Finding Beauty in the Struggle

Our Interview with Esau McCaulley on his new book, How Far to the Promised Land

Mockingbird / 9.12.23

There are few writers today who as insightfully comment upon so wide an array of theological and social issues as Esau McCaulley. Whether it be his regular editorial in the New York Times, or articles in the Atlantic and Christianity Today, McCaulley has the audacity to talk about God amid debates about poverty, racism, family, and identity. His is a public witness to faith and its significance for everyday life, both personally and corporately, testifying to a faith that stands firmly in the public square without devolving into partisan rancor.

With everything he writes, McCaulley resists being boxed in by ideological divisions or the usual terms of the debate, always striving for a synthetic viewpoint that holds together what others rend asunder. In his award-winning book, Reading While Black, McCaulley pairs his training as a biblical scholar with the issues and concerns of the Black church in which he was raised, finding in scripture a message of liberation and hope, radically counter-cultural and theologically orthodox. The God who saves is the same God who seeks justice for all people. In addition to Reading While Black, McCaulley has published a devotional book on the season of Lent, and the children’s book, Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit.

In his most recent book, How Far to the Promised:One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South, McCaulley tells the story of his family’s struggles with racism and poverty in the Deep South. It is a moving account of absentee fathers, faithful mothers, and their struggle to survive. But more than that, it is a testimony to human frailty, injustice, sin, compassion, undeserved grace, and the God whose mercy triumphs over evil. I was so grateful for the chance to talk with Esau about his book and its profound themes.

— Todd Brewer, interviewer


Mockingbird: One aim of How Far to the Promised Land is to inform the reader’s understanding of racism beyond isolated events of discrimination. In other words, you are expressing that through both personal experiences and generational wrongs, the experience of being Black is more than being mistreated this one time. It’s a cumulative weight placed upon Black people.

Esau McCaulley: Reader reception is an interesting thing; writers talk about how, once you write a book, it leaves your hand and you no longer have control over it. That is part of the book — part of the Black experience. I do try to show that the things that happened to me as an 18- or 16-year-old boy running around in Huntsville, AL, happened to those before me as well, going back three or four generations. I try to draw a direct line from things that happened to my great grandparents all the way to how these things informed how I was educated, and to put my experience within the course of a family saga.

But one of the other things I try to get at is the way of talking about the Black struggle that removes agency, such that we become caricatures — only victims of generational trauma that was inflicted upon us from the outside. That’s not the whole story. I’m trying to say that we are not just wounded people; we also wound others, right? And so we struggle to get to the Promised Land, in part because of things that are done to us, but also in part because of the things we do to ourselves.

There’s one segment of society that makes everything about personal responsibility — there are no societal influences and we can just grit our teeth and get through it. That’s too simplistic. But there is another segment of people who believe that we’re only a product of our past and the things that were inflicted upon us. And that’s also too simplistic. What I wanted to do was to put both of those things to the reader to say, here are places where I or other people have agency to make decisions that have real negative impact on other people. And here is the way in which society does that. Discerning the percentage of blame is maybe beyond my confidence, but I know that what plagues us is not found through a reductionistic equation.

DA’ngelo Lovell Williams, Take My Hand, 2018. Inkjet print, 51 3/4 x 35 1/4 in. © D’Angelo Lovell Williams.

M: You’re reflecting a nuanced and complex view of anthropology. We are not simply our decisions, but our decisions matter, right? And we’re not simply our context, but our context matters — for good and for ill.

EM: Yes. And a doctrine of grace means that no matter how much someone wounded us, we can, through the power of God, look back at their life with a sense of regret. Not simply for the things they did to us, but for what their life was.

One other totally different way of reading the book (which maybe nobody but me will ever do) is to read it as a long meditation on forgiveness and its meaning. How do you forgive someone who caused tons of chaos? You do it by seeing them as a person, finding their humanity. And not just their humanity, but something beautiful about their struggle.

M: At the beginning of the book, you recount a story from a speaking event where you deliberately withheld information from the moderator because, as you say, “I did not trust them to hear part of the story apart from the whole of it.” So I was wondering, how would you say the whole story informs the parts, and vice versa?

EM: At that moment, she wanted me to tell this story of the worst racism I’ve ever experienced so that people would feel sorry for me, persuading them to somehow choose to enact some justice. But I don’t know if everyone deserves access to Black pain devoid of context. What I tried to do in the book was put it into context.

Black life in America isn’t just suffering. Sometimes we are required to parade our suffering just to get justice, but if we only tell the story of our suffering, it tends to reaffirm some of the worst stereotypes about Black lives. If I talk only about police violence, or only about what other people did to me, all of those things could be slotted into a simplistic narrative.

The other thing about this is, when you ask me that question, you know that I survived it, right? But what about the person who isn’t here to tell that story? What about the incidences of racism that broke that person? Do they deserve a testimony? What I wanted to do in this book is not to just tell my story, but to tell the story of my family and of my community, of my church and, in some sense, of Black life in the South.

