Sound of the Genuine

Dreams and Hauntings

April 29, 2022 FTE Leaders Season 2 Episode 10
Sound of the Genuine
Dreams and Hauntings
Show Notes Transcript

James Howard Hill, Jr. is a scholar of religion and Black studies, photographer, and documentarian. He is currently the Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Oklahoma where his research and teaching examines 20th and 21st century US. Religious History (emphasis on Black Religious Experiences throughout the Americas) and the Politics of Black Popular Culture. In 2020, Hill, Jr. was awarded the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetics in recognition for his contributions as an artist and scholar whose work reflects a commitment to the role of imagination, art, and embodiment in faith and reflection on religion. His scholarship has been recognized and supported by The Heidelberg Center for American Studies (Heidelberg, Germany), The Henry Luce Foundation (Sacred Writes), the Forum for Theological Exploration, and The Louisville Institute among others.

Twitter: @james_hhilljr

Dr. Jorge Juan Rodríguez V is the son of Puerto Rican migrants who came to the United States a year before he was born. Jorge grew up with his parents, grandmother, and uncle in an affordable housing community in urban Connecticut. His story has propelled his academic journey, leading to degrees in biblical studies, social theory, liberation theology, and a Ph.D. in History from Union Theological Seminary.

Dr. Rodríguez’ experience in higher education and academic work in religion and social movements has led him to write for multiple publications including Truthout, speak at organizations across the country including the National Head Start Association, and consult with multiple universities to improve policies and systems including Texas A&M University's Cantu Endowment.

Dr. Rodríguez is the Associate Director for Strategic Programming at the Hispanic Summer Program.

Instagram: @jjrodriguezv

Twitter: @jjrodv

Music by: @siryalibeats

Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim

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Jorge Rodriguez and James H. Hill, Jr.

Patrick: Hey, what's going on. It's Dr. Patrick Reyes here with the Sound of the Genuine. And today we have two best friends, Jorge Rodriguez and James Howard hill Jr., who have been journeying through their doctoral programs together. And now Jorge is the Associate Director of the Hispanic Summer Program and James is at Oklahoma as an assistant professor doing research, teaching, all the cool things. Now these two brilliant, inspiring, and thought-provoking scholars and intellectuals talk about how do they journey together through their vocation. How they discern this academic work together and how important that is to honor their community, their people, their neighborhood, and each other. So welcome James and Jorge. All right guys, I'm glad you joined us on the Sound of the Genuine – Jorge, James…doctors! Thank you for being on here, how y'all doing? 

James: I'm well family. I'm glad to be here with you all. Looking forward to the conversation. 

Jorge: And I'm cooling down cause it's hot here in New York City. 

Patrick: That's a good place to start so we'll start with you, James. Tell me about yourself, where you grew up, who are your people?

James: Okay, so we're already in the deep! So growing up is rough for me, but even naming home, like I don't really know man. Like I guess the way that I see the twinkle in other folks' eyes when they talk about home and great memories and it's like, we moved around so much - sometimes was displaced, and other times we were just nomadic for multiple, myriad reasons. Home is right now wherever my family is and so at this moment, home is Norman, Oklahoma. My people, you know, I have family of choice, I have family of origin.

Home is not a simple term for me, neither is people. Right? I've been able to gather a people, a village, which, you know, you all are part of that for me - you know, constituent of elements of that. But yeah, I believe this will resonate for a lot of the listeners - home and people are fraught concepts that I've only recently been able to make peace with the fact that when I get into spaces, who's my home, who's my people…I don't have as simple as a response, as you know, many of my colleagues would have with that. And I've learned to be cool with that.

Jorge: As soon as you asked that question, Pat, I was thinking about the fact that over the years, James and I have had such generative and at times very hard conversations about this very idea, in part because that is an easy question for me. I was born and raised right outside of Hartford, Connecticut in this little affordable housing community with my mom and dad and my uncle, and my grandmother. And it was just like this little 16 units all attached to one another with a courtyard in the middle and that was the community that raised me. My family's from Puerto Rico, they came a year before I was born. And I think for a long time I was trying to situate myself within Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican discourse, because I didn't really feel like I was from here, but then I would go to the island and not really feel like I was from there.

But over time I've come to just sit with the fact that I am from diaspora. I am from this little affordable housing community. I am from this diverse community that raised me and in a literal village, in so many regards. You had the neighbors who would discipline you and ask you what the hell you were doing in the same way that your mama would. That was where I was born and raised and where those values and those kind of central elements are what I bring to where I live right now in New York City. I've been in New York City for eight years at this point and we're looking to settle down for many more years. My wife is a teacher here in the public school system and we want, we've always wanted to live near the kiddos she teaches. James and I, over the years, have talked about this because for me, concepts like people and home and community are so central to how I shape my own narrative and who I am as a person. And James has challenged me to think, that's cool because it is your story, but at the same time, it's not the story for everyone. So how do we hold space for the fact that for some folks, community…home, is actually a place of violence, and a place of terror, and both those things are true. I answer it from what is true to me and also holding space for, as James said, the complexity of narrative in that question.

