The Rev. Esau McCaulley’s recently released memoir is rooted in both absence and presence. Although the search to learn more about his absentee father is central to “How Far to the Promised Land,” McCaulley chose to dedicate the book to his mother, whose stalwart influence is woven throughout his family’s narrative. The wording of the dedication is a refrain, but with its own distinct meaning.
“When I wrote my first book that people know about, which is ‘Reading While Black,’ it’s dedicated to my father using the exact same language of the dedication to my mother in ‘How Far to the Promised Land.’ It says, ‘Whatever else I am, I will always remain your son.’
“My father shaped me by his absence, and so when I dedicated ‘Reading While Black’ to him, it was a moment of forgiveness, that whatever else I am, despite the things that you did, I remain your son.
“When it came time to dedicate this book, I felt like I needed to dedicate it to my mother and use the same language with a much deeper meaning. What it meant in this book is that I am who I am because of who she was.”
McCaulley, an associate professor at Wheaton College and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, spoke recently with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: You go back a couple of generations in this book. You also talk about your children. You describe the arc of a family as people born of trauma and miracle. You don’t sugarcoat the trauma, and you don’t underplay the miracle. Why was it important to you to tell both fully?
Esau McCaulley: The book begins with this moment where I am asked this question at an event at the University of North Carolina. It comes from [an audience Q&A]: “What’s the most racist thing you’ve ever experienced?” I declined to answer, because I wanted to say that Black life is more than just trauma.
I understood the reason for them asking the question — “if we show you our pain, then maybe we will receive justice.” But I feel like only talking about the pain removes the complexity of Black life in America, and if I only speak about the joy and the good times, then people tend to downplay what America does to African Americans.
I felt like a true story or a true answer to that question involves explaining the complexity of the Black experience in America. Yes, there is white supremacy and anti-Black racism, but that’s not the fullness of what we experienced here. We have carved out a little bit of joy. But those two things, the trauma and the miracle, mark a lot of what my childhood was about.
One other thing about that is when we start talking about Blackness, and especially intergenerational Black narratives, we can sometimes remove the agency from African Americans. In other words, we become only the people who are acted upon, and we don’t become actors.
The truth is that the trauma doesn’t come from simply all outside the community; sometimes the trauma comes from inside the community. That it’s not just what the world and the society does to get to me; it’s what some of my own family members, even my own neighborhood, did.
The trauma and the miracle are both internal and external to the Black community, and I just felt in that moment like I was tired of telling simplistic stories. I was tired of hearing them. I felt this strong compulsion to, as much as I could, get the full variety of Black experience on the paper.
F&L: Your relationship with your father is very different from yours with your mother. You talk about complicated relationships and the messiness of people. You write very powerfully about the eulogy that you gave for your father. You seem to have made peace with the messiness. Can you talk about that and about your decision to write about him?
EM: The reader will have to decide whether or not the book is successful, because the book is shaped in large part by the absence of the central figure, namely, my father. How do you write something about someone who is not around for the majority of the book? The book begins with me finding out that my father died. He had been alienated from my family, and he was not a large part of our lives. When he was a part, he struggled with addiction and violence and those kinds of things. It was weird when he was around.
When he died, my family asked me to do the eulogy. That was a hard thing to do, because I didn’t really know him. We never had a substantial conversation throughout most of my life. The one substantial conversation that we had before he died is recorded toward the end of the book.
In order to eulogize him, I had to get to know him. That required me sitting down with people who were close to him and who had known him as a child. That quickly became a deep dive into my family’s history, which becomes the book.
If you do a eulogy, the whole point of any eulogy is to tie that person’s life into the wider purposes of God. To do that in that eulogy allowed me to finally come to a place of understanding and sympathy.
In some ways, [working on] the eulogy, as horrible as it was, was a gift, because it allowed me to see my father outside my context. I’d always seen him as the man who abandoned me, but I’d never seen him as a person in his own right.
When I began to see him as a person in his own right, I began to realize that the real danger in his life was not that he would be absent in my life. The real danger was that his life could become a tragedy.
That process of coming to that conclusion to see my father as a person with his own context gave me the space for grace and empathy. I realized that I couldn’t be someone who spoke about God’s graciousness to everybody else in the world except for the person who was closest to me.
The final chapter, of course, is the eulogy, and it’s the actual eulogy — the last two or three pages. It’s not the whole thing; they made me edit it down. It’s a Black church eulogy. It went on for a minute. Those are actual excerpts from the final eulogy.
A lot of the themes in the book are in the eulogy. In some sense, I wrote “How Far to the Promised Land” in my head back in 2017, and it just took until now for me to feel comfortable sharing it with the world.
