Make me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands,
It make me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.
-- 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, they said, 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, I 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 stealthy 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.
What was different was that we left. And though I made a point of not being judgmental, I wondered, like Marvin Gaye had nearly two decades earlier, what is going on?
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 statistic myself.
These days, my visits home have become occasions for mourning, soul-searching and anger. On one recent visit, I 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.
I sighed. It wasn't the first time that day I'd been hit with negative news about the neighborhood. And it wasn't the last. Before that day ended, family members and people I met on the streets told tale after tale of homeboys, young black men like me, living lives mired in lunacy.
Every day in D.C., I read dismal accounts of blacks murdered over trivia -- drugs, a coat, a pair of sneakers, pocket change. The people in those stories are faceless to me. I peruse the accounts with detached sadness, then turn the page.
But in my hometown, 200 miles south, the names conjure images of real people who lived down the street, around the corner, on the next block.
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 empty phrase.
Consider this: Most of the guys I 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 rehab. Bubba Majette was murdered. Teddy sleeps in 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 life.
Often when I go home, as I did this past Christmas season, I prepare with a pep talk to myself and a pledge to focus on the positive -- time spent with family and old friends who are doing well, and opportunities to lend a compassionate ear to those not so well off.
I know I will see former buddies. Some are old hoods, hanging on the same corners where I left them 15 years ago. I see in them how far I've come. I'm not sure what they see in me. In exchanges that are sometimes awkward, they recount their hard knocks. I say little about my establishment job or the new life I've found.
What should I say? Get a job? Go to college? Adopt my middle-class success strategies?
The fact is, I know what they've been through. And I understand what they face. I took the plunge myself, several times.
From a shoplifting charge, to stealing an ice-cream truck, to possession of a sawed-off shotgun and, ultimately, to armed robbery, I've had my share of clashes with the law.
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.
When I read about the shootings in D.C. and at home, I often flash back to scenes in which I played a part. It's hard for me now to believe I was once very much a part of that world. Yet it's all too easy to understand how it came to be. 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?"
I can answer with certainty only about myself. My background and those of my running partners don't fit all the convenienent theories, and the problems among us are more complex than something we can throw jobs, social programs or more policemen at.
Portsmouth, a Navy town of nearly 103,000, is not the blighted big city that D.C. is. And Cavalier Manor is no ghetto or lair of single-parent homes. In fact, my old neighborhood is middle class by black standards and has long symbolized the quest for black upward mobility in Portsmouth. There are sprawling homes, manicured lawns and two-car garages. A scenic lake winds through part of the neighborhood. The homeowners are hardworking people who embrace the American dream and pursue it passionately.
Shane and I and the others in our loosely-knit gang started out like most other kids. Ebullient and naive, we played sandlot football, mowed neighbors' lawns for spending change and went to the movies. We devoured comic books, exchanged baseball cards and attended church.
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.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I've got a good idea.
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 limited.
Nobody flatly said that. But in various ways, inside our community and out, it was communicated early and often that as black men in a hostile world our options would be few.
The perception was powerfully reinforced by what we saw in our families, where we had inherited a legacy of limited choices. My grandmother's parents were unschooled, and she spent her life as an uneducated domestic, working for white families. My stepfather left school after the 10th grade, and my mother, who dropped out after 11 years, did only slightly better. They all managed to exceed the accomplishments of their forebears, but they lagged behind their white contemporaries.
What is not so easy for outsiders to grasp is why we did not follow our parents' lead and try to seize what we could with what we had. For us, somehow, growing up in the '70s, it was different. Our parents tried to insulate us from the full brunt of racism, but they could not counteract the flood of racial messages, subtle and blatant, filtering into our psyches -- messages that artists like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison have documented, ones you never get accustomed to: the look in white storekeepers' eyes when you enter; the "click" of door locks when you walk past whites sitting in their cars.
Our parents, we believed, had learned to swallow pride for survival's sake. But my more militant generation seemed less inclined to make that compromise. In a curious way, we saw anything that brought us into the mainstream as a copout. We came to regard the establishment as the ubiquitous, all powerful "white man" who controlled our parents' lives and, we believed, determined our fates as well.
I think once we resigned ourselves to that notion, we became a lost and angry lot.
It is difficult to write this without sounding apologetic. But I know 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. Moreover, like many African Americans, then and now, we couldn't make the connections that seem so basic in the world where I now live and work.
For instance, the concept of education as a passport to a better life was vague to us. We saw no relation between school and our reality. That's why it was so easy for my buddies to drop out in our sophomore year. One day, as a group of us were walking to class, someone casually suggested we quit. I did not. (After all, I reasoned, you could find girls in school.) But one by one, the others tossed their books into the trash, just like that.