Patrick: James, and I want to come back to you on that, as you think about…your words are home and people are not easy. That's not just complexifying them, it's just those aren't categories that necessarily fit even a question. So let me try to reframe as you're growing up, progressing through your own age stages, your stages of life, when you're a young person, how do you dream? What are the dreams of a younger James, in a context where home and people are more than just complex notions for you, they’re disconnections, they're places of fracture? 

James: Now that's a great question family. I think of that Yasiin Bey line from a freestyle comes to mind. He says, “Mr. Smartness, keep moving with your smartness, we're too busy surviving to argue about Darwin.” Oftentimes I was too busy surviving to think about dreams, right?

I wasn't even thinking that some of these terms would be, you know, generatively challenging for me. So as I'm listening to you, like I would love to say, and I think I have at times in our collective spaces, used this language in a sort of aspirational sense, but it never really…it doesn't map on either.

Cause I was just surviving. You know, I'm very open with my story right now. I'm a childhood survivor of domestic violence. I'm a survivor of housing insecurity. Drug and alcohol addiction and strongholds were prevalent in my household, but I don't use those as simplistic, stereotypical tropes. You know when you hear this like, oh, poor James, he overcame a lot, you know, those bad adults in his life. And it's like, yeah, that ain't really what it is either because you know, I've seen my father in particular - I'm very open about the fact that there's hauntings, there's horror, there's violence, but I've also seen that man cry in front of altars.

I've seen him weep before the throne of God, you know, as he would signify it as such. I've never lived a day in my life not knowing he loved me. He always told me he loved me. He always hugged me. He always kissed me on the forehead and he sings gospel songs while washing dishes. So like the horror is braided with the fantasy.

You know, my father was an 18-year-old black boy from Central Texas shipped off to Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, that black men didn't really have a chance, right? And so the older I became, I began to really filter and think through his horror, his hauntings as a lens to look at what then happened to me. 

And so I just want to go back to that aspect of dreaming. I wasn't really a dreamer in the macro sense or the meta-sense. Like I was a studier, like the more things became violent, the more things became haunting and traumatic, I would just read more. Also to add to the complexity, my dad is a Baptist minister. And so I saw the things I saw and then he would give me a verse, you know, which I now use in my art practice.

Children obey your father, children obey your parents, you know, For such is the will of God and he would give these verses after like I just...I know what I know I've seen what I've seen, you're doing what you're doing, but yet there's these verses that even to this day, to the degree that he still wants to pop up like a haunting into our lives, he still has Bible verses to really try to control the situation. And so the language of dreaming doesn't map on for me as much. Like study, because my dad was a Baptist minister and he used the text to sort of ground his control and ground his authority, so I wanted to read that same text to sort of either confirm his control, confirm the violence, or find a way to counter it and unsettle it.

And I think that for me, that leads to why I pursue the work I pursue. I pursued theological education, religious studies, not because you know, a whole bunch of texts gave me hope and inspiration. I really studied this stuff to really work out my own haunted existence in the world.

Patrick: And Jorge. I'm thinking about this, you know how it's leading James into working through these questions around home, community, dreams. What does that spur for you? I'm thinking of the picture you painted with all of this community around, what are you thinking as you're coming up? How are you imagining your future adulthood as a kid? Are people speaking over your life? Are you able to just say, I want to be X, Y, and Z, or I want to do X, Y, and Z? What's that like for you?

Jorge: I would say perhaps different to what James shared, dreaming was and continues to be a central aspect of who I am as a person, both in a literal sense and in the more figurative sense that we use it. In the literal sense, because I come from a family of dreamers, and I mean that like religiously. Like my dad's family, I came to find out later, they're all Espiritistas so they're all connecting with something más allá as I say in my work, something more, something beyond... that kind of collapses the distance between whatever the supernatural and the natural is. When people had dreams in my family, especially my grandmother, especially my mother, everyone would sit down and listen to what the dream was and try to understand and unpack what it was.

I mean that in the literal sense, grandma having a dream about something that's going to happen to the family and really needing to sit and dissect with what's going on with the family? You know what I mean? It's something that I started picking up later on in my teenage years, dreaming about things that might come along and you know needing to sit down with an elder and really patch that together.

So dreaming in the religious spiritual sense is such a fundamental part of your life and existence, the idea of dreaming in the figurative sense of trying to imagine the future otherwise isn't that far of a leap. Growing up, I always dreamed about what would come next. Our life wasn't easy for a lot of years. My dad kept getting fired from jobs. We didn't have all that much money. I remember for many years, the main staple was white rice with a fried egg on top - like that was dinner, that was lunch, that was breakfast. That's just what you did in life. Because romaine lettuce was $3 but a 20lb bag of rice was also five. Which one was going to last longer?

Even though we had those economic challenges and my parents went through challenges as well and I've had challenges with my father specifically, that we've worked through and overcome through a lot of therapy, I always had time to dream.

A story I share often is I was three years old playing in a cardboard box in my living room and we didn't have any furniture cause…we didn't have any furniture. And I remember coming out and saying, one day I'm going to be Dr. Rodriguez. And that was just like the vision of a small child and I didn't know what that meant. Folks in my family hadn't really gone to college. I didn't know any doctors, but it was just what it was. The line between the literal dreaming and the figurative dreaming is blurred in my family. That just has always been what it was. 

