all stuck up that night!” he said.
Everything got quiet. The guys looked at me, then at Tony, then back at me. Somebody snickered, and everybody else joined in. I laughed too, until I looked at Tony and realized he was still hot. He looked embarrassed and mad as hell.
To lighten the mood, I extended my hand playfully and said, “Wow, man, I’m sorry ’bout that. You know I didn’t know you then.”
Tony looked at my hand like he wanted to spit on it. “Naw, man. That ain’t funny.” The way he said it, I knew he wasn’t going to let the thing drop. I knew that stupid macho pride had him by the throat.
A week or two after the exchange, he came into the library, where I was working, sat in a corner and started tearing pages out of magazines. The library was filled with inmates. I walked over to the table and said, “Yo, Tony, you can’t tear the pages outta the magazines, man. Other people have to read ’em.”
He looked up, smiled an evil smile, then ripped out another page and said, “What you gonna do ’bout it? You ain’t no killer.” The room grew quiet. I felt like all eyes were on me, waiting to see what I would do. I started thinking fast. Tony was stout and muscular, and I figured he’d probably do a rain dance on me if he got his hands on me. He was sitting down and I was standing. I glanced at an empty chair near him. I thought, I could sneak him right off the bat, grab the chair and wrap it around his head. Then I thought about the potential consequences. I thought, I gotta let it slide. I have to.
I walked away.
Later that night, I thought about it some more. I thought, He disrespected me. I was too scared to let that man get away with disrespecting me. I felt I had faith that God would take care of me, but whenever I got that scared about something, I relied on what I knew best — faith in self. So I prayed, then set God aside for the time being and put together a shank like I’d learned to make while in the Norfolk jail. I melded a razor blade into a toothbrush handle, leaving the sharp edges sticking out, like a miniature tomahawk.
The next day, one of my buddies and I went looking for Tony. We spotted him leaving the dispensary with a partner. While my friend kept a lookout for guards, I approached Tony. Without saying anything, I pulled the razor blade and swung it at his throat. He jumped back. I lunged at him again and he flung his arms in front of his face, blocking the blow. The razor slashed his coat. He held up his hands and said, “Hold it, hold it, hold it, man! Be cool. Everything’s cool. We all right, man. I ain’t got no beef with you.”
I pointed the razor at him. “Nigga, don’t you never take me to be no chump!”
“All right, bro’. I was just playing with you yesterday.”
I turned and walked away, relieved that he’d backed down and grateful that none of the guards had seen what went down.
My parents came to see me that afternoon. As we talked, I looked at them and wondered what they’d say if they knew I had just risked everything I’d worked for to prove a manhood point. I wondered if Tony was going to try to get some get-back or pay somebody to try to shank me when my back was turned. I wondered if the time was coming down on me so badly that I was losing my grip.
Two years into my prison stint, I was starting to have trouble with my Christian fellowship group. There were too many weirdos joining up to seek protection from the wolves, and it was becoming hard to talk with the Christians about all the things I was learning and thinking about. My mental and spiritual regimen had begun to make me feel whole for the first time in my life, and I wasn’t about to give that up just to please some jackleg, wanna-be preachers.
Maybe that’s why I started to listen to a guy named Jim, who was the most respected inmate at Southampton. A Richmond native in his mid-thirties, Jim was on the tail end of a life sentence for a murder he’d committed during a robbery; he’d done close to 15 years in the joint, which made him eligible for parole. He was admired partly because of the way he’d handled his time, but mostly because of his integrity and broad intellect. Unlike so many other dudes, who became mentally passive after years in prison, Jim had somehow remained a free thinker who’d stayed focused on the world beyond that fence. Using his prison time to educate himself, he’d evolved into a self-assured, articulate brother with an unyielding commitment to what he called “black folks’ struggle.”
