How Far to the Promised Land

One Black Family's Story of Hope and Survival in the American South

About the Book

From the New York Times contributing opinion writer and award-winning author of Reading While Black, a riveting intergenerational account of his family’s search for home and hope

“Powerful . . . McCaulley uses examples of his own family’s stories of survival over time to remind readers that some paths to the promised land have detours along the way.”—The Root


A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR


For much of his life, Esau McCaulley was taught to see himself as an exception: someone who, through hard work, faith, and determination, overcame childhood poverty, anti-Black racism, and an absent father to earn a job as a university professor and a life in the middle class.
 
But that narrative was called into question one night, when McCaulley answered the phone and learned that his father—whose absence defined his upbringing—died in a car crash. McCaulley was being asked to deliver his father’s eulogy, to make sense of his complicated legacy in a country that only accepts Black men on the condition that they are exceptional, hardworking, perfect.  
 
The resulting effort sent McCaulley back through his family history, seeking to understand the community that shaped him. In these pages, we meet his great-grandmother Sophia, a tenant farmer born with the gift of prophecy who scraped together a life in Jim Crow Alabama; his mother, Laurie, who raised four kids alone in an era when single Black mothers were demonized as “welfare queens”; and a cast of family, friends, and neighbors who won small victories in a world built to swallow Black lives. With profound honesty and compassion, he raises questions that implicate us all: What does each person’s struggle to build a life teach us about what we owe each other? About what it means to be human? 
 
How Far to the Promised Land is a thrilling and tender epic about being Black in America. It’s a book that questions our too-simple narratives about poverty and upward mobility; a book in which the people normally written out of the American Dream are given voice.
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Praise for How Far to the Promised Land

“With uncompromising honesty and deep introspection, McCaulley complicates the narrative of ‘overcoming racism and poverty as a hero.’ . . . Powerful and necessary.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A thoughtfully written book that offers heartfelt, empathetic lessons without preaching to the choir.”Kirkus Reviews

“Esau McCaulley’s riveting memoir holds together tensions that many of us pry apart: systemic injustice and personal responsibility, accountability and forgiveness, honesty and sympathy. This book is prophetic without being preachy, and heartwarming without being cloying. . . . A triumph of storytelling.”—Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

“A riveting book that invites you into the personal journey of one of the finest writers alive today.”—Beth Moore, president of Living Proof Ministries and bestselling author of All My Knotted-Up Life

“In these pages are words that redeem time and refresh the human spirit. . . . The timeliness of McCaulley’s honest, hope-filled story—told with depth, precision, and purpose—feels like a balm for the weary soul.”—Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Salem Baptist and Progressive Baptist

“As soon as I finished, I wanted to reread. McCaulley is already recognized as a great scholar and essayist, but this is his best writing yet. The storytelling here is both poetic and prophetic, free of both superficiality and cynicism. Read this book and the words will linger with you.”—Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today

“McCaulley gives his readers an offering to peer into the window of his soul and that of his southern Black family. It is a story of the convergence of structural racism and the grace of God, which carries them on as they traverse the rugged terrain of life to the promised land.”—Ekemini Uwan, public theologian and NAACP Image Award–nominated co-author of Truth’s Table
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Excerpt

How Far to the Promised Land

Chapter 1

The Making of a Villain


My father and mother met in the winter of 1976. I’ve seen photos, stored in a box in the utility closet next to the washing machine and a mop better suited for spreading water around than clearing grime off floors. In these photos, my parents’ clothes are more a battle for supremacy between pastels than anything resembling coherent outfits. There they are, looking as young and untroubled as any two high school students on a Friday night date. Not yet parents, not weighed down with the responsibility of caring for four children, both are smiling, my father standing behind my mother, who sits on a stool with her head nestled into his chest.

They met not long after the Jim Crow laws were replaced by practices more subtle and harder to combat. Segregation was technically outlawed, but custom divided my mother’s hometown of Huntsville into sections. “Things were pretty separated in Huntsville,” my mom recalls. “I cannot remember one time when we partied together. We had Black house parties and white ones, even among students in integrated schools.”

The Parkway Place mall demarcated the white part of town. Located at the intersection of Drake Avenue and Memorial Parkway, it was close enough to the Black section of Huntsville for my mom to feel comfortable visiting. Another mall, called Heart of Huntsville, located deeper into the white area, seemed off-­limits. My mother remembers security following her from the time she walked in until she exited: “One security guard for every Black person they saw.”

My parents were introduced by my father’s cousin Larry, whose easy smile and welcoming personality marked him as a charmer. Larry and my mom attended school at J. O. Johnson High, where he was two years ahead of her. Intrigued by the sly older boy, my mother dated him, but after the second outing, she opted to let him down easy by introducing him to her friend Wanda. Larry, in turn, suggested that my mother meet his cousin Esau, who went to school out in the country, at Gurley High.

On that first date, my mother is instantly drawn to my father’s tenderness. She will come to know him as outgoing and funny, but tonight he acts shy and polite. It’s the 1970s, and, playing to the stereotype of the decade as I imagine it, they spend the evening parked at a drive-­in movie. In the front seat, Larry and Wanda are hitting it off. Encouraged by his prospects, Larry turns to Esau and says, “Go ahead, cousin, lean in and give her a kiss.”

