Dr. Todd Craig Delivers Graduate Speech at 2013 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony!

Here is Dr. Todd Craig’s speech delivered at his 2013 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on May 16, 2013 in Queens, New York.  I hope these words inspire all of us to move forward and onwards, especially all you graduate students out there dissertating/struggling towards the finish line.  

STJ keynote via BartonTo my fellow graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff and everyone who’s present with us both physically and spiritually. I will try to make my remarks as poignant but as brief as possible so we can get right to the thing we’ve all been waiting YEARS for…the hooding!!! I plan on telling one short story with three aspects that I believe will give us a sense of what our individual experiences have been and then will hopefully send us off with something to think about collectively.

So this past Monday when I went to snatch up my brand new Harry Potter wizard robes, which apparently are now called “academic regalia,” I purchased three Stoles of Gratitude. Now one would think after all the money that we’ve spent in tuition, fees and all that other good stuff, that we could really get a few Stoles for free…but I guess since we get to keep the robes, I shouldn’t complain too much. The Stoles of Gratitude are described as such: “After the ceremony, traditionally the new graduate presents the Stole of Gratitude to someone who has provided them with wisdom, guidance, and words of support or with financial assistance.” So when I read this description, I knew that I’d need to purchase three Stoles for three people who taught me some of the most valuable lessons that carried me through this doctoral experience.

The first Stole of Gratitude I got was for my dissertation chair, my mentor and my really good friend: Dr. Carmen Kynard. Believe me when I tell you, saying that Carmen Kynard is your dissertation chair and mentor only sets you up to have extremely BIG shoes to fill. When people ask me about Carmen, I say the following, and it was something I would say before I knew one of her graduate school professors had said it: “my mentor has the ability to walk on water, and I’m just blessed to be in her presence so she can show me how to do the same.” Now mind you, I believe that when it comes to my dissertation committee, I have the best that St. John’s English department has to offer. And I think we all can say that about our committee members; we believe in them just as much as they believe in us. So I truly feel that Dr. John Lowney and poet Lee Ann Brown are hands-down two of the smartest scholars and writers in the department – period! But what Carmen has done for me is truly phenomenal. She is a mentor that shows not only by the conversations you have with her, but also by her track record and by her example in practice. Her publication and conferencing output is simply oppressive to anyone who’s not comfortable in their own writing skin. And she is able to do all this, but just remain plain-ole Carmen from Toledo. Of the countless pieces of wisdom she’s shared, Carmen taught me one of the most important lessons of my doctoral career. In the darkest hour of my doctoral program – and all of us have had those very dark moments, where one movement could be the difference between sitting here at this hooding ceremony and opting out for that masters degree – in my darkest hour, Carmen stood with me. She stood with me when it was not the popular sentiment and my situation was most grave. What made this so poignant for me was the fact that Carmen wasn’t there with me in all the comforts of a full professorship. She wasn’t even an associate professor. She had no tenure. She hadn’t even completed her first year, the ink on her signature for her contract was barely dry. But even with that, she still stood with me. This allowed me to understand a valuable lesson that goes far beyond these sayings of “pick and choose your battles” or “stand for something or fall for anything.” What Carmen taught me is that when you know someone stands with the truth on his or her side, sometimes you must stand in solidarity with them…even if you’re on the plank, with sharks circling below you. There will come a point where someone is on the firing line unnecessarily; and sometimes you need to stand with that person so they can be empowered to fight and pave the path for others that must tread after them.

The second Stole of Gratitude I got was for my mom, Ruth Muchita. My mom is 84 years old, doesn’t move a day over 50, and is officially going to kill me immediately after I get hooded for telling you how old she is. However, I’m constantly celebrating her age, because my mom, as a single mother, either completely raised or had her hand in raising her three sons, me, my three cousins, and another cousin of mine. That’s 8 people…she did that alone on a New York City Social Worker’s salary in Queensbridge and then Ravenswood Housing Authority. My mom instilled in me two absolute imperatives; the first was the value of an education. But the second – and really the most paramount – was to NEVER be ashamed of who I was and where I came from. To be joyful in my own blackness, to be proud of my social and cultural upbringing, and to NEVER forget where I came from. Even in the midst of the most abject racism. Even in the midst of the most discriminatory moments of my doctoral trajectory, where professors in my own program would say very clearly: “the DA program in English here at St John’s University was just fine until Todd Craig came along.” Even in the midst of classrooms, where my colleagues would say “you cannot continue to bring the hood with you” or “why are you always talking about THAT part of Queens (you know…the projects)”, I knew that I had to be what my man DJ Clark Kent would call ATF; I had to be the “Ambassador To Fresh” for my community. After all, it was that same community that nurtured and cultivated my intellectual prowess and capability when NO ONE else believed in my potential. So with that in mind, regardless of all things, I was required to be the Ambassador To Fresh – so that my professors, my doctoral cohort and my colleagues who had skewed perceptions of urban inner-city environments, skewed perceptions of the capacity of the African-American male to achieve academic excellence and intellectual success, could finally understand just what we are capable of. So encompassing ALL THINGS FRESH meant that I was responsible for rejecting those notions of invisibility presented to us by Ralph Ellison over 50 years ago. I was responsible for representing my home from the highest hair follicle in my nappy blowout down to the super-exclusive Nike 1972 Quickstrike Shoes on my feet. But it wasn’t only just about that, it was also about how I carried myself in classroom discussions and intellectual conversations that leaked outside of the classroom; how I presented my research and scholarship yearly at national conferences; how I crafted every sentence on every published page BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER MY DOCTORAL COURSEWORK, RIGHT THROUGH TO the 256 page document called my doctoral dissertation. I was AND STILL REMAIN an ambassador – and I was only able to appreciate the gravity and significance of that role based on my community, on Clark Kent’s ATF mentality…and really and truly based on my mom, and her lessons in telling me to NEVER forget who I was or where I came from.

