Author: James Howard Hill, Jr.

"Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." -Langston Hughes, (Mother to Son) I'm supposed to write it in third person but, in all reality, who has SOMEONE ELSE ghost-write their BLOG BIO?!? After all, what's really important information in a blog bio? I've seen the sun set behind the Swiss Alps, danced with Cuban Christians in Havana, but I'm most proud of the fact that my mom thinks I turned out ok. I didn't come from money. Saw a lot of stuff growing up that I shouldn't have. I hate domestic violence. I'm finishing up my Masters degree in Theological Studies at a great Methodist seminary in North Dallas (wink-wink). PhD work is definitely on deck. I started this blog because I want to own my own voice/content. I started this blog because I want you to own yours too. I also have Kinfolk, from underground rappers to womanist theologians, who ai vibe with extremely well and you'll be reading their work on here from time to time. I consider myself Ontologically Hip-Hop and my work is oriented from that perspective. My wife is white. My mom is Black. My soul belongs to the Struggle. Oh yeah, I, too, am America.

An Open Letter to Southern Methodist University, The Perkins School of Theology, and The Center for Faith and Learning Regarding the Upcoming Event entitled: “Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, or Something Else”

My Dear Fellow Members of the SMU/Perkins Community,

First allow me to commend all those whose hands have labored to put this program together for seeking to address one of the preeminent issues of this contemporary moment. I also would like to express my sincere respect to all of the panelists invited to lend their thoughts, passions, and insights to this discussion. A cursory examination into each of their respective areas of specialization leads no room for doubting whether they are scholars worthy of respect. I particularly commend the organizers of this event for selecting Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, a fellow Perkins School of Theology alumni, whose expertise in the area of communications, coupled with her commitments in ministry, will undoubtedly provide much needed insight and perspective. Ergo, this letter is in no way an attempt to obfuscate the brilliance of each contributor or the sincere intentions that undoubtedly serves as the gravitas of this particular gathering. However, by selecting a scholar from the Perkins School of Theology to speak on the panel whose research expertise and trained area of specialization is incomparable to that of his fellow African American colleagues at Perkins, the organizers of this event not only disrespected the African American religious scholars at the Perkins School of Theology whose intellectual labor is well known throughout the nation but have also disrespected the greater African-American community at the Perkins School of Theology. This inconvenient truth must not be overlooked or taken lightly.

I am proud to be an alumnus of The Perkins School of Theology. I consider graduating Summa Cum Laude in the area of Moral Theology and being awarded the B’Nai B’Rith Award for Scholarly Competence and Personal Commitment to Social Ethics to be one of the crowning achievements of my life. The bonds I established with faculty and colleagues alike have transcended race, generations, political preferences, and religious affiliations. Had it not been for professors like Karen Baker-Fletcher, Harold Recinos, Tamara Lewis, Joerg Rieger, Abraham Smith, Jaime Clark-Soles, Theodore Walker, Rebekah Miles, Evelyn Parker, and Hugo Magallanes I would not have found my theological voice, let alone discover the requisite courage to pursue a PhD in American Religions in the area of race, religion, and black political thought at Northwestern University. It was at Southern Methodist University that the term “social justice” ceased to be a facile phrase devoid of political efficacy. It was at Southern Methodist University where I first encountered Womanist, Feminist, and Mujerista Theologies. It was at Southern Methodist University that I began to critically reflect upon the vicissitudes of trauma experienced by my sisters and brothers who identify as LGBTQIA+. Truthfully speaking, I am only able to make the observations I am making regarding this event because I was academically trained at Southern Methodist University, which only serves to make this letter both ironic as well as an offering to the women and men at Perkins School of Theology who taught me into being.

