A Feature Review of
How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South
Reviewed by Rachel Lonas
“Things we separate intellectually into neat categories are messy in real life. My neighborhood, then, could be both dangerous and wonderful at the same time. That is why the idea of grace and forgiveness is so important to me. If we are all a mix of good and bad, then there is always a chance that the good might emerge victorious in the end, if we give God enough time to do his work. Patience with broken people and broken things is a manifestation of trust in God.” (176)
In terms of writing, eulogy is some of the most emotionally taxing prose a person will ever put to paper; it is meant to be voiced to a grieving audience while the speaker is still in the midst of his or her own grief. It stirs up memories that are intended to characterize the deceased’s whole life, not just a beginning or an end. How does one person carry the weight of that task, especially when the family member is largely absent due to abuse, trauma, and broken systems? This is how the journey of Dr. Esau McCaulley’s newest book, How Far to the Promised Land starts—searching at the end of his estranged father’s life to rediscover his own story of being Black in the South. McCaulley invites us to take a step back and, through his life, reconsider who we’ve been listening to and whose stories we have been trying to rewrite, extinguish, or argue about in America.
This is a book about experiential knowledge—the complexity of being Black in America (particularly the South). It is not a personal narrative steeped in archetypes, like a hero who overcame all the obstacles of his past. To present that kind of story would be to forsake his rich heritage of faith and community and snuff out any sense of hope or beauty that there is to find. He shows us that life is woven together in his Alabama community with all its valiance, violence, and every ordinary thing in between. His chapter on the AIDS epidemic and how his mother took care of his cousin for months on their living room couch brought me to tears. It was a particularly tender example of how so much of life’s trials and triumphs blend together in a very uneven way.
McCaulley’s writings are a reminder about the damage that a lack of curiosity toward others does in our communities. The assumptions we make about others allow us to paint our brothers and sisters with broad, inaccurate, and life-threatening strokes. As McCaulley says about growing up during the era where black women were viciously labeled “welfare queens” by President Reagan, “Living as a stereotype taught me a valuable lesson: if people were wrong about my mother and her challenges, then they were also probably wrong about me and a host of other Black people they categorized and dismissed” (34).
In this way, his memoir is a tribute to his mother who supported her family with her steady, loving presence. McCaulley shared that she became temporarily blind due to a tumor. She told doctor after doctor it felt like “water dripping behind her eyes” and her symptoms were brushed off. After her eye surgery and losing her peripheral vision, she could no longer work, but instead put her gifts to use in the local schools by becoming a PTA president and then school board member as a single mother with 4 children. McCaulley’s community was blessed by her extending her affectionate, generous motherhood out to anyone in the schools who needed it. His mother, along with many other strong women in his family, modeled for him that “a Black life could be lived with honor through faith, even when the world is set against you” (97).
McCaulley’s nuanced discussion on sports illustrates how, in his community, they were seen as a potential way out of poverty. They were also a way to build strong interpersonal relationships both with adults and peers in the community—a kind of village and multi-generational parenting. And yet the pressure to succeed both academically and athletically so young can be crushing. If sports and good grades are everything, then who are you without them? As with the entirety of his book, McCaulley avoids binaries in how he frames this aspect of Black life in the South.
I enjoyed hearing McCaulley describe his Black church heritage as such a vibrant faith community. He talks about the lessons of patience he learned from his grandfather Theodore, a pastor. He reflects on the ways it helped form his identity and how he was told that when preaching to make sure to “get Jesus right”. He said that he found out by trial and error in the pulpit that he had “a calling of a different sort: to try to put into words and on paper the varied experiences of God in the souls of black folks” (150). His prolific writing is certainly a gift from God that he has been faithful to steward as a New Testament professor, speaker, author, and columnist.
On a personal note, earlier this year my teenage daughter had the privilege of talking with Dr. McCaulley at the Hopewords Writing Conference and when she expressed discouragement about her inability to write her thoughts more quickly, he didn’t give her any opportunity to disparage the lifetime of writing he believed she had ahead of her. It was a kindness for her to hear such a bold encouragement from someone who writes and teaches for a living. This biblical give-to-others-as-you-were-given mentality permeates both McCaulley’s pages and his public life.
The warmth, honesty, and dignity of How Far to the Promised Land leapt off the pages. My copy is full of pencil marks and underlined sentences and paragraphs that I keep going back to in my own difficult reflections about the Christian life.
“Christians like to believe that our faith is about people who convert and immediately change their lives. We envision flawless good citizens with well-mown lawns and perfectly behaved children. But life is hard, the road is long and winding, and the path to the promised land is not always clear. Nonetheless, hard lives are beautiful in their own way. Wanderings are instructive in their own right” (207).
Wanderings are instructive which is why I will be sharing my marked-up copy of this engaging, prophetic memoir as often as possible.
Rachel Lonas is a writer and educator specializing in literature and composition. Several of her pieces can be found at Fathom Magazine. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband,
Justin, and their four daughters. She enjoys all things creative—watercoloring, nature journaling, landscaping, and being inspired by botanical gardens.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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