I’d seen him around the yard a lot, but for a long time kept my distance. Jim hated the white man, and I was trying to internalize Christian love. By the summer of ’77, I’d begun to fast once weekly, spending those days mostly in my room, praying, thinking and reading everything from poetry to philosophy to books about nutrition. I read Pearl Buck’s novels and Hermann Hesse and The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. I found myself drawn to the novels of Chaim Potok, including My Name Is Asher Lev, a book about a young artist that gave me insight into Jewish culture and whetted my curiosity about art, especially Picasso. I’d never known art could be used so powerfully to make social and political statements.
I experimented with a memory technique and learned how to recall up to one hundred numbers, words and names in sequential order. There were times I got so deep into reading and fasting that I felt I’d transcended the constraints of prison.
All this going on inside me, I think, was why I became more curious about what Jim had to say. Some evenings, he held court on the yard, and guys gathered around and listened to him preach about the white man’s evil ways. Eventually, I went with one of my homeboys to check him out. Jim’s message reminded me of what I had heard from Chicago, the black revolutionary in the Norfolk jail, and much of it was similar to the teachings of Malcolm X and the Muslims: “Don’t you know white men are the most lying creatures on the face of the earth? They don’t care nothing about the truth. They use falsehood to gain dominance over people, and they use tricks to maintain that dominance. They run a game on black folks by trying to get them to think bad things about themselves that aren’t true and believe good things about white people that are outright lies. Think about it! White folks claim we’re lazy and don’t wanna work. Our people worked for crackers for 200 years — for free, man! — because white folks were too lazy to work for themselves! Our women cooked, cleaned their houses and raised their children because whites were too trifling to do their own work, yet they gonna call us lazy?! If you look around today, black folks still do most of the work that whitey don’t wanna do!”
Everything Jim said seemed to have the ring of truth. After he’d finished, I chatted with him and we hit it off real well. When he learned I was a Christian, he challenged me to rethink my commitment to “the white man’s religion.” He said white folks loved for blacks to embrace Christianity because they use it to control us. He said whites encouraged us to follow Martin Luther King Jr. because he was a passive Christian, and they urged us to reject Malcolm X because he challenged us to stand up against white oppression.
In his talks, Jim focused a lot on history. He said it was important to understand the past because it shapes our present perceptions about ourselves and the rest of the world. He said white people think they’re better than everybody else because they are taught a history of distorted facts that always present whites in a positive, superior light. “Think about it, man. They teach you that the white settlers who came over here were heroes, and we celebrate Thanksgiving to commemorate their heroism. But check this out: When the settlers were starving, the Indians helped feed them. The Indians helped them survive through the winter. The settlers repaid them by killing them off and taking their land.”
Jim and I started exchanging books and talking regularly about the effect of historical myths on blacks. We met on the yard most evenings after chow and talked with other guys who also did a lot of reading. In that group, I met some of the sharpest, most intelligent guys I’ve known, then or since. Most of them were dropouts who had long before lost interest in formal schooling. But once they got a whiff of some real knowledge — knowledge that was relevant to them — they educated themselves far better than any public school could have hoped to do.
We formed our own writers’ guild, discussed world affairs and politics, and talked about what we intended to do when we got out. We debated theories of the major philosophers: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Sartre, among others. We dissected dualism, pantheism and existentialism and discussed questions such as: How can you appreciate good until you’ve known evil? Does essence precede existence, or does existence precede essence? Sometimes, during those conversations, I was struck by the strangeness of former robbers, drug dealers and murderers standing in the middle of a prison yard debating the heaviest philosophical questions of all time.
IT AMAZED ME to see how much the so-called tough cats respected Jim. Whenever he was around, they cursed less and toned down their macho posturing, as if he were an authority figure or a revered elder. Initially, that kind of deference, which bordered on fear, puzzled me, because Jim didn’t carry himself like a knockout artist or anything. Brown-skinned and medium-built, he always dressed neat and spoke softly. He was cleanshaven, and he constantly carried books and newspapers tucked under his arms.
