Does Casey Gerald Know How to Fix America?

Casey Gerald. Photo: Hallo Smith

When he was in his late 20s, Casey Gerald seemed poised to do anything he wanted: It was conceivable that he could run for national office in either party, or become the youngest-ever CEO of a multinational business, or produce and star in some viral reality show. He was charismatic (as he demonstrated in a 2016 TED Talk about embracing uncertainty), and had a compelling personal narrative: growing up a gay Evangelical Christian in subsidized housing in Dallas, with his parents largely absent, then making it to Yale, then to Lehman Brothers, then to Harvard’s MBA program. In his 20s, he started MBAxAmerica, a nonprofit that helped 73 entrepreneurs start small businesses in cities like Fargo, North Dakota; Butte, Montana; and Tupelo, Mississippi.

But at the peak of his success, in 2016, he disbanded his organization and disappeared for the last couple years to write his memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here. While long on elegant prose, it’s short on concrete prescriptions — whether for curing our social and political ills or for helping poor kids growing up in situations like his. However, Gerald sees it as more than an autobiography; he hopes the book will also suggest paths to spiritual and psychological healing. During an hour-long phone conversation, I asked him how and why he thought that would help.

This wasn’t exactly what I expected after watching your TED Talk.
Yeah, the book is really a departure. I began the work, really, because I knew something was wrong with me, while the TED Talk is much more about something being wrong with the world. I had achieved, by my late 20s, about everything a kid is supposed to achieve in this society, and even a little more. But I was really cracked up. So I set out with the book to trace those cracks with words. It was an intervention for myself.

What kind of cracks do you mean?
I think the world, and the way of living, that my generation inherited is over. It’s dead. It’s dying and it needs to die. I had this line from Flaubert’s letters that was quoted by Marguerite Yourcenar, who wrote Memoirs of Hadrian. Why Hadrian was so important is, Flaubert says, “There was a time when the gods have ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come and man stood alone.” I think that’s where we are. I love my parents, but they failed me. I love this country, but it has failed me, and it’s failed so many people. Every promise my generation was given has been compromised. The institutions have been compromised. You can’t be lied to to the degree my generation has and not be traumatized. I think we are in the early days of a sort of beautiful and dangerous revolution that is starting on the inside.

It’s hard to not to think about politics when you say that. “Lies,” “broken promises,” “compromised institutions.” That’s not what you mean though, right?
Not at all. Politics is only one part of how we live in the world. Politics is kind of easy — I mean, compared to being a real and better brother, sister, lover, father, mother, friend. That is a hell of a lot trickier. Really knowing God in a very serious way is a hell of a lot more difficult than passing universal health care, which we could do, if we had the political will, in two months.

This is primarily a memoir. Your grandfather pastored what was essentially one of the first black megachurches, right?
Yeah — and more importantly, he was perhaps the only genius I’ve ever known. His grandmother had been a slave. He grew up in a dirt-floor house and started preaching when he was 16. He was paid in canned goods. This is how poor they were. He moved to Dallas in the ’50s. He and my grandmother were some of the first black people to integrate Oak Cliff. Within a few years, the whole neighborhood was black, and he started this church, Community First Baptist. That became the base of his ministry and a whole lot of other ministries in Dallas, which is now kind of the megachurch capital of the world.

My father was the son of this legend, and one of the greatest high school football players in the history of the state of Texas. He goes off and plays at Ohio State, but by the time I’m born, my understanding of my father, at least the one that I get in the newspapers, is that he threw his life away for drugs, and blah, blah, blah. But part of the intervention that I’m trying to do with this book is to trouble the narrative of villains and heroes. My father sacrificed his life, in some ways, for a team, for a game. You see this with so many young people in the system of football. So I thought it was important to tell the truth about my father, even though he’s caused me a hell of a lot of problems. Similarly with my mother, I had to write through my pain about her abandoning me.

You remark in the book that if someone has to choose between having their mother die and having her disappear, they should choose death.
[Laughs] Well, my editor, who I love and who was incredible, really wanted to take that out. She’s a mother. She said, “That’s a bit harsh.” And it is, but I thought it was a really fantastic sentence. Death is clean, man. When somebody is dead, they’re dead. Now, it sucks, but you know what happened. There’s a date, there’s a time, there’s a body. A disappearance is a complete clusterfuck.

Your arrival at Yale seemed more jarring than it is for most kids. I laughed at the part about mother of your classmate, who told her kids they could only pick between Yale, Princeton, and Harvard if they wanted her financial help.
She says, “The boys want to go to Cornell” — like they just started doing crystal meth. I’m sitting there like, What?

Is this why you said Yale was the “loneliest place in the world’?
Yeah. From ages 8 to 18, I understood my people to mean black people. Everybody was black, so it was, like, cool. After I got to Yale, I realized it was more complicated than that. I mean, this sort of goes to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work around intersectionality. I didn’t have the language for that at that time, but I said, ‘Whoa, wait a second. These [black] people seem to look at me and say, ‘Hey, we’re black and you’re a nigger.’”

What were the critical factors that raised you out of poverty, while everyone you grew up with is still there? It’s not as simple as a Horatio Alger arc.
Around the time my mother started disappearing, and my father had gone to jail, I was living from place to place. I remember coming up with this idea that I if could walk the sidewalk squares perfectly, and couldn’t step on the line between sidewalk squares, when I got home my mother would be back. And it worked once, you see [Gerald’s mother resurfaced periodically when he was young]. So I said, “Oh man, all I have to do is eradicate all imperfections from myself. All I have to do is do exactly what the people around me want me to do. Whoever is in charge, give them exactly what they want, and they will support you, they will accept you. They’ll give you some food. They’ll let you live with them.”