I'll just say this, where the study came in is that the dreaming also always influenced my own social understanding of the world. Like I remember growing up poor and going to an elementary school with all the rich white kids because my parents had school choice. And I remember thinking, why do they live such a different life than I do? And particularly at the Scholastic book fair, why can they buy all these books and I don't have money to buy any books? And I would say that where dreaming came in there also for me it was, what if the world wasn't like this?

What if we didn't have to compete with each other? What if the books were just free? So later on, bringing in the study, I remember reading Marx and socialist thinkers in high school. I remember feeling just oh, this doesn't feel radical to me this just feels like what it could be. This just feels like a different way of living life.

James knows this, we've been through enough struggle to share this together, but every time that we see things that just could be different, I always lean into the could be different and try to dream about what that might be. It really is the line is blurred between the dreams you have in your sleep and then the dreams you have in your wake.

James:  The reason why the language of dreaming, as I'm listening to y'all, didn't really map on because like I never really dreamed, I had a plan. When you come out like that whole Yasiin Bey, like you're too busy surviving, like to me, the language of dreaming is like, it may not happen, but it could! When you come from families of like folks who like get it out the mud, and you know, engage in various life decisions…I got, folks who, you know, got it out the mud and right along the sort of educators I had folks who were educators otherwise, you know what I mean? And so they're like, yeah, that dream is good young blood, you better have a plan though. You know what I mean? And I think that's why it's important for me to really center in not the abstract, but like, for those of us who really saw that violence... and that's why, you know, Pat is such a mentor and big brother for me. Like Pat was one of the first brothers who really talked about like, not sort of mobilizing his experience, to like get coin or secure the bag. But he was like, when I show up from this space, I can't help but talk about what I saw in the neighborhood! 

But what I really admired about his story when he began to first codify that within his first book and we began to share that it was like, I love the fact that he wasn't like ‘and here's how I fixed it! Here's my constructive move.’ It’s just like nah, man - like I go back there and it's still haunted. It's still haunting. I'm able to do some things, but for everything I've been able to do, I feel like there's a lot of things I may not be able to do. And I say that as I'm thinking about this dreaming and planning as I'm listening to you both like, no, like I didn't say like when I get older, I want to be this, or this is how I want the world to be like, no, like I was seeing violence and hearing violence and experiencing harm.

Certain people who held influence over me, looked at me and said, you're not going to be anything. You know, “you ain't shit.” It's like, oh bet, I'm going be a doctor. You know what I mean? It wasn't like I dream like nah, not like, dreaming as a child... the word dreaming for me signified the potential that it might not happen. 

And also I think of Malcolm's response to a certain type of mobilized rhetoric in the sixties was he was like, to paraphrase, I don't know anything about an American dream, I have what I've experienced is the American nightmare. He countered this language of the dream with the nightmare and said, if you want to talk about the distinction between me [Malcom] and Martin, Martin grew up in a world where he could dream. He had a great mama, a great daddy went to a great school, then went to a great college in Morehouse then went to seminary, then went to Boston.

No, my daddy was killed on a roadside. My mom was institutionalized by the state. Me and my siblings were split up and we became wards of the government. I don't know this dream. I've only experienced the nightmare. And I live in the wake of that haunting.

As I'm thinking about it as a kid, I never thought about the language of dreaming and hoping and aspiring. It was like, nah, I'm gonna get up outta here, bro. Like, I remember like my wife, I've been with my wife since high school she will tell you like you know, trying to spit a little game, I was like listen, I'm broke. I ain't got much right now, but we're going to get up out of South Garland. 

And so I was like, I didn't talk about I dream of this, you know, my grandma gave me the opportunity to dream. Some of us are living in the wake of myriad nightmares and our work is textured by myriad hauntings. And there's scholars and artists in various mediums and modes of creativity who are inviting us to really lean into the truth that nah some of our positions in this space is not to, you know, offer discourses on dreaming, but how do we lean into the nightmare of our existence and build? And I think that we talk about faith spaces, for those of us who go back to biblical stories and texts, you know, there's something about that region in shadow of death.

So even when the light dawns, the light dawns within that region in shadow of death. How do we account for those of us scholars who were born and raised within that region in shadow of death and at one point we don't try to escape that we just lean into it, you know? And I think that's why we write from a place of hauntedness because, as Malcolm showed us, like maybe escape is not the goal. The message is death for many of us in many ways, how do we articulate, communicate and embody, you know, a message where many of us don't escape and we're haunted by so many things.

Pat story, I just keep going back to it. Last year, we also were talking about the pandemic, the brother who introduced me to my wife - my high school teammate, best friend in high school was killed in the neighborhood where we played basketball, was killed in the spot where we, to the extent that dreaming does map onto my life, we dreamed on that ground. We dreamed in that space. I'm not married to my wife if Charlie Williams did not exist. They killed my brother on that ground and I held office hours the next day. Who do I email and say, my friend is dead in my neighborhood. What does my supervisor say to that? What is my chair say to that?

The fact that the brother who in many ways is responsible for the life I have, he introduced me to the greatest gift - he introduced me to the life I said 'yes' to, that's my wife. He's no longer here and I still got to help students write a thesis statement. And my friend is gone and he ain't coming back. And in that same year, there was five others who are gone and didn't come back. What about those of us who bear in our bodies myriad hauntings and horrors? There is no escape and there is no email we can send to relieve the pain, but we still have deadlines and still have engagements. This podcast from my end is a haunted podcast. And I wasn't expecting to talk about my homie who's no longer here, but he's here. 