Eventually, I figured out that the characteristics that made him so widely respected had little to do with how he looked; instead, it was his manly demeanor. Ever since I could recall, I and everybody else I knew had associated manhood with physical dominance and conquest of someone else. Watching Jim, I realized we’d gone about it all wrong. Jim didn’t have to make a rep for himself as a thumper. He could whip a man with his sharp mind and choice words far more thoroughly than with his fists.
I decided that this was the kind of respect I wanted to command, and I noticed other guys who, without being fully aware, wanted to be like Jim too. They strutted on the yard, looking super-macho, like killers, but acted differently in private. In those moments when they weren’t profiling with their buddies, some of my tough-acting homies would stop by my perch on the yard or in my cell to ask, “What you readin’?” I sensed they wanted to improve themselves but didn’t want their other homies to see them, because self-improvement was not a macho thing. Pearly Blue was one of them. He sometimes tried to draw me into deep private discussions about God and reality while sticking to the tough street vernacular that helped him maintain his macho facade.
As I learned more about misguided ideas about manhood, I experimented with some of those macho dudes: Whenever I passed them, I looked into their eyes to see what was there. A few had that cold-blooded, killer look about them, but in the eyes of most of them I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: fear.
Even in Big Earl. Big Earl was one of the brawniest, most outwardly fearless cats in the place. He was tall and jet-black, his muscles rippled through his T-shirt, and his thighs were so massive that all his pants fit too tight. Big Earl, who was thirtyish, was from a small, off-brand town in rural Virginia, but he didn’t need homies to back him up. He walked around the yard, talking loud and intimidating other inmates like he owned the place.
One day, while walking down the long sidewalk on my way to the cafeteria, I spotted Big Earl pimping toward me. As he approached, I fixed my eyes on his and kept them locked there. When we got closer, I kept my eyes fastened to his, not in a hostile gaze, but in an expression of serene self-assurance. Initially, he tried to meet my gaze. Then he turned his eyes away and looked toward the ground. I smiled to myself. I would have never been able to back down Big Earl in a rumble, but I had certainly backed him down with my mind.
I practiced the piercing eye contact with other guys like Earl and realized that few of the seriously baad cats could meet my gaze. That helped me see my homies and the other toughs at Southampton as they were (and as I had been): streetwise, pseudo baad-asses who were really frightened boys, bluffing, trying to mask their fear of the world behind muscular frames.
I KNEW MY CASE would be a tough call for the parole board. There were a few matters working against me: I was a repeat offender. I was on probation for another felony when I stuck up the hamburger joint, and both crimes involved the use of a gun. But there were also some things working in my favor. Except for a few minor infractions, I’d been a model prisoner, if there is such a thing. I’d stayed clean, obeyed the rules, and, most important, I had a supportive family to go home to, unlike many inmates, who had nowhere to go.
I tried to focus more on my future, to figure out what I would do if paroled. I definitely wanted to return to college, but to study what? I’d considered studying to be a librarian when I got out. After reading about Margaret Mead’s fieldwork with the Hopi Indians, I thought I might want to study anthropology. When I read Ernest Hemingway, I thought I might be a writer.
I also reminded myself of reality as I viewed it: White people pursue careers; black folks pursue jobs. I marveled that white people made livings in so many interesting ways beyond working at a shipyard or joining the Army.
Jim had urged me to learn a trade before leaving prison, and I knew that that too would help my parole chances. He said most of the guys in prison couldn’t be rehabilitated “because they had never been habilitated in the first place.” I looked up the word “habilitate” and concluded he was right. The definition said: “to make capable, qualify.” Most inmates couldn’t be requalified because they had never been qualified for anything before going to prison. The only skill most of those guys at Southampton could boast of was their knuck games, their ability to throw down.
Auto mechanics, dental tech, brick masonry and several other vocational trades were offered at Southampton, but none of that interested me. I decided to learn the printing trade. I wrote the warden and state prison officials, asking for a transfer to the minimum-security St. Brides Correctional Center, which had the only printing program in the state prison system. A month or so later, I noted in my journal when I got the good news:
Well, my transfer to St. Brides has been approved and now I am waiting to leave. I must get into the habit of stepping out into the unknown and making the necessary sacrifices for the things I want. My goals must be in focus at all times; I must eat, drink, sleep and think college until I am there . . . It’s me against the world . . .