As I discussed this upcoming event with several fellow alumni, we were all taken aback and troubled by the fact that, despite Perkins School of Theology being filled with world-renowned African-American religious scholars whose research intersects the major themes of this particular event in several meaningful ways, many of them were not made aware that the event was taking place at all, let alone invited to lend their trained expertise to the conversation. We all found it befuddling and inexplicable that a School of Theology which has a tier-one African-American Church studies program would not feature at least one professor of this world-class program to participate in a conversation that intimately engages the themes of race and American religions, a conversation that cannot be sufficiently explored without engaging critically with both the historic and contemporary legacy of the Black Church. This causes one to inquire why SMU even bothers having a Black Church Studies Concentration if the world-renowned African-American scholars who teach the bulk of the courses therein are not even invited to speak on a panel that intersects with their level of expertise. Did the framers and organizers of this upcoming event assess the critical inquiries that would undoubtedly surface once it was made known that a school that uses the intellectual labor of Black religious scholars to recruit black seminarians did not consider those very same scholars as being the obvious choices to explore, from a position of expertise, both the continuities as well as the disruptions fusing together black religions, this contemporary movement for black lives, and the black radical tradition writ large? Can any SMU faculty member or administrator name a cadre of scholars more qualified to cogently articulate how black religions in general and the Black Church in particular negotiates, countervails, and triumphs over the necropolitical theologies latent within the interstices of American liberal democracy? Are the framers and organizers of this event prepared to go on record saying the sole religious historian from Perkins selected to speak is the most qualified voice in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on these complex and pressing issues, let alone the most qualified voice in his department? I say this, once again, acknowledging that, in the area of his concentration and specialization, he is one of the most respected voices in all the academy. However, I think no one within the academy will balk at acknowledging the fact that the intersection of critical race theory, black religions (particularly Black Church Studies at the intersection of racial sites of terror), and black political thought are not part of those myriad trained specializations.

Above all, I am concerned how such a myopic gesture may damage the academic integrity of Southern Methodist University writ-large as well as the Perkins School of Theology in particular. What does this gesture say to current black students of theology studying at Perkins –especially those who aspire to one day pursue doctoral studies? Surely, considering the fact that Perkins School of Theology taught me the pernicious permeation of inequality in the ministry and the workplace, Perkins will not allow themselves to stand behind a move that, if carried out, will go to show their students of color, particularly Black women training specifically in the areas of systematic theology, social ethics, and African-American Church History, that no matter how hard you work, no matter how many books you publish in a particular content area, no matter how many conference presentations you deliver and no matter how many articles in an area of specialization you have published in peer-reviewed journals, there will always be a white man who has not written the books you have written, presented at the conferences you have presented, who will be considered, nevertheless, more competent to sit on panels that engage in your research all because he is, in fact, a white man who is well respected in his general field of research–research that, at best, loosely engages on the material you have sacrificially spent your academic life pouring over. In lieu of what to everyone should be obvious, albeit uncomfortable, statements of reality and truth, I, as a proud alumnus of the Perkins School of Theology, am calling on the renowned and esteemed Dr. Ted Campbell to make a gesture of solidarity this week by removing himself from the panel in favor of one of his many qualified colleagues. Such a gesture would not only preserve the integrity of the event; it will also provide alumni like myself sufficient cause to continue encouraging aspiring black seminarians to consider Perkins as a space that affirms, encourages, and positions black religious scholars for success.

SMU and the Perkins School of Theology are both better than this.

I know, because Perkins taught me to be better than this.

Grace and Peace,

J.H. Hill, Jr., M.T.S.

(Un)Made in America, or, In Defense of Black Valor

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“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” –Thomas Paine

“America is such a paradoxical society, hypocritically paradoxical, that if you don’t have some humor, you’ll crack up.” –Malcolm X

            Last spring, I received a call from a former student that deeply disturbed me.

“These teachers are hypocrites. They teach us to be leaders but punish us once they discover we have something to say!”

A month earlier, this student of mine – let’s just call her Candace –was harangued by several teachers and classmates for wearing a t-shirt in support of the liberation movement for Black Lives.