20130516_194940The third Stole of Gratitude I purchased is for my fiancé, Stefanie Douglas. We have been together for almost 8 years, I’m pretty sure that’s considered being legally married in a number of different Commonwealth states. We also share the responsibility of raising our extraordinary daughter Kaylee together. I haven’t shared this story too often, but I will share it with all of you now. Stefanie was a returning student and became pregnant with our daughter while she was still in school. Once Kaylee was born in June, Stefanie still had to complete one last semester to fulfill her degree requirements. So we spent the summer together as a family. And then the time came in late August where Stefanie had to return to school – to actually complete a semester of student teaching. So Stefanie would go to student teaching in Bensalem, PA from Monday to Friday. Then on Friday, she would get in her car and drive up to New Jersey to spend the weekend with me and Kaylee, who was an infant at the time. And then on either Sunday night or early Monday morning, Stefanie would drive back to Bensalem, and continue through a week of student teaching. Now many people said “Todd, you’re an amazing father – you’re taking care of Kaylee by yourself during the week.” But my response to that is Stefanie is even more of amazing mother. Because to this day, I still do not know how she was able to muster enough mental and emotional dexterity to leave her newborn daughter. And mind you, there were tears and crying and all sorts of emotion that can ONLY be explained by the saying “there is NO greater love than that of a mother for her child.” But I never told Stefanie how much I admired her, how much she was my hero and role model for being able to make it through those darkest of times. I never told Stefanie about the times me and Kaylee cried when she wasn’t looking. I never told her about how tough it was for us, that she wasn’t alone. But what I learned from her in that moment is that you must be willing to make sacrifices for a greater good, regardless of what the cost may be. So what’s almost two years of collecting data at the most obscure of places in the most unorthodox and inconvenient times? What’s 6 or so months of 2-4 hours of sleep nightly to finish a dissertation? What’s a year of teaching a 5-5 course load at 3 different schools? After what Stefanie did for our daughter’s greater good, I felt empowered to be able to do just about anything. We always wanted Kaylee to understand that she stands on the shoulders of those who came before her, and that she is cut from a cloth so exquisite that people WILL be mad at her later in life. But if there is one thing Kaylee will never be able to do is say that she CAN’T do something. After all, if mommy was able to leave you during the week to finish school, you can do ANYTHING. Things might be hard, they might be difficult – you may not fully understand HOW to do something…but never will she be able to say she CAN’T do it. Because sacrifices have been made for her greater good, so that she could absolutely do it, without any question whatsoever.

So three Stoles of Gratitude to commemorate three valuable lessons: when you know the truth is on your side, stand with a person in crisis, and empower them to fight on for others that will come after them. NEVER be ashamed of who you are and where you might come from. And be willing to make sacrifices for a greater good, regardless of what the price tag may be. These lessons are not new nor innovatively profound. But they are paramount for all of us to reflect upon yet again. As we progress into fields of teaching and research, whether for educational purposes, corporate America or your friendly neighborhood NPO, these lessons remain priceless and should be revisited as we move forward; for as we sit here in this new academic regalia, somehow someway, someone has done one of these things for you to make your life easier. I believe that part of our job now should be to return that favor given to us by giving a favor to someone else who might be in the position we were in a year or two or five or ten or twenty years ago…especially if that is the crucial moment that moves someone past the idea of “Masters degree” and into the realm of “Doctorate.”

I think that I can comfortably speak on behalf of all my colleagues in this room when I extend my thanks to all of our families, friends, committee members, professors and mentors who have seen us through this process. I also think I can comfortably state that we will do our best to allow your legacies to flourish properly. Finally, I want to apologize to all of you in advance – when I’m called to be hooded, I’m bringing my daughter with me, so please excuse any time delay that may cause.

Thanks for your time and your listening ear; enjoy this moment called our doctoral hooding; congratulations to everyone who has made it to this moment – and be sure to reach back to someone so they can make it to this moment too.