Patrick: James, just to mirror, a lot of students who would be thinking about even pursuing any sort of thing like the two of you think they have to leave that at the door - leave that neighborhood, that playground, those narratives, those friends, they have to leave that in order to come to this Western, white education. It really brings me back to my next question, with this kind of context you both are describing, I know your first stop in your educational journey is a Bible college, and I can hear the threads and I kinda know, but like with this, how do you end up there? And as you are working through that system, there's a very particular type of education, how do you start thinking about these next steps? And we'll start with you, Jorge.

Jorge: I want to pull on some threads that James lifted up cause it's connected to all this. James and I, for folks who don't know, we go back hella far, in as much as we started this PhD journey together. James sent me a little Twitter message cause he was thinking about going to Union. He ended up going to Northwestern but that opened a beautiful conversation about realizing we have so many similarities, one of which was studying Bible. I went to an evangelical college he went to a Bible college, and then being in these primarily white spaces that were governed... all spaces are governed by a certain type of policing, but there is a particular manifestation of that that exists in these evangelical white majority spaces where their own religio-racial reality of whiteness and Christianity manifests in a particular way that's historically constituted. I went to Bible college, or I went to a Christian college/ evangelical college, first of all, cause they gave me money. But second of all because, similarly to James, I wanted to refute some of the stuff that I was being told. So I started going to a white evangelical church, well Baptist church, during my high school years. I was really deep in it, man. Like I was hella deep and people who know me now are constantly surprised by that.

But you know, the church was a complex space. The white church we ended up in, we ended up there actually, because prior to that, we went to a Spanish speaking Puerto Rican church that was pleasant in some regards because it was culturally responsive, and other ways just the patriarchy and the misogyny within that space made it untenable for anyone under 18 and women, particularly my mother. 

And so we went to the white church because it was also there and had space. And so it was a place of community, it was a place of growth in many regards, you know that's where I got some of my first lessons in public speaking and all sorts of things. But at the same time, evolution made a lot of sense to me and I was being told that that was from Satan, at church. I didn't quite understand why my queer kinfolk couldn't just live their life, but the church said that they couldn't, all sorts of things like that. I didn't understand why everyone was Republican and why everyone told me to be careful the first time a beautiful mentor, Rev. Aaliyah Mahasin Blade gave me a stack of liberation theology books when I was like 16, because I was starting to think about going to study theology.

I remember reading Leonardo Boff in church and people coming up to me - be careful with that, be careful, like that's going to be terrible, whatever. So I go to a Christian college in part because I got full ride, but in part too, I didn't know what a Christian college was. I had no idea about the history of these Christian colleges, of how they were created in so many ways in the wake of 20th century fundamentalism evolved out of Bible colleges or missionary training schools. I had no idea about any of this. So I go to this, at the time I think it was like 92% white, Christian college in the middle of Northern Massachusetts in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation.

And I remember my first week there, I asked how I could take the bus to Target. And folks looked at me, laughing, asking why I would think there was a bus? I went to study theology and to be honest within two seconds, I realized that what I actually needed to study was sociology and social theory. These people are talking about the Bible as if it's like this one objective thing when in reality, it's all constituted from where they are in the world. Long story short, it led to a bit of a crisis of faith and I ended up leaving the evangelical church within two years, and went on to study liberation theology.

But you know it all comes back to these questions of our experiences. What I struggled with and what ultimately pushed me over the edge was these people can't account for death. That really was what it was and James I'm glad that you lifted that up. I grew up, my first memory was going to the funeral of my cousin in Puerto Rico - 23 year old killed in the car. Later on dealing with, in the middle of school years, some drug issues in the neighborhood. Later on dealing with a cousin got shot point blank in the face, and then going to Guatemala and living with folks who experienced civil war and just realizing none of these folks around me can account for any of this. Because their answer is you die and therefore it's all good cause you go to Jesus and I'm just like, how do you deal with the fact that like they didn't have to die?

And I think this is where the dreaming part comes along in too, because for me, dreaming is never outside's a generative tension between dreaming, surviving and making a plan to use, the frameworks that dreams offered. The dreaming always came alongside with things don't have to be this way, so how do we make them not this way? I think that's why I ended up going into administration in so many regards because it just was so clear to me that we made the world like it is by powers and principalities that were constituted in history and we're just as complex and mundane and also sometimes evil and also sometimes good as we are. So how do we hold that complexity and the fact that if it's made by humans, we can also undo by humans, often through revolution as the historical record shows. But then what do we do with the fact that the revolutions often get stomped and killed and murdered? I'm weaving together a lot of threads here, but my journey to Bible college was really leaning into wanting to answer questions that didn't make sense to me. Why can't my queer kinfolk who are literally right next to me, why can't they be okay just living their life? And then studying the Bible to realize the Bible actually isn't that deep on this question.

And even the fact that you read the Bible literally is constituted in your own social historical reality, to then really moving into like the way of saying we could do the world completely differently. Like we could do society, we could do our communities differently, so why are we stuck on this one way of living life? So from there to studying liberation theology, to studying history, to becoming an administrator it was a pretty clear through line in retrospect, but there were a lot of bumps along the road. 