THE ST. BRIDES compound is in Chesapeake, less than 20 miles from Cavalier Manor. When I wrote my mother and told her where I was, she was thrilled. It was as if the closer proximity to home was a symbolic sign that I was also nearer to freedom.
While awaiting an opening for printshop classes, I worked in the kitchen. One day, a group of about 10 people came through as part of a citizens’ tour. I was cleaning tables as they passed into the dining area and sat down. As I set glasses of tea on tables before them, I recognized one of the men in the group. It was Mr. Brown, my junior high school gym teacher. When our eyes met, he stared at me a long time, straining to remember. “You were in one of my classes, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I took gym and health under you at W.E. Waters. I’m Nathan McCall.”
“That’s right. McCall.” The Mr. Brown I remembered would have started jonin’ on the spot, but nothing was funny now. I could tell he was disappointed and hurt to see me, one of his former students, doing time. “What are you in for, McCall?” he asked.
I said, “Armed robbery.”
He shook his head slightly. A wave of shame passed through me. I felt like I should try to explain, to let him know I expected to get out soon and assure him that I intended to straighten up. But what was there to explain? What good would it do?
Eventually, the institutional guide urged the group to move on to the next phase of the tour. Before leaving, Mr. Brown leaned low toward me and said, “Hang in there.”
Mr. Brown was one of many black people who had shown me and other students that he cared, and I wanted to let him know that I finally understood the value of such caring. I wanted to tell him that his efforts had not been in vain, even though, judging from my circumstances, that seemed to be the case.
I GOT LOTS OF what I had gone to St. Brides for. The printing program had a top-notch instructor and featured the latest equipment. I learned to operate offset presses, do studio photography, layout and plate-making — the whole printing process, from start to finish. The instructor was a friendly, philosophical white man who seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching. Some days, when class was over, he spent time chatting with us about the challenges we could expect to face when we returned to the real world.
He said — and I knew — that my chances of success would be increased greatly if I could find a decent printing job or get into college. More and more, I found that I enjoyed writing. I narrowed my career choices down to English literature and journalism. I tried to find out all I could about journalism: what it is that journalists do, how much they earn etc. I recalled how two journalists at The Washington Post had used their reporting skills to kick a corrupt president square in the ass, and that seemed like the kind of thing I’d like to learn.
I wrote the head of Norfolk State University’s journalism department, explained my situation and told him I wanted badly to make a new start. The department head, Dr. Larry Kaggwa, wrote back to me. He also entered me in a competition that required me to write a paper explaining why I wanted to study journalism. I wrote the paper and won a one-year tuition scholarship. I was pleasantly stunned. It was the second time in months that I’d gone after something — something geared toward self-improvement — and gotten it.
ON THE DAY I went before the parole board, I was so nervous I was nearly paralyzed. I was scared that when it was time for me to speak, all my suffering would come to the surface and all my emotions would bum-rush my throat, and nothing would come out. So I did deep-breathing exercises and prayed for the best.
I waited in a hallway with about six other dudes who were going before the board that day. We looked like choirboys sitting out there. We were spit-shined and scrubbed and lotioned down to the max. We all had our hair cut short. We had our shirts buttoned to the very top, and we were so quiet you could hear the roaches walking across the shiny floor.
But appearances didn’t seem to sway the board. When dudes came out after meeting th the board, they were red-eyed and withdrawn. I asked one guy how he thought things had gone for him. He looked at me, shook his head slowly and said, “It looks bad for the home team.”
When my name was called, I went in and took a seat before the board members — several white men and a black woman — who sat behind a long table. It was a stern-faced, tight-butt bunch. They asked a few questions about my crime, my family, that sort of thing. Then, after several other minor questions, came the biggie: “So, Mr. McCall, what do you plan to do to better yourself if you get out, and what arrangements have you made to carry out those plans?”
