Odessa’s Son Passed an Exam: A Testimony


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.

Spirit, Disappointment, and the Problem with Matriculation: A 2018 Reflection

“You look even stupider
Tryna impress them people in power when power abusin’ us.” -Meek Mill, Trauma


Yesterday, I shared with a friend my biggest disappointment in 2018. While 2018 has not lacked any shortage of political frustrations and confusions, nothing has brought deeper disappointment than the realization that there are many folks who deploy Spirit-language but categorically discourage others from allowing the power of Spirit to fully manifest in their own lives. In seminary, I was taught that Jesus was a construction worker, a day-laborer. As a day-laborer, he spent most of his life working with his brothers on imperial projects, building amphitheaters and homes for the wealthy. Then, around the age of 30, I was taught that something happened to that young Brother. Though respective theological traditions provide varying interpretations on what exactly inspired the shift from construction worker to rural prophet, most agree that Jesus, himself, attributed the shift to the power of Spirit. Gaining strength from words codified in the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus declared:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Jesus’ career-change wasn’t governed by the laws of reason.

It wasn’t reasonable to be a landless peasant critiquing a murderous empire.It wasn’t reasonable to put your mother and your siblings in a precarious position because of your beliefs concerning the politics of a people. It was not reasonable to give yourself over to police forces that would brutalize your flesh and lynch you naked in front of your mama. None of this was reasonable.

The gospels reveal that, for the better part of three years, folks from all walks of life sought to reach Jesus for the purposes of warning him the guaranteed failure, the categorical  unreasonableness of his youthful zeal. But Jesus was not principally governed by the gravitas of reason. He was compelled by Spirit.

Anyone who knew me six years ago knows that no Black man worked harder to be an evangelical than me. I showed up to all the Bible Studies. I was a faithful and dedicated youth pastor. I lived in Europe for three months and served as a youth pastor to children whose families served in the U.S. Air Force. I put Greek and Hebrew to memory and read everything from Wayne Grudem to Charles Spurgeon. No one was more committed to the God of white evangelicals than James Howard Hill, Jr.

Then August 9, 2014 happened.

I woke up later than usual, logged on to Twitter, and saw what the whole world saw; I saw Mike Brown’s body violently detached from Mike Brown’s spirit. I saw Canfield Drive. I saw Ferguson, Missouri. I saw the ending of one world and the advent of another. My life forever changed that day. I watched live as neighbors begged white officers of the state to grant dignity to the body of our Brother by removing him from the street. I watched the white officers ignore them all as if the Blacks residents of Ferguson, Missouri lacked the capacity for speech. The Spirit of the Lord(e) fell upon me that day and has never left.

I would never write another paper the same again. I would never to white folks the same again. Never again could anybody tell me any version of the “this is what you have to do when you get in front of these white folks” speech.

I spent my whole life trying to perform and preach and write and study to the pleasure of white folks and they still killed our Brother and called him a demon in front of a grand jury. In service to whiteness, Trayvon was killed. And Sandra. And Tamir. And Rekia. And Philando. And Oscar. And so so so so so many more. Meanwhile, I was being coached to speak to the pleasure of white folks in order to get a degree and be successful. I was being told to fasten the mask that Paul Laurence had to wear; the mask that James Hal knew he had to keep on if he wanted to save his degree as a young doctoral student at Garrett Seminary/Northwestern University. With every fiber in my body I am convinced that they wore the mask that “grins and lies” in hope that, one day, we would be able to join hands and sing in the words of the New Black spiritual, #MaskOff.

Mike Brown was dead, I was a seminarian, and the Spirit of the Lord(e) found my student id number and refused to let me go.

I write all of this not expecting colleagues who have no investment in Spirit language to find resonance. I refrain from using Spirit language when I am around them because there is simply no place for this language within their lexicon of reason. What pains me, however, is when folks who deploy Spirit language, who know about the gospel and ancestral traditions, when folks who know the imperial conditions that put Jesus on that tree tell me to place Spirit to the side and “get this money.” I am bothered by folks who lionize Cone and Cannon but put matriculation-through-a-white-supremacist-program over Black dignity. Not everyone feels the Spirit upon them in the same way -and that’s fine. It’s not even my place to tell anyone that they should feel the Spirit animate them in this political manner.

What I am saying, however, is that when you encounter someone who is truly led by Spirit to confront injustices head on, when you meet someone who refuses to sing the same tired anthems as usual, who refuses to show white folks that they know how to place their right hands over their hearts in their presence, when you see folks refusing to matriculate at the expense of their Black soul, don’t discourage them.

Don’t discourage them because they are meeting issues head on that you -perhaps for valid reasons- could not. Instead, support them. Encourage them. If you can’t do anything else, for the love of all things holy, stay out of their way.

This year, I have encountered many people who are visibly discomforted by the dialectical tension abiding in the relationship between  Spirit  failure. For them, the Spirit calls them to be a success, and anything other than a certain conception of success is abject failure. To not be minted as a PhD would be a seismic failure. To not land a tenure-track job would be a colossal failure. To not pay back their unrighteous student loans would be a direful failure. And I empathize with them. At the same time, I am also reminded of the words of James Cone, who spoke of the cross of Jesus as a certain “success-through-failure.” In that same address, Cone declared that, while he was sure that Black people of the Christian faith possessed a certain Spirit, he questioned what type of Spirit they possessed.

  Cone insisted that, according to a particular view of history, “JESUS FAILED!” The cross, a first century lynching as Cone helped us see, was a categorical and signified failure. It is what the community -and God in Cone’s configuration -does with that failure, however, that allows it to be transmogrified into the ultimate symbol of success.

With Cone’s teaching and the Spirit’s Power animating my pursuits, I can tell anyone passing my way that I am a 30 year old Black man living in the United States of America who is no longer afraid to fail. God knows I was not always able to say this with conviction. Today, however, I am not afraid of providing such testimony because I know that I am not writing Comprehensive Exams, drafting a prospectus, writing and defending a dissertation, and landing a teaching gig all to and for the glory of a white peanut gallery. I am pursuing this work because I love this work, because I am anointed to do this work, and because I am able to bring my full self to this work.

The moment anyone in this profession tells me that James Howard Hill, Jr. cannot/must-not be found in the work that bears James Howard Hill, Jr.’s name is the moment I will gladly leave and pursue something that will allow me to bring my full Black self along with the Black name my Beautiful Black great-grandmama gave me.

If abolition of these manifold systems of oppression is my goal, how can a self-debasing quest for matriculation ever be my principle prize? How, when I know that I do not come from a matriculating people; nor do I come from a matriculating faith tradition; nor have I ever felt called to follow a Spirit leading me towards a Golgotha otherwise known as acceptance. As the elders of my tradition would sing, “Everybody talkin’ ’bout Heaven ain’t goin’.”  In that same vein, everyone claiming they are led by the spirit ain’t talkin’ ’bout power.