M: The story of your life is about you and your family in America, but there are two other players in the drama, one of which is racism and the other is God. God is a character who shows up in punctiliar way — like when you’re in the neighborhood, and you’re asked, “Who are you?” and you respond, “I’m a Christian.” God is behind the scenes, along the way. Can you talk about that drama?

EM: When you write a book, people ask you what the book is about. Is it about God? Is it about racism? Is it about structural racism? Is it about poverty? Our lives are not one thing, and for most of us who end up with some kind of faith as an adult, it’s not like I woke up every single day asking the question about God. There were significant years of my life where I didn’t think about God in a particular way at all. But then there are these moments in life when stuff that was bubbling beneath the surface kind of erupts, and then your faith becomes what it is.

In telling the story of my life, I wanted to be honest about when God played a visible role and when he didn’t. Looking back, you can see all those things as providence, right? The hidden hand of God. But that’s not how it feels in the day to day. Even most clergy or religious people, we’re not all God all the time. We like sports, we like music, we like good food. We’re just living. But then there are these moments when God feels visible.

M:You seem to go out of your way to not mention your achievements and your career. There’s no mention that you did a Ph.D., for example. You say you go to Scotland.

EM: Oh, I didn’t even notice that. I guess you’re right.

M: Well, the story you’re telling is very different from most Christian memoirs, which might say that you, by your own effort, have gotten yourself to the Promised Land. Why is this story different?

EM: I’ll put it this way … I reject exceptionalism as a means of societal change, because what exceptional stories do, especially when it’s a Black exceptionalism narrative, is that they take the reader on a predetermined journey. The reader simply has to root for the protagonist and be upset at the racism as it occurs, and if you’ve been upset at the right times and sad at the right times, there’s a kind of cathartic experience when the person survives at the end. And this can create the idea that, “Oh, America puts you through it, but you can win if you just work harder.” And then the point might be that we just need more exceptional Black people.

But when I got into college and beyond, it struck me how many ordinary white people were successful. They got C’s and didn’t take life seriously until they got to graduate school. I knew so few ordinary successful Black people. And so I’m challenging this idea that we ought to require exceptionalism from ethnic minorities.

The other reason is the definition of success that we have in America is fundamentally flawed. It’s materialistic, right? We honor people who achieve the things that we say you ought to have: wealth, money, success, acclaim. And if that is true, then most of the people I knew growing up were failures — I don’t see them as failures. Beyond that, their individual lives and their struggles — to survive, to thrive, to figure out what it meant to be human — had its own beauty.

I also wanted to raise the question of who’s allowed to tell their story. Are the only stories that are important the ones where people achieve what we tell them to achieve? Or does my cousin, who died of AIDS at a young age — did her life mean something? I know we have the statement “Black Lives Matter” and all of that. And I agree with it obviously. But I wanted to narrate the value of the Black lives that society tosses to the side.

As I was writing this book, I was noticing that anytime a Black person gets killed, you know, by the police, or something happens to them, people always then go over the person’s life and say, “Hey, he or she was arrested fifteen times.” So clearly this person’s life had no value. So, their death is justified. There would be an assessment of their life up to that point, and I thought that was a profoundly un-Christian way of looking at a human existence.

If you had paused my life at certain points, maybe when I’m 18 and I almost get shot, people would’ve assessed my life and said there was nothing there. But I think there was something there. So if something was there for me, then something was there for all of the people who were around me. Be- cause nobody’s story’s over until it’s over. That’s the whole point of Christianity — that at any point, no matter what you’ve done in the past, you can begin again. I wanted to show the beauty of human existence, even when it’s hard. And that, to me, is a way of honoring my neighborhood and my church and my community as this weird, beautiful part of me. They aren’t object lessons, they’re persons. And by humanizing them, I’m hoping to humanize all the people who we just kind of push to the side. And if you see their story, you can ask, “How does America have to change in order for the story to stop at this point? To have kept going?” I don’t challenge that story because I survived it. But I’ve lived to tell the tale, and it’s my job to put on paper the things that other people didn’t get a chance to do.

M: Tell me about the story of your name Esau and your reinterpretation of its meaning.

EM: In the Bible, Esau is the older brother of Jacob. They’re twins. Esau is born first, and then Jacob. And in the Ancient Near East, the oldest brother received the inheritance. He was the head of the tribe or family. But Jacob is the one who’s chosen by God. He’s the one who becomes the progenitor of the nation of Israel, which is why we used to have tons of people who are named Jacob running around the world and very few Esau’s. As a matter of fact, the only Esau I’ve ever met face-to-face is my father. It’s an odd name. Why would you name your child Esau? Because in the biblical story, Esau trades his birthright for a pot of stew. I had this fear growing up that I was going to make this kind of huge mistake that was going to ruin my life.

Now, the reason I have that name, and my father has that name, is because my father’s father was illiterate, but he was a deacon at his church. In the family, the legend goes that he opens the Bible and points at a word, and the word that he points to is the word Esau. But my mom, who’s also the daughter of a minister, knew that Esau was a bit of a misfit in the Bible. And she gives me the middle name Daniel. So I have a double biblical name, Esau Daniel McCaulley.