James: I'm so glad you asked this question, Pat, because it's a passion of mine to really offer my narrative to those who are discerning. Cause one thing that, for me, it's important to put this on the record that I'm - for lack of a better word - uneasy in some of our professional spaces, because folks act like all of them were reading radical literatures when they were 17. Like in a real way, Jorge was! Like Jorge can really show receipts to say like, like he said, folks put that literature in his hands at 16. For a lot of us that that wasn't the case for us, right? But like you get around these spaces in the way you mobilize rhetoric to like shoot down other people and the way we just object. Like I have a deep a compassion and sympathy for those who are still in my neighborhood. 

Yeah you can talk about the things you talk about because yeah, you six figures in student loan debt to mobilize that theory! Let's talk about it. Like stop, stop frontin! You were privileged or you were in a neighborhood where you had folks who knew some folks who knew some queer theory who knew some, you know, black feminist thought, like, I didn't know what a denomination was until I was 22. The way that folks get around and like somebody says something that maybe they shouldn't say, and then it's like, you know, there's not an opportunity or an invitation to really walk [with] them.

First of all, can we, I mean, I'm going to get to the Bible college thing, but like Jorge got me going - like a lot of our folks ain't educators, they're researchers and they just need to own that. They're not educators, they're researchers. They go to school, they bank a lot of knowledge, and least spend the rest of their life telling everybody else how much they know.

They don't educate anybody and that's not actually part of their project. So let's just name that. And when you get into this space say, some of you in here may be educated that's good for y'all. I got a PhD and I know some stuff. If you really want to know what you don't know from me, come sit at this table cause I'd be more than happy to tell you how short you measure up. 

That's what a lot of folks do and they call that education. It's never been that it never will be that. I say that because I was awful when I was 18. I wasn't Jorge when I was 18. I was queer antagonistic. I was transphobic. I believed that folks were going to a literal hell and they were going to be in this carceral, cosmic concentration camp for all eternity.

And I was just like walking around Dallas, Texas spewing nonsense cause that was what I thought the world was about. I was terrible! Thank God I didn't have a Facebook or a Twitter account in 2007. I was awful as an 18 year old. You know what I mean? Like I was so sure of myself.

I wore my little whack suits, wore my little Stacy Adams shoes that I got for $60 at Burlington. I went to revivals trying to convince the, you know, a storefront church like I was the possessor of all the knowledge and the knowledge I didn't have was irrelevant to me. And I went to Bible college really trying to weaponize myself to claim more space and authority. Like, that's my story. Like that's where I come from. So the fact that I am who I am, it ain't because like I read more literature. You know the light just dawned on me in the secret place, like no.

First of all, I am who I am today cause I'm in hella student loan debt. Like I took those upper level, feminist theory courses that cost me like three bands. And so like this knowledge ain't free. I'm going to be in debt until I'm in my sixties, because I got all this knowledge. But like this, this knowledge that I have right now that allowed me to unsettle some things, if I never left south Garland, I don't think I would be mobilizing the type of positions I have because there's no one in our communities doing that work right now! Ain’t nobody say, hey young brother, let me put this queer theory in your hands, let me put this, you know, black liberation theology in your hands. Like, no, we were trying to survive! And when your tryin to survive, you say messy things and you say sloppy things.

I just have to say that because for so many years I hid my beginning because I couldn't bring that…I didn't feel comfortable telling that story in FTE spaces. Everybody's talking about grandmama and everybody's talking about how great these folks are and I'm like, I’m going to like mess up the whole space right now because I don't have these warm affectionate I wouldn't be here if X didn't sit me down and tell me…I don't say that pejoratively, I mean like I wish I had that, but like I said a whole bunch of stuff that I look back and I cringe when I sit on my couch, all the things I said and all the people I've had to go back and apologize to.

But I want to say like my going to Bible college wasn't so I can like figure out the world and become a better scholar and theorist, no, I wanted power. Like I'm a cis-het man who like read the Bible because I saw a lot of other cis-het men like claiming little provincial power and I wanted that. I wanted some of that. And thankfully, because of education and because I had professors who put certain literatures in my hand and because honestly I had communities, I had beautiful queer kinfolk, beautiful trans kinfolk who loved me. And that's why, if I'm saying what I'm saying right now, it's not on some you don't hold people accountable or, you know, you can't say nothing any more, I'm not even saying that. Like I have different report. I'm able to be here and people, by the grace of God, love me.

And they love my family because off the record, folks actually loved me. And folks didn't begin a conversation with, let me tell you how much of an eff up you are James Hill. That's why I'm saying folks ain't educators. Like how many people did you actually want to educate and wanted to invite into a deeper truth and you start with let me tell you how much of an eff-up you are and how much you wasted my time?

Read some books and get better. That don't work! It doesn't work. But the thing is, you're not invested in actual walking with people and you need to name that. And you need to name the fact that the actual people who need to be compelled, you're not invested in actually doing the work to educate.

My thing is you shouldn't have to, and let me be clear that's not everybody's job, but I'm not here because I sat in a corner and like books started flying into my face. Like I'm here because someone actually considered it not robbery to help me. You know what I mean? And so I just see a lot that happens today and folks, some folks just aren't honest about their own stories, folks ain't honest about the cost, literally, to get the knowledge that they had.