If a cat hasn’t given serious consideration to his future, really thought it out, that’s the question that cold-cocks him. That’s the one that renews his lease for another year. If he’s wasted his time and neglected to improve himself, he can’t answer that question convincingly. With the parole board, you’ve got to come on strong or not at all, because they’ve heard all the bull they care to hear, and they can smell it a mile away.
I knew all that going in. I knew I couldn’t go in there half-stepping. I was prepared. My future? I had thought about it, prayed about it and dreamed about it the entire time I was down. I had thought a helluva lot about my future — enough to know that I might not have a future if I didn’t get sprung that first time up. When they hit me with that question, I was ready.
I rapped. I rapped hard. I rapped harder than I’d ever rapped in my life. I took all the skills I’d picked up rapping with those penitentiary philosophers out on the yard and threw the whole handful at the parole board. I told them all I’d done to improve myself in the nearly three years that I’d been locked up, and shared my plans to go home to my family and to enroll at Norfolk State. I told them that robbing that hamburger joint was the stupidest thing I could have done, and that I’d spent a lot of time thinking about that and other mistakes I’d made in my life. The bottom line was, I came straight from the heart. I came from so deep within the heart that I surprised myself. But I meant every word I said. I was changed. I knew it, and I wanted to make sure they knew it.
I’ll bet those folks on that parole board were glad when I finally finished talking. I’ll bet they thought I’d never shut up. I’ll bet that when I finished and left that room, they burst out laughing and said, “Damn! We need to hurry up and let this nigger out. This dude wants badly to get out of here.”
But they didn’t come off like that. They were very professional. When I finished talking, one of the parole board members said, “Thank you, Mr. McCall. The board will take into consideration all that you have said. You will be notified within the next month of our decision.” They sent me on my way without a hint of the verdict.
WHEN MY LETTER from the board finally arrived, I took it to my bunk and sat down alone. I looked at the letter in the sealed envelope a long time before even attempting to open it. I needed a drink, but since there were no bars open in the penitentiary, I had to face it straight. I gave myself a long talking-to before opening it: Keep cool. You’ve done the best you could do. You’ve given it your best shot and programmed hard. Stay strong, no matter what happens.
Then I opened the letter. For a long while, I just sat there, staring at the words, making sure I’d gotten it right. I thought, I made parole. I made it. I’m getting out. They’re gonna let me go. I can go home. Soon. I made it. I can’t believe it. I made it. I made parole!
I remember clearly that snowy February day in 1978 when I was released from the joint. My homies gathered on the sidewalk that morning and watched me leave. As I climbed into the car and my mother drove off, I cast a long, hard look at the prison, and tears began streaming down my face. I felt a strange mixture of pain and pride. I was mostly proud that I had survived, and I told myself, then and there, I can do ANYTHING.
Although it had been the most tragic event in my life, prison — with all its sickness and suffering — had also been my most instructional challenge. It forced me to go deep, real deep, within and tap a well I didn’t even know I had. Through that painful trip, I’d found meaning. No longer was life a thing of bewilderment. No longer did I feel like a cosmic freak, a black intruder in a world not created for me and my people. No longer were my angry feelings about the vast white world simply vague, invalid impulses dangling on the edge of my mind. I knew the reasons for those feelings now. I understood them better, and, most important, I could express them precisely as they arose. I knew that there was purpose and design in creation and that my life was somehow part of that grand scheme. I had just as much right to be alive and happy as anybody else, and I wasn’t going to let anybody, especially not white folks, make me feel otherwise.
Following his release from prison, Nathan McCall graduated with honors from Norfolk State in journalism, landed a reporting job at the Virginian-Pilot and went on to work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He came to The Post in 1989, and is currently on leave from the Metropolitan staff. This story is excerpted from his book, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, to be published in February by Random House.
Excerpted from Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall, published by Random House. Copyright 1994. Reprinted by permission of the author.
NAME: NATHAN MCCALL
LOAD-DATE: January 30, 1994
Copyright 1994 The Washington Post