There we were, about a thousand people gathered at the 2016 TED conference, waiting for the very last speaker of a weeklong lineup of exceptional humans. The session’s host announced that the speaker would be Casey Gerald, who swaggered onto the stage, an athletically built, baldheaded and clean-shaven black man dressed in all black. Gerald stood, backdropped by velvet curtains, waited for the applause to quiet, and then began sharing an anecdote about the time when, on New Year’s Eve 1999, he sat in a church with his grandmother and her congregation, fearing that when the clock struck midnight, the rapture would commence.
Gerald went on to share stories from a journey that began when he was a boy in a blighted Dallas neighborhood and spanned up to his role as the cynosure of a room comprising no small number of the 1 percent. Near the end of his talk, Gerald announced the disbandment of MBAs Across America, an organization he co-founded to connect business students with entrepreneurs around the country. He also proclaimed that he was shirking the role of savior that had been foisted upon him, “because our time is too short and our odds are too long to wait for second comings, when the truth is, that there will be no miracles here.”
Gerald’s magnificent memoir, “There Will Be No Miracles Here,” opens with the same anecdote that began his TED talk, though in the book, he punctuates the retelling by announcing a kind of thesis. “Mine, then, is the story of a peasant boy...and, with luck, God and His miracles or lack thereof,” he writes. Indeed, in just over three decades, what a phenomenal life the self-proclaimed peasant boy has lived.
He spent his early childhood in Ohio, where his father had been a football star at Ohio State University. When Gerald was 8 years old, his father moved the family, which includes his older sister and mother, back to their hometown — the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Back home, Gerald’s father began working for his father, who is, as Gerald puts it, involved in “the greatest business in America: the business of saving souls.”
The successes of Gerald’s grandfather proved enough to turn Gerald’s father into his “supplicant.” Meanwhile, Gerald’s mother, whom he describes as a woman of curious habits, stayed at home applying makeup for a fair amount of the day. We learn early on that she suffered from manic depression and bipolar disorder, that his father developed a drug habit, one that landed him in prison, and that his older sister assumed the role of his caretaker. Gerald’s mother disappeared later, leaving him to wonder for years whether she had died.
Around this time, Gerald started to explore his sexual identity with the help of a new thing called the internet. He did it in secret, since, as he puts it, “I was in the early stages of crafting a new life, or a new story, in the image of perfection.” He also began playing sports, although his athletic success wasn’t immediate. In a hilarious passage, he describes a youth football game where the defense kept blocking his end-zone attempts right around the line of scrimmage. “Goddamn it, son!” his coach said. “Listen to me. You’re embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing your family. Get your ass low, keep your eyes open, and run for your life!”
Gerald lived an itinerant existence in high school until his sister, who had briefly escaped to college, returned to Dallas and insisted the two live together. They scraped by until Gerald came up with a scheme to supplement his sister’s meager income by cashing the disability checks of their missing mother. After a year of this, the siblings discovered the account had been shut down, a fact that ended their hustle but also suggested their missing mother was alive. His sister located her in St. Louis, and they drove to pick her up.
While all of this domestic chaos was going on, Gerald evolved into a celebrated scholar athlete, one recruited by the Yale University football team. And though he hadn’t heard of Yale before that recruitment, he decided to attend the school in the belief that his acceptance had transmuted him into a symbol, into the great pride of his school, town, people.
It didn’t take long after he arrived at Yale for Gerald to divine the ethos of the students and, in particular, the apparent class divide among the black students, who were invested, he writes, “in the distinction between their kind and mine.” He couldn’t shake his feeling of alienation from people he imagined would help him: “The more time I spent in their midst, the more I became convinced that they were the problem — not any individual boy or girl or mother or father but the ideas that they represented, of a class apart, and all the trappings that came with it: the mixer, the galas, the networking reception, the panels to discuss blackness in theory when actual blackness was having one hell of a hard time right down the street — when I was having a hard time.”
Fueled in part by an intent to surpass Yale’s black bourgeoisie, he and a few friends established the Yale Black Men’s Union. He later joined Wolf’s Head, one of the college’s oldest and most esteemed secret societies. Meanwhile, his football cohort matured from a crew of bench warmers into starters on some of the best teams in Yale history. Gerald became not only a team star but a finalist for the Draddy Trophy, which honors the nation’s top scholar athlete, as well as a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. One of the book’s most engrossing moments involves the crisis of having his Rhodes interview scheduled on the same day as the Yale-Harvard game.
At times Gerald moves too quickly to the next scene or idea, when he might have benefited from a more sustained explanation of his thinking. On the other hand, he just might have crafted a consummate 21st-century memoir for readers whose brains have been rewired by Google, their attention always under siege. Gerald also pushes stylistic conventions, with short passages where he writes about himself in the third person or directly addresses the reader. He includes metanarratives as well as letters, emails and speeches. And ever present is the enchantment of his voice, one that is at turns exuberant, humorous, unsentimental, imaginative, keen. While Gerald’s style is engaging, the locus of the book is his extraordinary journey.
Though the chronology is a little unclear regarding the end of his time at Yale and beyond, his odyssey includes tenures in Massachusetts, New York, Washington, D.C., and back home in Texas. It leads him to Lehman Brothers right before their 2008 collapse, then to one of Washington’s most influential think tanks, then to Harvard Business School, where he and a few peers founded MBAs Across America. Along the way, he learns plenty about his country, the elites who run it and the underclass subject to their rule. He often relays his insight with indelible aphorism. For instance, he writes that America is “ruled on the surface by people with authority, ruled in fact by people with power — people, often, in the shadows.”
A few years before Gerald suffered the terror of believing he’d been left behind in the rapture, his fifth-grade teacher assigned him to write a speech titled “I’m the Mayor Now and This Is My New Plan.” Gerald explains that since he was unsure whether he had to deliver the speech from memory, he “assumed the worst.” He enlists some of his sister’s friends to help him brainstorm and writes the speech from his notes. The next day, he recites it in class without botching a single word. He’s insouciant about the deed but his teacher screeches her astonishment. “One night, in slavish fear, I got my homework so wrong that it was perfect,” he writes about the experience. Gerald might have once seen himself as a peasant boy, and maybe deep down still does. But his life, and this memoir, serve as proof of his prodigious talents, of the truth that, for the gifted like him, struggles that range from a serious hardship to a little mistake can yield something miraculous.