You didn't get those books on a roadside in your neighborhood. You were in a college that cost hella coin, you took some upper division classes from some well-trained doctors who put some theory in your hands and you were able to think the world otherwise. And I want to own on an autoethnographic level as someone who came in these evangelical spaces, I think one of the truths I'll always keep with, you have to ask yourself, do you want to invite people into a deeper truth?

And if you do want to invite them, what's required? But if folks need to be reached, then you have to have educators somewhere. Like people have been good to you. People have loved you. People have heard you say ridiculous things and like still met you for coffee and lunch the next week, knowing they should have got you out to paint a long time ago. I just, I feel that about everything we're talking about this conversation about death and haunting, because what happens when somebody is killed, nobody is going back and saying like all the bull, the BS that they said throughout their lives, they were just talking about somebody that was slain. What I'm striving to do is I lead with my story to say that no, I don't have to wait until a black person dies to say that they're complex, right?

They were once children who grew up in the hellscape. That process informed and shaped them within many crucibles. Someone needs to sit with them. It may not be you, and it don't need to be you. And a lot of us act like we've always been here, act like we were always in the lecture hall, act like we were always in the archives and that ain't true for many of us. And I think that if we really cared about actually compelling people to think deeper thoughts, some of us gotta be real with our stories - that you went to a Bible college, not because you wanted to learn Greek and become a better revolutionary, nah you really wanted to be a cis-het problem. You were problematic and you were troubled and you were sloppy and you still are, but people still love you and they give you opportunities to get better. To those who have been loved much, you should love much. Those who have been forgiven much should forgive much. To whom much has been given even more is required. Bible college was a mess for me, man. I was a mess in Bible college, man, but folks loved me and gave me an opportunity.

Patrick: What I love about where James has just led us, Jorge as you think about this, and you go through your PhD program, or you get into your PhD programs and knowing that what the world needs actually is better administrators. People who know how to move systems, move money back to our people so that way, it's not that we're first, we're not the last. And James, thinking about also with you, an educator to sit down and do that work to love someone into their better selves, how soon in a PhD program does that come? And what do you need to sustain this energy to be administrator and educator?

Jorge: I mentioned this earlier from the beginning of the PhD program, we were both finishing up our respective masters and James hit me up on Twitter. From that moment we realized, we have a lot in common. We both went to these Bible colleges, these evangelical colleges, but we realized we had these similar narrative arcs. Even though we both grew up pehaps in poverty, what that meant for each of us in our familial situations was perhaps different, more complex. But we had these narratives that we both sustained and it developed into is this deep friendship. I wouldn't be where I am today in terms of my own discernment about who I am as a person and a leader and a community member and a partner if it wasn't for the conversations and the love and support James and I had during our entire program. And that's just facts.

The reality is that pretty quickly into the PhD program. I think for both of us, I'm not going to put words in your mouth James, but I also think you'd concur with this, pretty quickly in, we were just like looking around and just being like something doesn't make sense here. There's a lot of people performing in ways that don't make sense, that don't feel natural. We're going to these conferences and there's a lot of like posturing about, wanting to, I dunno, be the smartest in the room.  And also we were kinda like if we're going to do this thing, let's do it to our fullest extent.

Like damn within our second year of our PhD programs James and I had like, we had published, we had presented, we want to AAR one year and we both presented like cumulatively, something like seven or eight times between the two of us. We got fellowships, scholarships, we got grants, we did the whole thing within year two. And then by year two, we got all that and we were just kind of like but this ain't it, this ain't. We've done this thing to the fullest within the beginning of this program but there has to be more. Because just living a life of searching for the next grant and just searching for the next presentation that this doesn't, and you know James always brings it back, like this doesn't account for the terror.

This doesn't account for the complexity. I had a beautiful, loving family that raised me, [but] this doesn't account for my grandma. I do have the grandma's story so I'll claim that. And I love my grandma, you know she was the one who put my hood on when I got my PhD. But you know, these conferences, these narratives, these performances, these constant anxiety of publishing, constant anxiety of the job market, constant anxiety of everything - it just doesn't account for the fact that in some respects, neither of us should have been here. Both in the literal sense of our stories - one wrong turn on the block and we might not have been there - but also in the sense of like these institutions, as my advisor always reminds me, 50 years ago these institutions never had people of color in mind, never had women in mind, never had queer folk in mind. 

It was only because people took over the streets and then took over the universities literally... that space opened up for us to be here. So why are we going to sell our souls to these institutions? I think that those conversations that we were having about those complexities open space to then say, okay, I think that the language for me, for myself, I think the language vocation is still useful, because having been in an evangelical college, vocation was used all the time.

And vocation was used mostly to mean how you fit in the capitalist marketplace. But that didn't account for the fact that the capitalist marketplace kept firing my dad. The capitalist marketplace kept putting us in a position of economic precarity. It kept putting us in a position where the systems that exist, had us getting whole ass PhDs only to enter a job market where out of 500 history graduates with PhDs there were only three tenure track jobs. So the economic marketplace couldn't be this place that centered vocation. So for me, I still found the idea generative and what I started thinking about was where...and this actually stemmed a lot out of your book Pat, you know, Nobody Cries When We Die, because I really started thinking, where do my skills and gifts intersect with the needs of my community, however I define it, in a way that is sustainable and life giving? 

