Last night I said I was legit overwhelmed by the news I passed my theories and methods exam. At the time, I was too tired and -well, overwhelmed- to explain why this news moved me the way it did. As I was preparing for the exam, I was also reading James Cone’s memoir “I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” and was struck by the testimony he provided concerning his grad school journey. He wrote about how he was forced to wear “the mask”, the same mask that Paul Laurence Dunbar told us about, the mask that “grins and lies.” Cone wrote that he had to wear the mask in order to “save his degree.” As I read this, tears began flowing down my face. Cone entered his doctoral program in the early 60’s and was told to wear the mask. I am in a PhD program in 2018 and good-hearted, sincere elders and colleagues were telling me to make sure my mask was fastened when I step in front of white folks.
Sitting at my desk last Sunday evening, I tried to follow their advice. God knows I did. However, almost immediately I came to the realization that most of these beautiful, sincere people simply did not know me. They did not know that, for 7 years, I put my Blackness to the side in service to the god of white evangelicalism. NO ONE wore the mask in front of white folks better than James Howard Hill, Jr., and I still had jobs stripped away from me, churches renounce me, and scholarships mysteriously removed from my account the moment white folks found me disposable. I realized that many of these beautiful folks in my life were speaking to me out of the sincere fear of losing everything. What they did not know is that I LOST everything WHILE wearing the mask. It was in the wake of masked failure that i first decided to pursue graduate studies! I grinned in front of white folks -and I failed. I laughed in front of white folks -and I failed. I lied in front of white folks -and for a short time they gave me a copy of their keys to the kingdom. If I was going to fail this exam, I wasn’t going to to do it wearing a mask that stopped fitting a long time ago; a mask that, if we are being honest, I’ve never been able to wear correctly from the start.
So I took the exam. And I wrote about Durkheim. And I wrote about Otto. And I wrote about William James. And I wrote about Eliade. And i wrote about Malcolm X’s American Nightmare. And I wrote about Saint Oscar Romero. And I wrote about Du Bois. And I wrote about the Wrath of Whiteness and Whiteness as the true Mysterium Tremendum. And I wrote about August 9, 2014. I wrote about Canfield Drive. I wrote about Feguson, Missouri. I wrote about those four hours. I wrote about Darren Wilson. And his grand jury testimony. And how he called our Brother a demon. And how a grand jury considered such a theological claim to be “reasonable.” And I talked about how Mike Brown’s murder was the subjective necessity of history that Kant told us about in his conception of the “cosmopolitan need for political security.” I wrote my ass off. I wrote my ass off. I wrote my ass off. I emptied out everything I had in that three-part essay until nothing in me remained. Kenosis in the highest sense of the word. And then I sent it off to Northwestern -fully prepared to hear that my arrangement of the material did not reflect a mind at work and was not worthy of a pass. I also knew that exams are ethical documents and I refused to put my family’s name on a project that did not contain the spirit of my family’s sacrifice. I refuse. I refuse. I refuse. I refuse. Ain’t no corporatized stipend worth sequestering who you are for a season. So I sent that exam off to my department, got up from my desk, and threw away that f***in’ mask.
Yesterday, I found out that I passed My theories and methods exam at Northwestern University. Yes, I know that when i pass my community passes -for sure- but make no mistakes about it; James Howard Hill Jr. passed that exam because JAMES HOWARD HILL, JR. wrote that exam, with his own mind and with his own hand. James Howard Hill Jr. I use my whole name because my great/grandmama, Odessa Hill, spoke that name into the earth. My great-grandmama was a domestic worker in Temple Texas who got up every morning and tended to the needs of white folks. She gave my father his name. My father, in turn, gave the name she gave him, to me. And I put that name on my exam, which meant Odessa was with me when I arranged it, when I wrote it, and would be with me in that room when I defended it. She tended to the needs of white folks in the hope that her children would one day *be* Black, write Black, and defend Blackness everywhere our feet touched and everywhere our work was read. Yesterday, I found out I passed an exam. This morning, I cried.
There was no mask to restrain my tears.