“That shirt is inappropriate”, said one teacher.

“Are you sure you don’t have another shirt in your locker that you can change into?” inquired another.

To be sure, Candace’s crime that morning was not wearing a black t-shirt with a slogan on the front. Her offense, truth be told, was rooted in her indefatigable resolve as a young Black woman to resist being interpolated into the imagination of the state. Candace’s brazen display of agency and bodily autonomy served as a visceral reminder that her Black flesh could not be disciplined, conditioned, or coerced into docile, state-sponsored conformity. While her school prided itself on raising up so-called world leaders, Candace’s èclat exposed that the edifice of public education was only materially invested in developing Black youth who would internalize the imperativeness of obedience without ever interrogating the proclivities of power and authority. However, as harrowing as that particular day was for Candace, it was the violent irony that would take place on another baleful day that would lead her to discover once and for all that many of her teachers and administrators were little more than a murder of hypocrites.

On the day Candace called me, she arrived on campus to see her high school adorned in blue. There were blue ribbons tied to the trees, fences, and door handles. Draped just above the front door was a large banner that read boldly “Back the Blue”. For the record, it was not the blue-ness of the school that viscerally disturbed Candace. What caused a rupture in the catacombs of her racialized soul was the sight of teachers and administrators –the same teachers and administrators mind you -who told her that her shirt was inappropriate and her politics had no place in the classroom proudly wearing blue shirts that read “Back the Blue”. What made Candace physically nauseous was the sight of White classmates mockingly wearing white t-shirts with the words #bluelivesmatter written in Sharpie, an overt co-optation of a movement Candace was told by teachers less than a month earlier was unsound, morally bankrupt, and categorically divisive. Ironically, these very same teachers failed to register the blatant contradiction seeded in their affable demeanor oriented towards white students wearing a co-opted version of the same shirt Candace wore. Upon seeing Candace, each teacher went out of their way to acknowledge her and let her know how good it was for them to see her.  Candace realized in that historical moment an important truth that many Black folks come to understand much later in life; her politics were only valid and sanctionable if it served the metapolitics of the state. Her teachers were not disappointed in her because she was political; they were vexed because her politics could not be tamed and fettered within the white, pedagogical gaze. Though her school claimed to hold valor as a virtue, Candace came to understand that American valor must be mediated through the altar of the white American imaginary. Bowing at the foot of the altar of the sacred myths that frame the racialized American republic is, in fact, the precondition of American valor.

Valor. The act of showing boldness, courage, and determination in the face of great danger. While Candace had known her whole life what the word valor meant, she did not understand valor in proximity to whiteness and the protection of white property and the white American imaginary until her own valor was anathematized. While she was taught to valorize Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Stamp Act Riots of 1765, and the Pine Tree Riot of 1772, the names of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, John Brown, and Gabriel Prosser were never lifted up in her 12 years of public school education. While she was taught to valorize Betsy Ross’s flag, Clara Barton’s humanitarianism, and Annie Oakley’s precision with a rifle, she was never taught to valorize Harriet Tubman’s shotgun nor was she taught to valorize Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s groundbreaking, patriotic investigative journalism concerning the unatoned bodies of black women and men who were sacrificed on America’s lynching trees.

During my conversation with Candace on that exhausting spring afternoon, I tried my best to encourage her by affirming both her rage as well as her vision. Candace’s valor rests in her psychic connection to her ancestor’s understanding of an (un)made America –an America that has not yet been made, an America that exists though having never been a voluntary, conscious creation wielded by all inhabitants. Candace recognizes the (un)made-ness of both her high school and the nation she was born into. Candace’s valor abides in her unassailable commitment to being a free agent determined to actualize her destiny on her own terms within a nation that only knows what it means to be reflexive in the face of conflict.

Candace’s valor is inspiring. Candace’s valor is the pedagogical first fruits of a made movement. And it is my responsibility to defend her and valorize her, and those like her, with all I have.