Thinking through that allowed me to then say, I am being expected with a PhD to go into teaching, and I’m good in the classroom. It's not to say that I'm not like I have some of the highest teaching evaluations like students and I interact well, but when I see educators in my life, I think of James, I think of my wife, I think of my homie David who's up in Massachusetts working in educational spaces. I think of people whose ministry it is to walk with folks through the complexities of their own working it out. And who have the patience and the love to really see people get from point A to point B.  And when I really sat with what am I good at and where do my people need me? And what can I do sustainably that - and sustainably, not just economically, but also in terms of my mental health, in terms of my own emotional well-being – I really thought, I strive when I make it possible for educators to do what they do best. And it’s not just educators but community members, community organizers who I think are educators, political educators in the community. 

I think in systems, about how things are put together, huge puzzle pieces. Not just economically, but socially, ideologically. And I started realizing, I’m good at this and I’ve always done this. It was through conversations with James, it was through conversations with my family and my partner, it was through realizing that the academy that is maybe didn’t really account for us at all and never did, that I realized those little dreams that I had growing up were actually the building blocks for dreaming systems into different ways. 

I don't know what to do with it entirely because of the complexity that James and I always hold. And the reality is that most of our conversations end in just throwing our hands up and holding the complexity. The ultimate dream is for us to be free. And what I mean by that is we shouldn't have to be fighting for housing. I've had to fight for housing my entire life. We shouldn't have to be fighting for a sustainable wage to be able to care for our families. We shouldn't be fighting for healthcare in the middle of a damn pandemic. And yet to have a world or a society where those things don't exist would require undoing the entirety of what is. And I don't know what to do with that because short of literally burning everything down and trying again, I don't know that that will ever happen.

I hold in complexity the ways that in the here and now we can reduce harm and in the here and now we can create space and we can create hope and we can do hose complex realities that make us human. But to answer your question, Pat, I think that what makes it sustainable and what makes it possible to actually discern is people around you who you can speak honestly with and just look at them and just be like, yo, this doesn't make sense to me.  And who will also tell you, you’re making no sense so let's talk through it. I'm glad I'm here with James because James and I did this together and we'll continue doing life together. 

James: Really, I'm just going to annotate on what Jorge said but in the program, sustaining yourself in the program for me - find your folks. In order to find your folks, you have to first know who you are. Who are you? Find yourself first, right? And don't go to a program hoping they gonna help you find you because they’re going to discipline you into something completely other. It's a discipline, so you shouldn't be surprised if you enter a discipline and come out disciplined. It's part and parcel of the whole endeavor, of the whole practice. And I say that because I had to really find out who I was fam. The research is great, as you said let's not get it twisted. I'm competitive in that way in a loving, athletic way. We get busy with the research. I live everyday thankful that I'm here because I knew many situations in childhood where that didn't have to be the case. So I live every day in the light of like naw man, like we can talk about how things are awful - they are, talk about how our professions are terrible - they are, but let's be honest, some of us, we're here and we didn't have to be.

And so that should produce some signs the living. And what I mean by that is, I had to figure out who I was. Like you said, I started off at a Bible college and to go off the sort of, Ralph Ellison trope, I believed that I was invisible, that no one saw me. And I was so blessed when I became aware of Toni Morrison's loving rejoinder, invisible to whom? Right, right? And I think that's how I can shade in what Jorge is saying, is that I had to figure out who James was and what that means tangibly to those who are listening, aspiring, discerning, students. It's simple things for me, I like my work. I love my work. What do I mean, by that I'm in a profession where it seems like the tribute you have to give to say how much you hate what you do. And it's real. 

I don't want to speak that's their experiences, but so much, like I started saying, I hate the writing. I hate the publications. I hate going to class. I hate it. like, I was just performing what everybody else was performing on the timeline cause that's what we do in the profession but like I was lying. It was all cap. I'm a nerd! Once again, I'm in a healthy position. I get to feed my family by reading a whole bunch of books and like nerding out in archives all day. I have to contain myself when people ask me about my dissertation. Cause I want to spend three hours, and Jorge will note, if you give it to me, I'll spend three hours talking about my diss..

Please ask me about writing because I'm a producer. Ask me about the music, ask me about what's in the studio. I want you to come by, swing through and hear what we crafting. 

Like that's how I approach this profession, but I realized that like in many spaces they didn't know what to do with that cause they got around once again, the same banquet tables, you talk about how much things are awful, then you talk about how much things are awful, then I'm going to backdoor with how things are awful. Then you get to James and like I was supposed to be dead like 15 years ago. Or like I grew up in this neighborhood and things are, rough, but like I drove buses for the salvation army and I cleaned 18 wheelers for 100 bucks an 18 wheeler. I'm reading. And like yeah, this job is awful like every other job is awful, Like bro, I write about Michael Jackson and pop culture and I get to teach students what I love and there's principalities and powers I have to contend with every day.

It's awful. But my God, like, do you know that are people who work the front lines Like scholars who write about liberation, scholars who write about decolonizing, can you please stop acting like this is the worst thing you've ever done, and there's no professional like ours, there's no suffering like ours, let's be real about this! Now then let's also be real if you're privileged and you grew up in a great home and you went to a great high school And you went to a great college, had great mentors, then you went to a renowned prestigious PhD program, this might be the worst thing you've ever experienced. And you might not be white. 

