On the first day of the new millennium, R&B singer D’Angelo released the music video for his song, “Untitled (How Does it Feel?),” a four-and-a-half-minute-long shot of himself, shirtless and chiseled standing against a black background. Only the steady hold of his gaze and his glistening torso are visible, but you can see enough of the latter to know he is bare from the waist down, too.
It’s a risqué video even today, eighteen years later, so it’s easy to imagine what it might have stirred within the many young people who happened upon its release. Twelve-year-old Casey Gerald was one of them. He snuck a secret viewing all alone in the dark with the sound turned off, taking in the tiny gap in D’Angelo’s teeth, his pumping stomach, the drops of sweat running down his navel. “What. Is. Happening?” Gerald wondered, as he watched the unabashed and vulnerable D’Angelo simulate having an orgasm, pounding his chest. “This is what your life is supposed to be. This feeling… D’Angelo is not fucking around this is not a game this is not lust this is an earnest plea and a question that only you can answer: How does it feel?”
Years later, Gerald has written something of an answer to this in his memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here. One might imagine Casey Gerald has been asked this more often than most, since his entrance into the pearly gates of Yale is a “success story” on paper. His upbringing wasn’t easy: He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. His father was addicted to heroin; his mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was in and out of mental health facilities and, one day, just disappeared. But a scholarship to play varsity football for Yale changes his luck, and suddenly, doors open for Gerald in ways they never would have before, leading him to rub elbows with people like Maria Shriver, George W. Bush, and the Lehman Brothers (albeit briefly, thanks to the recession). He becomes a Rhodes Scholarship finalist; he receives his MBA from Harvard Business School. His 2016 TED Talk, “The Gospel of Doubt,” goes viral and accrues nearly two million views. And last but not least, he publishes a memoir at age thirty-one.
What got this book into our hands? Hard work, determination, and perseverance, you might presume—and these things certainly played a role in getting Gerald out of Texas and into Connecticut. But such principles take a backseat in this book. Rather than string his life events together with the fortifying but often flimsy thread of “The American Dream,” Gerald instead reflects upon his life so far by showing various relationships and encounters he has experienced, both fleeting and enduring, with friends and lovers and adversaries.
The first relationship we see is, naturally, the one he has with his family. He presents them vividly in the first chapter, standing in front of a barn in Ohio in the early 1990s. “Let me paint a picture—or tell you about one that I still own because I stole it,” he says, giving us each member, one by one: A father, “brown like bark” with hands “larger than most men’s hands, better than most men’s hands at certain things.” A mother with “skin the color of sandcastles.” A sister who “looks like she’s got good home training.” A boy with crooked pants and “a smile so intense that his dimples look like craters on a small brown moon”—Gerald himself. “See the family,” he muses. “Soon, they will be destroyed. They will destroy each other. They will destroy themselves. The world or fate or mysteries untold will destroy them in a little while, for the boy needs to travel most of this journey alone—and if he does not need to (which, as the boy, would be my argument), then he will anyway.”
We linger with this family long enough to learn exactly what kind of destruction he means. It means disappointment and abandonment; sometimes it means public embarrassment (since Gerald’s father was once a beloved high school football star in Dallas who went on to play for Ohio State, his fall from grace is splashed across the front page of the local newspaper). In the severest of ways, Gerald learns something early on that many of us won’t learn until we are much older if we’re lucky: Parents aren’t always selfless towards their children.
And yet, while Gerald’s writing is direct and painfully honest, it lacks a bitterness or grudge that one would say he’s warranted in holding:
I don’t give much of a shit that my father began, sometime before my tenth birthday, hanging with dope fiends. Nor am I up in arms that he acquired and consumed a controversial substance himself, heroin mostly, according to him and any number of news outlets. I never witnessed it myself and I am trying to tell you things for which I have solid evidence, or at least more interesting things than the claim or fact that a man tried heroin once and, soon after, became addicted. My best bet is that heroin must be pretty incredible, must lead to enough ecstasy to make a man’s veins and future seem a small price to pay. Besides, I was, through my twenties, addicted to Skittles, enough of which will have you broke and strung out and dead, too—and while that may seem like comparing apples to oranges, so to speak, addiction is addiction and it just so happens that we’ve built ourselves a nice society that places all the folks addicted to fame and money and complaining a little lower than the angels and, down below waterbugs and Hugo Chavez, places men and women who get high every now and then or all the time. Not that I’m endorsing any of it. I’m just not going to be the one to jump all over the addicts we don’t like. At least not for being addicts. Daddy could have enjoyed all the heroin in the world for all I cared—I just wanted him to show up for my tenth birthday.
Gerald addresses many other complexities in his life in this way, reviewing them in a grander context with a critical, logical eye. At times his tone might be read as detached, or too cold, but the matter-of-fact (and occasionally flippant) tenor he takes with such recollections feels well-measured and necessary.
This tone also feels necessary in Gerald’s recounting of his time at Yale, which occupies a considerable portion of the book. Instead of looking back fondly upon his golden ticket, he is careful to elucidate just how odd and uncomfortable the whole experience was, starting with the day that Yale’s football coach came to his high school to persuade him to attend. “The three men sat there, shaken by having had to walk through metal detectors to enter a school,” Gerald observes, commenting how long it had been since white men had set foot in South Oak Cliff High School. It’s a poignant scene, practically comical because of how jarring it is to see such different worlds collide, but mostly sad, as it is a painful reminder that such great distance between these two worlds still exists.