Still, 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 heros. 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. We studied their bouncy walk, known as the Pimp, and the slick, lyrical way they talked. Manhood became a measure of who could fight fiercest, shoot hoops best or get the most girls into bed. Our self-perceptions were reflected in the nicknames some of us took on: Dirty Stink, Whiskey Bottle, Bimbo, White Mouse, Turkey Buzzard, Rat Man, Scobie-D, Gruesome, Frank Nitty, Sweet Wolf, Black Sam, Sack Eye.
Our defiance may have stemmed partly from youthful rebellion, but it came mostly from rage at a world we sensed did not welcome us. And we knew there were countless others out there just like us, armed and on edge, and often all it took was an accidental brush against a coat sleeve or a misunderstood look to trigger a brawl or a shooting.
When your life in your own mind has no value, it becomes frighteningly easy to try to take another's life. When I think about how to explain the carnage among young blacks in our cities -- and how to stop it -- I 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 rough-and-tumble streets.
At least in the streets, the playing field is level and the rules don't change.
Even among those of us who opted for college, there was the feeling that it was a place to stall. "We didn't know what to do or what we could do," Calvin Roberts, an old school friend told me recently. "We were in uncharted waters. Nobody we knew had been there, and we didn't know what to expect."
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, 'I am the boss. This is my corporation,' " says Portsmouth Commonwealth Attorney Johnny Morrison, who has prosecuted some of his former friends for peddling drugs.
Contrary to some assumptions, there is no lack of work ethic in the drug trade. My best friend in school parlayed $20 into a successful 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 (a deuce-and-a-quarter in street parlance). College students couldn't do that.
My friend didn't get caught, but others who were selling drugs, burglarizing and robbing did. I was one of them. Often, during my teenage years, I felt like Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Richard Wright's "Native Son" -- propelled down a destructive road over which I had no control.
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. I was the gunman in the late night robbery, and I came so frighteningly close to pulling the trigger when the store manager tried to flee that my fingers moistened.
We actually got away with the money -- about $2,000, I think -- and were driving down the highway when several poice cruisers surounded us. 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, I wondered, had it come to this? I had the strange, sudden wish that I could go back in time, perhaps to the year of my third-grade spelling bee, when I felt so full of hope.
In a weird way, I also felt relieved, as if I had been saved from something potentially worse. I truly had expected a more tragic fate: to go down in a shootout with police like Prairie Dog, a cross-town hood; to be caught by surprise one day, like Charles Lee, a neighborhood kid who was shot to death while burglarizing a home. When I read stories today in which shooting is involved, I think back to the moment when two lives could have been destroyed if I had put the slightest pressure on a trigger.
I realize that skeptics will say that nothing so concentrates the mind as getting caught. But in fact, that is exactly what happened. I realized that something in my life had gone terribly wrong. Prison was my wake-up call.
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. I sobbed when I 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 I could too. 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 netherworld, 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 I 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.
I am torn by a different kind of anger now: I 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 I hear that question, I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm X: "I 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 under the weight."
Sometimes I wonder how I endured when so many others were crushed. I was not special. And when I hear the numbing statistics about black men, I often think of guys I grew up with who were smarter and more talented than me, but who will never realize their potential. Nutbrain, a mastermind in the ways of the streets, had the kind of raw intellect that probably could not be gauged in achievement tests. Shane, who often breezed effortlessly through tests in school, could have done anything he 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, I considered volunteering as a character witness, but dismissed the notion because I 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 world? Where was our common language?
Most people, I'm sure, would regard Shane's fate with the same detachment I 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 having taken a life. I hurt more for Shane's mother, who has now seen two of her four sons go to prison. A divorcee, she now delivers newspapers in Cavalier Manor.
I saw her recently after she tossed a paper onto my parents' doorstep. Her hair had grayed considerably. We hugged and chatted. She seemed proud that I had turned my life around, but I felt guilty and wondered again why I got a second chance and her sons did not.
After an awkward silence, I got Shane's prison address and said goodbye. I wrote to him but got no reply. For those who'd like answers, I have no pithy social formulas to end black-on-black violence. But I do know that I see a younger, meaner generation out there now -- more lost and alienated than we were -- and placing even less value on life. We were at least touched by role models; 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.
I've come to fear that of the many things a black man can die from, the first may be rage -- his own or someone else's.
For that reason, I seldom stick around when I stop on the block. One day not long ago, I spotted a few familiar faces hanging out at the old haunt, the local convenience store. I wheeled into the parking lot, strode over and high-fived the guys I knew. Within moments, I sensed that I was in danger.
I felt the hostile stares from those I didn't know. I was frightened by these younger guys, who now controlled my former turf. I eased back to my car and left, because I knew this: that if they saw the world as I once did, they believed they had nothing to lose, including life itself.
It made me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.
Nathan McCall is a Washington Post reporter.