In Person: Nathan McCall at Folktales
Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall isn't afraid to criticize basketball god Michael Jordan or founding father George Washington. He gazes at gansta rap and the white Christian church with the same unflinching eye. No one is protected, not even the author himself. It is a brand of truth that can make you squirm, like someone staring you down, daring you not to look away.
McCall's in-your-face honesty has made him enemies, but none were among the 40 or so crammed into comfortable Folktales last Friday hungry for every syllable, uncomfortable as those words might make them. As in his book of essays, What's Going On (Random House, $21 hard), McCall punctuated his intense social criticism with a sense of humor. (On his choice of Marvin Gaye lyrics as titles for his books, he joked, "Someone recently asked me, `What's your next book going to be called, Sexual Healing?'")
After the release of his 1994 memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, McCall said he was caught a bit off guard by criticism that the account of his troubled youth and years in prison was reinforcing negative stereotypes about African-Americans. In one essay, "Airing Dirty Laundry," he addresses the criticism he and other African-American writers such as Terry McMillan and Alice Walker encountered: "As much as we're struggling through all the B.S. that white America heaps on us, you'd think we'd welcome the liberating insight that [African-American] writers often bring to the table. But we don't. We attack instead."
McCall told the Folktales audience that while African-Americans are quick to protest perceived negative black images in books like The Color Purple or racially insensitive comments made by UT law professor Lino Graglia, they have been slow to criticize more deleterious influences like gangsta rap, which McCall feels celebrates crime, violence, and drugs: "Values," he said, "that almost destroyed me. I think it's interesting we don't respond with the same force and indignation." In the essay, "Gangstas, Guns, and Shoot `Em Ups," McCall goes even further: "Bluntly put, some gangsta rappers are no more than jive-ass hypocrites. In that sense, they're no better than the drug dealer, the pimp - or the wicked white man who earns his riches exploiting blacks."
Perhaps the best example of McCall's ability to turn his stare on himself is in "Men: We Just Don't Get It," in which he confesses his own involvement in "strong-arming," or sexually assaulting women, not realizing he wasn't entitled to sex on demand. McCall said that it was one of the more difficult pieces to write because it meant "coming to terms with the cruelty I had passed out," and also because as a father of a 12-year-old daughter, he realizes with horror the attitudes she is up against. Despite the personal pain the topic represents, he plans to "write about it until I've got nothing else to say."
"Sexism is prevalent, from Bill Clinton on down," McCall said. "People can get angry all they want, but it's something we must talk about. Men have to challenge other men on this. I don't think women even realize the depth of conditioning we get from early on to see you as objects. By the time I was 18, I thought love was about conquest."
McCall believes it's his calling to reveal society's warts, despite the unflattering light he must cast upon himself in his search. Like his idol, Muhammad Ali, McCall believes that "to whom much is given, much is required." If he can take it, so can you. - Lisa Tozzi