And for a long time, because my father was gone from our family through most of my life, I associated both the biblical Esau and my father with failure. One thing most people don’t know about me — maybe it’s a secret that is out now — is that everybody in my family calls me Daniel. Esau was this thing that I kind of pushed back against, and I’ll say that the process of coming to grips with a more complicated reception of that name, and my understanding of the biblical story, is a key part of what happens in the book.

Forgive me, but I’m gonna be a little bit cagey because I’ve been waiting most of my life to tell that part of the story. And it was a hard-won kind of realization. I’m going to save the ending for the reader to read.

M: One of the things that shines through in the book is that, on the one hand you have prodigal fathers, and on the other hand you have saintly women.

EM: Women are the heroes — the Black women.

M: They are repeatedly. How would you describe the source of their strength?

EM: I’m going to give you the answer that they would give, and then I’m going to expand upon it. They would just tell you, “God.” They would say, “Baby, ain’t nothing but Jesus.” And that’s true. A significant part of my own spiritual development, which comes across in Reading While Black, is that I came to a point spiritually and intellectually where I had to decide: Do I trust my mama and my great-grand- mother, or do I trust these academics — these intellectuals who’ve read all of these books?

There is the wisdom that my mom had, born of experience, and that my great-grand-mother had, that I couldn’t toss to the side. That God had made a claim upon them also made a claim upon me. But the other thing I would say is that they were strong because they had no choice. There was nobody else.

The chapter “Sophia’s Choice” was initially called a “Long Line of Leavers” from the Caedmon’s Call album. Remember that CD? It was initially called the “Long Line of Leavers,” because my great-grand-father left his family, then my grandfather left his family, and then my father left his family. And I was the fourth generation.

But in the revisions, I said no. The center of the story is not the fact that the men left. It’s that the women stayed! And it was their courage that had an effect. It was their faithfulness. They either could have abandoned their children or fought for us.

This is what happens in the Black church. Of course, there’s tons of men who do great things, but a significant part of the testimony of the Black church is the strength and faith of Black women. But it’s also true that all the women in the book aren’t saints. They have their own struggles and issues — everybody is human. But it would be dishonest if I didn’t say the faith of Black women had a strong impact on me.

M: I’d say saintly. How about that?

EM: That’s good. And hopefully I captured it well. Hopefully other people, other African Americans who had praying grandmothers and praying mothers, will recognize in that narrative that I captured something.

M: I had a question about Sewanee.

EM: Try it. I slap Sewanee around in Reading While Black — and in this book.

M: Well, you express appreciation for what you learned, while at the same time recognizing that you needed “less Bertrand Russell and more Frederick Douglass.”

EM: I enjoyed that sentence. That’s one of the times you get to have fun. And I was thinking of who the good contrast would be. I was going through my Rolodex.

M: Bertrand Russell was a perfect choice. What was the title of his book? Why I Am Not a Christian, or something like that?

EM: Secular higher education shapes you in a certain way. There is kind of a role you’re designed to play, to be the conscience of progressive institutions. And they taught me a kind of studied disdain for old time religion.

M: They’re telling you that religion is an opiate that helped you to get to this point.

EM: “But we’ll take it from here.” And I said, I don’t trust y’all. I don’t trust you to get us to freedom.

And this is the complicated part. I didn’t then go and look at limited government Republican political conservatism as the other option, right? They kind of go, “Oh, well then you just slide back and be some kind of Black political conservative.” And I said, well, no. I didn’t see that as intellectually compelling either.

I tried to find — and I’m still searching for — this way of being authentically Christian, authentically Black, and not reactionary. And not just taking the things that are handed to me and saying, “I must go in that way.”

One of the things that was difficult to articulate is, in some writings, Black religion is kind of a nostalgia. It’s kind of a flavoring in the writing that we’ve kind of outgrown because supposedly we know better.

M: In the same way that you love your grandmother.

EM: “Love grandma, but we ain’t doing that anymore.” And that is supposedly a sign of intellectual progress.

Sometimes you’ve got to go back to where you started. And there will be answers there that you may not have noticed in full at the time. And that departure isn’t the only sign of intellectual maturity. Sometimes the departure and the return are signs of intellectual maturity and growth. I developed this real conviction that the God who helped my great-grandmother is real and active in my own life, and that God does not need revision to have my allegiance; that rather than I judge him, he fundamentally judges me — and through the lens of mercy and grace.

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3 responses to “Finding Beauty in the Struggle”

  1. […] I recently had the privilege of interviewing scholar and writer Esau McCaulley about his most recent book, How Far to the Promised Land, (which […]

  2. Jason says:

    Very good

  3. […] the Promised Land, it’s never to late to atone for past mistakes (kidding, but also check out our interview with McCaulley). The question at the heart of the book, and one he discusses at length in his recent NY Times […]

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