This boy in my class growing up, Mauricio, had a lot of wild shit happen in his life too, and he responded by going out and lying in the middle of the road and waiting for a car to run him over. So Mauricio was sent to the principal’s office, and probably given some Ritalin for ADD, and probably had to repeat the fifth grade, and who knows where he is now. I was the wonder child because I submitted and I conformed. When in reality, the Mauricio approach probably makes as much sense as mine, if not more, right?

The answer to the unfairness and the injustice and the inequality that children are enduring is not to make more Casey Geralds. To allow one Casey Gerald to make it out of these forgotten worlds does not absolve the great crime of allowing the Mauricios of the world, of which there are far more, to completely waste away. I am not enough to justify the suffering of children in this country.

So what do you do for the Mauricios of the world? Do you help them by writing books, or at a political level, through institutions?
I’d imagine you’d need all of the above. If you say, “Well, how do we make the world not hate faggots?” — then yeah, sure, you have to pass marriage equality. But when I say that we’re in the early days of a beautiful and dangerous revolution that has to begin on the inside — that has to touch every facet of our culture and society. It has to include what happens in our churches, so that instead of sending Mauricio to church and saying, “Pray for his deliverance,” maybe we send him to therapy, which is similar to what we probably should have done with my mother, you see?

What are some more concrete examples of what this revolution might look like?
I write about naptime in kindergarten. I hated naptime and I decided that I was going to boycott. Now, first I was threatened with corporal punishment. I still didn’t go to sleep, which says at least something good about me I guess. Then I was bribed. Candy. I still refused to sleep. Ultimately, my teacher let me sit up while everybody else slept and had me write words in the dark. That act of refusal defined my adult life. We have to refuse the old terms.

When I put MBAs Across America out of business, that was me refusing the old terms that said, “The goal of a nonprofit is to scale up huge.” That was a lie. What we realized was, the job of a nonprofit ought to be to put itself out of business. That’s a very different term, and it has very practical applications which means I have to make myself obsolete.

You were totally solutions-oriented when you were younger. When you put your nonprofit out of business and gave the TED Talk, it seems like you turned away from solutions. Your book doesn’t offer a road map, either for other people to follow in your footsteps or for social change. Do you think that’s true?
No, it’s not true at all. People often ask me, “Where do we go from here?” My response is, “Well, where is here?” Where is here? Where are you? There’s no GPS in the world, that I know of, that can give you directions to a destination without first knowing your current location. So when I said this work is to trace the cracks, that’s not just a navel-gazing exercise. Unless we really understand where we are and how we got there, then all of this work is topical. It’s surgical.

I was at CPAC in 2010. The speakers were getting to this sort of Trump-like vitriol against Obama and against progressives. The homophobia and the xenophobia — it was all there. That was 2010 — so why in the hell are we shocked when, in 2016, that virus takes over the whole system? That’s one example.

But it’s funny, I also wrote nine pages of very specific alternatives, actually. Maybe I’ll publish them at some point. I’ll read you a couple: Pack up all your stuff and move across the country to be close to somebody you love. That’s one alternative, which I actually did. That’s why I’m in Los Angeles, which has gotten me in a lot of trouble. Free people from jail. Stop lying to children. Go to therapy. Let’s see. Choose your own family. Leave the church. I mean, I could go on.

I can imagine someone saying that since you found your way out of these poor conditions — since you’re a Harvard MBA now — you have a responsibility to help other 12-year-old Casey Geralds, and there are more effective ways to go about it.
Other ways, like what?

Like community organizing, or the work your nonprofit was doing. You could say writing a book about the granular details of your childhood is kind of a luxury.
It’s a luxury to be alive, first of all, okay? As hard as it is to live in this world. The question for each of us, at all times, I suppose, is, What is the highest and best use of that luxury? I feel very certain that this book, writing it and giving it away, was the highest and best use of the luxury of being alive. Only time will tell whether that’s true. A book is not a McDonald’s Happy Meal. You don’t go through the drive-through and come out and say, “Man, I got it.” Sometimes it takes a hundred, 200, 300 years to know whether a book is going to hold up. I’m going to be dead and gone. I did my job, which was to tell the truth, and I’m sure it will fall on deaf ears for some, just like every other book, starting with the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Speaking of the Bible, as the lapsed grandson of a preacher, do you see the book as being in a religious tradition?
I had set out to write more of a jeremiad. “I’m about to rail against all the shit I’ve seen.” I had seen America from the very bottom to the very top, and I was going to report back. But it became a confession. It became clear that I had to start with a confession and tell the raw, honest truth about myself and the wrong that I had done. Otherwise the whole book would be fraudulent and a waste of time.

But your transgressions seemed pretty minor.
When I say confession, I don’t mean there’s some awful revelation. The tradition of confession is much older and richer and more nuanced in that it’s much more of a … a way of being. If you think about St. Augustine, if you think about the apostle Paul. The reason that confession comes out of a religious tradition is because it is about saying, “Hey, I have fallen and I need some healing. I need some redemption.” If it works, it is all the way down in the language and the most important confessional praise in here in this book is “I don’t know.” You show up for somebody’s personal narrative and you expect them to be certain about everything. You don’t get that from this book. I make myself smaller so that the truth can be larger.

Does Casey Gerald Know How to Fix America?