When the meeting at SOC ended, the eyes of my people watched from the hallway as the three Yale men walked a few paces to the front door, then watched from second-floor windows as the men walked thirty yards or so across the yard to the parking lot, then watched the car drive down Marsalis Avenue until it was out of sight. Then they watched each other. Then they watched me. Some of them may have never seen me before, but the men slapped my shoulder and grinned and asked—Son, you the one that’s talkin’ about going to Yale?—and the women hugged my neck and put a little lipstick on my cheek and, after church, a twenty-dollar bill in my hand, and sighed—Baby we are so proud of you! Most of the men and women were strangers to me by name, but they were my people and I felt their breeze and the breeze blew East and the breeze said Go thou.
And so he does. The transition is what you might expect it to be: Rough. For one, it’s cold. For another, it’s all completely foreign. After a white student tells him that all of the poor people in New Haven are “just a by-product of capitalism,” Gerald decides he should find “his” people. He attends a Black Student Alliance at Yale meeting, whose discussion topic, What does blackness mean, leaves him incredulous. “You’ve been black a long time,” he says of himself. “Your family has been black. Most of the people you’ve known have been black. You know the words to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ Did you really need to go all the way to Yale to learn what it means to be black?”
Yes, and no. Gerald describes where he grew up—which one female student from Dallas describes as “the ghetto” after learning what part of Dallas he’s from—as possessing “institutional completeness.” He notes how everyone in South Oak Cliff was black—teachers, bank tellers, the mail carrier, dope fiends. “There was a great gift in this: it never occurred to me that I was inferior because I was black. I was informed that white people were racist. That America was racist… But I was assured that this was because there was something wrong with white people, not with me.” For Gerald, it’s college that reminds him that he is supposed to think that he is less than.
[I]t wasn’t until I arrived at Yale that it dawned on me that the defining trait of my people was not only that we had so much pigment in our skin but that we had so little money in our bank accounts, so little food on our tables, so few books in our classrooms, that we did not take family vacations, that we did not go to the museum, that we did not pay for our lunch at school, did not buy our toys at Toys ‘R’ Us, did not order steak in restaurants, if we ever went, we did not go to the dentist for our six-month cleaning, if for anything, did not have vision exams to know we needed glasses, which we could not afford anyway. And we did not add all this up and call ourselves poor—perhaps because it was so obvious that it did not need to be said, or because it was so common that we found more interesting language for each other, or because we were ashamed. I’m not sure. Whatever the case, the black students at Yale were a mighty rich discovery—not only because they had so much more or had lived so differently than I had, but also and especially because they looked at me as though they were itching to pose Du Bois’s question: How does it feel to be a problem?
At its best, Yale is a wake-up call, a peek at other types of black people—black people who don’t use the word “nigga;” a black woman who is horrified at the thought of her twins attending Cornell rather than Yale or Harvard or Princeton (coincidentally, this same woman is married to a man who played football in high school with Gerald’s father in South Oak Cliff). Eventually, Gerald does find his people, helping develop an alternative organization to the Black Student Alliance, and mentoring other young black men at Yale so that they feel more at home on an Ivy League campus. “If these boys were going to go through the trouble of living and studying and taking out loans to go to Yale, they needed to walk around like they owned the place, not like they were squatting on somebody’s back porch,” he insists.
However, at its worst, Yale could be “the loneliest place in the world,” a place strewn with microaggressions and presumptions. Gerald’s football teammates don’t understand his heavy accent; they make fun of him for it. He responds by laughing, too. “Guess your voice does make you sound dumb. Fix it. Try to sound like them. Just try. Keep trying, it’s only been a week.” And of his too-big clothes: “Double extra large? You’re a medium, wet. And why do all the clothes match each other?… Do you need boxes for all those shoes? Air Jordans, huh. Doesn’t matter, they’re just shoes, man.”
But they’re more than just shoes and clothes. They’re pieces of Gerald, a few of the many he is forced to reexamine as he climbs higher and higher. With each new position or title, he finds himself working to drown out old bits of himself to blend better. “I was good to the program,” Gerald admits. “Whatever the program was, I was good to it… Fixed my resume and bought new dress shirts and acted like a lawyer, like a banker, did that well enough, learned my story, told my story, got the right perspective on it all, I was grateful, I moved on, I got over it.”
There Will Be No Miracles Here is not a blueprint on how to “make it out,” although it very well could be. Gerald’s story doesn’t fit tidily into a speech or a newspaper lede or conversation over dinner despite how many people try to make it so. Rather, this book is Gerald’s attempt to construct his own narrative as best as he can, and it’s successful. It teaches, it confounds. It’s funny, and sometimes it makes you suck your teeth in irritation. But whether you identify with Gerald or not, it’s undeniable that what he lays bare in this memoir is just as vulnerable as D’Angelo standing naked against that black background. Because, as successful as Gerald has become, he is able to acknowledge that he has not come out of it all unscathed. In a particular moment of deep unhappiness, he finds himself wondering, “What is wrong with me? Ever wonder that?”
We all have, of course, at least once in our lives for whatever reason. And to this, Gerald offers perhaps the sagest advice of all that he gives in his book: “Stop,” he tells us. “Drop whatever’s in your hand. Leave your basket in the aisle. Retrace your steps out the door. Find the crack. Try to find its source, understand its reason, excuse or not. Try. That is all I knew to do.” That’s all any of us can do.