My dad will have none of it. “I just met the girl,” he says. “I ain’t kissing nothing.”

After the date, my mom boasts that my dad was “the perfect gentleman.” She does not yet know that his tenderness comes from grief, which lingers at the edge of his attempts at humor and charm. After a few dates, in a real show of vulnerability, he tells her, “My father died a few months back. Right before he died, he told my mother that my brother Barney and I weren’t no good. I just thought that I would give you fair warning.”

Believing she can fix what is broken, my mother is hooked. When I prodded her for information years later, she told me, “I think that his whole life he was trying to prove a dead man wrong.”

My dad was six feet tall, with an athletic build from his time as a basketball player, his brown skin a shade lighter than the ebony complexion I inherited from farther up the family tree. His Afro was medium-­sized and tasteful, such that it both fit with the natural style of the time and could be maintained at the same length without drawing much attention in the 1980s and 1990s. He didn’t have the most expensive clothes, but they were always clean and well ironed. That tendency for cleanliness would remain his whole life. According to my mom, he was “fine as the day is long, and all the girls wanted him.”

After they had dated for a short time, my father, Esau Sr., brought his new girl home to meet his mother, Wavon, and his grandmother Sophia. According to my mother, Sophia took one look at her and opined, “That is a very good woman right there. You don’t deserve her, Esau.” Turning to my mother, she said, “Laurie Ann, you seem like a nice girl. I would run. This boy will be the source of unending trials for you.” Used to barbs like this, my father didn’t defend himself. His normally wide smile tightened, and he lowered his gaze.

My mother did not know how to process Sophia’s warning. Even now, she is not clear on whether she should have heeded it. When pressed, she returns to the fact that the relationship that gave her so much pain also produced four cherished children.

She made her decision about the man who would shape the rest of her life at Johnson High School, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. They were just kids, and their courtship was brief. By the spring of 1977, my mother’s junior year, she was pregnant with my sister Latasha. They married in the summer of 1979, six months before my birth. My mother is not yet showing in the wedding pictures, but I am there, forming in her belly, when they exchange their vows and first kiss as a married couple.

Once they married, my parents moved into a trailer on the land where my father grew up. My great-­grandmother Sophia and grandmother Wavon still lived together in the larger house to the right of the gravel road that divided the plot in two. After a few years, when my folks had saved enough money to afford a place of their own, they rented a tiny three-­bedroom house in a lower-­class neighborhood near Alabama A&M University, the historically Black college in our city, a neighborhood for people who were broke but not yet on government assistance.

I was excited to get out of the trailer and move into the city. The well water on Grandma’s property always tasted funny. With few kids my age to play with, I spent much of my time watching TV, learning about what happens to people who live in a single-­wide from news reports about trailers being swept up by tornadoes every spring. Our new home would be built into the ground, not balanced uneasily on top of cinder blocks.

The new house doesn’t have much furniture when we move in. That first night, my father brings home McDonald’s, which we eat sitting on the kitchen floor under light cast from our only lampstand. Brandon, my little brother, still a toddler, contents himself with Gerber, a family staple. The light is dingy, but we sit together smiling and talking.

That night, I have not experienced enough of life to realize that happiness will not continue indefinitely. Instead, I figure we will gather regularly for family meals. We will become the Huxtables from The Cosby Show or the Seavers from Growing Pains. We might not have a deluxe apartment in the sky like the Jeffersons, but we no longer live in a home that has wheels. My fond memory of that night may explain why, whenever I’m restless, stressed, or sad, I like to scroll through listings on real estate websites. Houses offer a chance to dream about the lives we might live inside them and the people we might become.

A little while after we move in, I begin to play sports. I am five when my father signs me up to become a member of the Lakewood Rams. Our gold jerseys match the color of the NFL franchise, but the material feels like plastic and scratches like wool. The numbers on the uniforms look like they were cut from black electrical tape. After a few washes, some jerseys are missing portions of their numbers, so that 88 begins to look more like 44.

We are, all of us, Black boys, ranging in color from high yellow to deep chocolate, and from short and chubby to tall and slender. The coaches are a hodgepodge of former athletes, none of whom made it all the way to the future in the pros that we long to see. But it doesn’t matter to us. We follow their every instruction like the words that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai.

At our first practice, I learn how to get into a three-­point stance. The coach blows his whistle and shouts, “Spread your legs shoulder width apart. Bend your knees. Get on the balls of your feet. Now lean forward and put one hand on the ground.” Half the kids fall over.

“All right, McCaulley, you seem to be able to get into a stance. I want you to try to get past Jackson over there. He is going to try and block you. Run him over and get to the quarterback.”

That being the sum total of the instruction I will receive, I look up, unsteady in my newly acquired stance, and wait for the whistle. Then I charge. I quickly learn that the coaches’ goal is to figure out which of us has the stomach for the violence necessary to play a sport built on collisions. It turns out that I love the contact and embrace it from the start.

About the Author

Esau McCaulley
Esau McCaulley is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically Black congregation in Chicago. He is the author of the award-winning book Reading While Black and the children’s book Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit. He is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. His writings have also appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today. More by Esau McCaulley
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