Emory Report
December 10, 2007
Volume 60, Number 14

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December 10, 2007
McCall uses history, humor and realism to tell local story

By amye walters

Nathan McCall’s interest in race relations has drawn the African American Studies lecturer on a bi-coastal book tour for “Them,” a novel about the gentrification of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.

“Them” combines McCall’s knowledge of Atlanta’s past with snippets of his own family’s stories to create a fictional, yet realistic tale of our state’s rocky journey from segregation to gentrification.

McCall’s debut novel tells the story of Barlowe Reed, a single, forty-something African American whose relative contentment is shattered by the sudden appearance of whites abandoning the suburbs for the inner city. When a white couple moves in next door, Barlowe develops a reluctant, complex friendship with Sandy Gilmore, the woman of the house, as they hold probing — and often frustrating — conversations over a backyard fence.

McCall says he didn’t want the book to be too serious, even though it addresses a serious topic. He injects humor throughout the tome — for instance, he creates a scene where a group of whites dance to Motown music after a dinner party.

He also reminds readers the title is an ambiguous reference to the tendency of whites and blacks to regard each other as “them.”

McCall has seen both sides of the reporter’s notepad. He wrote for The Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and got his start with the Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star. He says his literary calling did not crystallize during his troubled youth: “I was more inclined to throw a rock and break a window than to read a book.” He eventually discovered writing as an outlet for pent-up rage against a system he felt was racist and unjust.

His own journey has helped him connect with Emory students. Students fill McCall’s inbox with stories they think will spark his interest, and Emory alumni often turn up at his book signings across the country. One element of teaching he most enjoys is that “students come into class with open minds.” He confronts issues of race head-on in the classroom. “I love the challenge of encouraging them to think outside the realm of their experiences and perceptions,” he says.

In an effort to “use the city as a laboratory,” McCall often takes his students on field trips throughout Atlanta, especially to the mostly black Southside, where Emory students seldom venture. There the groups make observations about issues related to his courses.

McCall is working on other writing projects that explore America’s racial divide. He delves into one aspect of that divide by conducting forums while on tour.

“The issue of gentrification needs to be aired with more public dialogue. People don’t know what to make of it,” he says. From California to New York, the Mid-Atlantic to here in Atlanta, it’s a “hot issue.”

Locally, he points to the varying treatment of vagrants in Woodruff Park, who are considered a public nuisance, compared to vagrants in Little Five Points, who are characterized as eccentric. The difference, he says, stems from perception and race.

As it relates to gentrification, however, he is quick to attribute the difference to something less obvious. The perception is race, but McCall’s sense is that it’s mostly about class. Ever the journalist, he cites the example of Cabbagetown, a white, working-class neighborhood nestled between Memorial Drive and the Old Fourth Ward. While the Ward has seen gentrification uprooting generations of African Americans, white Cabbagetown residents actually voice the same grievances. Both races feel “outsiders” are coming into their area, taking over and imposing new values.

Race relations are a subject that perplex and sometimes shame us. However, McCall has an ability to put us at ease when discussing our color differences. Whether sitting across a table from him or reading his latest novel, it only takes a brief time to realize that life is not black and white, but a colorful shade of gray.