How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South by Esau McCaulley

How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family's Story of Hope and Survival in the American South cover imageSummary: A memoir grappling with the role of Esau McCaulley’s father, his growing up and maturity, and how his community of origin shaped him. 

I do not remember what first drew my attention to Esau McCauley, but it was a bit before he became a professor of New Testament at Wheaton (my alma mater). From that point, I have read Reading While Black, his children’s book, and many articles he has written for the NYT and other places. (His book on Lent is on my to-read list.) Generally, if I notice an article that he has written, I make time to read it. If I see an interview or talk with him, I listen to it. I listened to all of the two seasons of his podcast. I have also done a Zoom class through Nashotah House that he taught. I do not “know” Esau McCaulley; he certainly does not know me, but I have a good sense of his writing style and general approach. The reality of the internet, social media, and writing is that one can feel closer to someone’s story than they are. John Dyer has called this ambient intimacy. It isn’t a real relationship or intimacy, but it feels real.

Good memoirs can create that sense of intimacy, but there is so much to the story that is never revealed in 200 or so pages. What makes a good memoir is editing what to share and what not to share. After I finished How Far To the Promise Land, I listened to McCaulley’s interview on the Seminary Dropout Podcast. That interview did an excellent job of framing the memoir and what he was trying to do without retelling the whole story. I will commend Esau’s writing and audiobook narration but avoid retelling many of the book’s details.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece in Christ and Pop Culture Magazine about the problems of white readers reading black stories, and I always want to be careful with how I read and process black stories. The book was not written primarily for me, but that does not mean I cannot find appropriate value in reading it. One of the issues that McCaulley names in his interview with Shane Blackshear is that readers want to see material success as the happy ending (21-minute mark). McCauley grew up in poverty, the child of a disabled Black single mother. Today, he is a New Testament professor with a Ph.D. and has achieved much of that material success.

One of the book’s themes is that racism is real, which has created structural hindrances to full flourishing, but that people are also capable of good and bad choices within those strictures. And that chance, or providence, plays an unknown role as well. It is never just one thing: the Heracio Alger hero story, the structural forces, or the chance occurrence. We all have all three and complicated histories that we may not understand ourselves. We all came from somewhere. And that location and people have influenced our lives in many ways that we will never fully understand, even if we attempt to investigate them. (And many of us will never investigate them.)

Early in the book, we know that Esau McCaulley’s father died, and he would give his father’s eulogy. He had to learn more about the man who played such an influential and mixed role in his life. A man that he did not really know. Again, from the podcast, McCaulley says that he was trying to point not just to himself as the main character of the memoir but to those around him. “These lives that you do not value, God was at work there.” God worked in his father’s life, even if the result was not the perfect ending we might want. And the other family and friends that also grew up in Huntsville, AL, around McCaulley had value, whether society values them or not.

I am a couple of years older than McCauley. I can see how he tells a story that could be many people’s. Life has not changed as much as many want to think that it has. In the podcast and the book, he references asking his grandfather what Brown v. Board meant to him. His grandfather said they didn’t know about it. They didn’t have a TV; nothing really changed in the short term. Esau’s mother went to an integrated school, but it was a hostile integration. My mother was a couple of weeks younger than Ruby Bridges, but the Louisville school district that she went to in early elementary while her father was in seminary did not integrate until the school year when I was born. Wheaton, where McCaulley now teaches, released a report on the history of race at the school yesterday, and the first black professor was not hired until the 1980s, just a few years before I started there. My memory says that there were six minority faculty in the early 1990s when I was there. This history of overt racism was recent.

I want to carefully hold the stories told in How Far to the Promised Land. McCaulley mentions that part of the impetus for writing this book was being asked at a panel discussion about the “most racist thing that has ever happened to you.” And I am wary of recounting black trauma as fodder for white education. How Far to the Promised Land is a story of joy, faith, and pain. It is a gift not just because it is well written but because it is framed as the type of story that attempts to present a fuller picture than simple stereotypes want to allow to be painted.

As I read it, I feel obligated to hear the story well so that it isn’t just a story but an impetus toward the eschatological end where everything is made whole.

How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South by Esau McCaulley Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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