F&L: How did you reach your level of comfort in doing this? What made you comfortable with saying, “OK, I’m ready to share this?”
EM: I think that we become comfortable sharing our scars, or I was comfortable showing my scars, because I wanted the people to know that the things that might threaten to undo us need not be the end of our stories.
I wanted to be able to share that same message with anyone else who was struggling, because what happens with these stories, it happens through these traumas. They stick to us, and they bounce on in our heads, and we return to these narratives again and again and again.
What I discovered is I couldn’t change the past but I could write an ending to it. By writing an ending to it, I could chart a different path for me and my family. Hopefully, that kind of process would give other people the space to write an ending to their narratives.
Beyond that, I want to say that the people you will meet in this narrative are people who aren’t simply object lessons to spur me on as a protagonist to wherever I was heading. Their struggle for meaning, and the mistakes that they make and the traumas that society inflicts upon them, reveals something about America and what America does to Black people.
Those people that I met, and whom you will meet when you read the book, shape how I see the world. It gave me a certain disposition toward the disinherited, and I hope that in the same way these people won’t let me go, these characters won’t let the reader go. After you meet Sophia, maybe you can never forget her. Maybe Sophia changes you, the way that she changed me.
I wanted, in some sense, my passions and convictions arising from my experiences to become a sense of compassion and conviction that’s transferred to the reader.
F&L: You reference the promised land within the book specifically about your cousins and about your father. For you, for them, what did the promised land look like? What were you hoping for them?
EM: I think it took me a long time to understand what was going on with my father. As a child, I took his departures as acts of cruelty. He would come for a little bit and he would leave, and I thought he was doing it because he hated us.
I didn’t understand how addiction worked. Now I understand that I think he genuinely wanted to be a better person, that he wanted to be the husband and the father that he couldn’t be, and he was straining toward the promised land.
What I mean by that in its earthly sense is I think everybody wants to love and be loved in a community of people where they’re safe and cared for. He never had that as a child. His family life was upended much like mine was.
I think that he was striving toward being more than he was. I’ve always found it — I don’t know what the word is — interesting that he died on the road, that he died on the way back home, making promises. I think in his brain he was still trying to get there. He just ran out of time and ran out of road.
I think for my cousins, once again, because of the context into which they were born, for many of them, they couldn’t imagine a life other than the one that they lived.
When I spoke about it, it seemed like a fairy tale, but what was true is that if you knew them — one of the things that we don’t really consider is the people who end up imprisoned or on these felony charges, that was somebody’s kid.
I knew my cousins as children when there was no real difference between me and them. They didn’t have some inherent flaw that manifested itself later in life. They were just innocent kids, and the circumstances of life squashed their dreams.
Now, are they responsible for the decisions that they made? Yes, they are. Are we responsible, as a society, for limiting their rise and their ability to dream? Yes, we are.
I want to say that I felt like it was important for some of them to give them a dignity in life and to wrestle meaning out of their lives, not just as a cautionary tale, but in part as an indictment. An indictment, not just on society, but an indictment on me.
That’s, at least, how I was trying to make sense of what was going on.
F&L: This is the sort of book that church groups read together. What would you like people to keep in mind in their personal study and in their discussion?
EM: I want them to look at the people whom we turn our eyes away from. I want them to see that I am not the star of this story. One of the difficult things is the survivors get to tell their story.
I had the platform or the opportunity to write what I wanted to write, and I used that platform to tell the story that other people often get ignored. I want people to wrestle with these characters and ask what the lives that unfold in front of them reveal about the dignity and the import of every human life. Not just the ones that we deem successful.
There are 15 different entries into the book and ways to read it. One way is as a long meditation on forgiveness and the nature of forgiveness. Another way is as a long meditation on the odyssey. How do you find God when your life has been tossed into chaos and it feels like there’s pain upon pain upon pain upon pain? Another one is as an examination of race in America.
I guess I want to say, “Don’t simplify the complexity of this narrative and thereby simplify the Black experience.” I think that any Black story that takes place in the South that spans the 1920s through the 2000s — all of it — every single one of those stories reveals all of America, because Black people are never exempted from the twists and turns. It always lands in our laps.
My story isn’t important simply because I am telling it. It’s important because it reveals what America has done to Black people over the course of generations, and all these traumas and these things echo through time.
I guess I want them to see that this is a true and complex narrative of people whose lives deserve not to be forgotten. My mom told me when I was a kid, “Never forget what you came from.” That’s the impossible advice that you forget about a thousand times.
But I think a better way of putting it is, “Remember. And when you remember, tell the truth.” This book has been an exercise of remembering and doing the best that I could to tell the truth.