And guess what? You're still privileged and being a professor, being a scholar and being a researcher in an exploitive profession is the worst thing you've ever encountered. But I think for some of us, let's be real, this ain't the top 50. Yes. This profession is exploitative. Yes this profession devours more than it promotes yes. All that is true and you remember what it was like when you were 12? You remember the hellscape you have to go through you telling me you'll comps is the worst thing you ever went through in your life? But you say that! Why do you say that? 

I think that's for me, when I'm talking about like a sustaining in the program, I would call Pat and be like, yo, Pat help me out. Things are rough here but after talking with Pat I'm like the things I saw my mom overcome, the things I saw my dad's suffer through, the neighborhood we grew up in central Texas, Temple, Texas, shout out. Like where I come from, James name for me your worst problem right now. And then think of the worst one professionally, the absolute worst. The email you got last week that just…you have to take a walk cause it was such a bad email. And go tell your 12 year old self that's the worst thing you go through right now.

You're 12 year old self would cuss you from here to kingdom come, if you look at him and tell him, this is how bad life is right now. Like that's my story. It may not be anybody else's, but I believe it's someone else. It may not be everyone's story, but there's some of us like this is the precondition to actually freeing yourself.

Is that you're in a profession where we're not nominal. We're not off an assembly line. We've got our own stories, our own experiences. And so we're going to be in this profession and for those who are aspiring students and discerning students claim your story. Claim the royalties to your own story, because you're going to be in this profession.

You're going to be in these organizations, a lot of them black and brown organizations. And they're going to give you a language. You're going to walk in and they're going to hand you an invisible card that says, here's what you got to speak. Here's how you have to comport yourself, in order to keep getting access to these spaces and build your platform in these spaces.

And you have to politely and lovingly refuse that and say, you know what? Here's where I come from. Here's my story. Here's how I texture what I do. If you have the option to seek therapy, please, if you have the resources and healthcare, seek therapy, seek counseling, do that, please.

But you've got to build, you have to build your own networks. You have to build your own community. You may find them in your cohort and you probably not. In many respects, you may find that with mentors on campus, you might not in many respects, but if you're privileged enough to build those spaces outside, please take the time to build those spaces of like-minded individuals. But I can't stress enough. You can't build with folks until you do the time to figure out who the hell you are. I'm James and I may say something at the table that may not map onto your experiences, but guess what it doesn't need to because that's what expands the dialogue. And I think as great as our spaces are that's an area where we can grow. 

Because we're all black and brown and whatever like, some of us come into different spaces with different experiences. And what does it really mean to not be so unsettled when a colleague doesn't speak back the party line? Because that's the thing that like, really, for me to sustain and me to be where I am at OU like last thing I'll say about sustaining in the program, like, the cover letter that are wrote for OU the interview process I wrote for OSU, I didn't go through 20 people to get it approved cause I know they probably would have told me not to be as authentic.

Not to be as open, not to be as honest. That's not how you write a cover letter. That's not how you like, prepare. I didn't go through them because I wasn't expecting to get a job anyway. Because I'm a black man in this market in a pandemic. I'm not going to get hired anyway. I'll be damned if I deny myself the opportunity to be myself, on purpose. And then if they're not going to get me the job, just be James. Talk about the fact that you've been poor most of your life. Talk about the fact that there's hauntings that keep you up at night. Talk about the fact had to drop out of school three times when you couldn't flip the bill. Talk about how you’re a childhood survivor of domestic violence. Talk about how you intimately know housing insecurity. And when they want to know why you teach the way you teach, when they want to know about pedagogy, it ain’t because you read Freire three times, it's because you've been poor your whole life.

And there are screams you can't turn off. That's why I'm a teacher. That's why I'm an educator. I ain’t because I know critical theory and critical pedagogy. Like I know that's what we're supposed to say on the cover letters. No, I care about students because there are screams that I can never turn off. I care about students because I pop tarts for a whole damn month because I couldn't afford to go use my Lyon card and go get something from the cafeteria. I went to class hungry. I went to class experiencing housing insecurity, and I had professors who were too smart to give a damn. To accomplished to give a damn. They had a deadline the next week and they couldn't see me beyond their deadlines.

That's why I teach. And so if you're going to hire James, if want to bring me on your campus, you need to know I give a damn. You need to know I care and you need to know I'm haunted. And I leaned into that haunting and I believe that this campus is haunted. I believe this department is haunted. I believe that our freshmen are coming in haunted. they may not have had the time to work through and work out their hauntings. But all of this is haunted. I wrote that…and I got a job. 

So find out who you, are, be that, and then spend the energy to be around some other folks who recognize who you are, affirm that and expand it. That's why Jorge's my brother. Because we were able to see the distinctions. And I think that's the last thing I want to offer him that – Jorge wasn't like okay, you think like me, we can be friends. No, we both saw things in each other that we didn't find in ourselves. So like Jorge as an administrator is far more organized than I could ever hope to be. 

If I was only trying to hang around folks who just parroted whatever energy I was giving, I wouldn't be where I am right now. And that's why he's so important to my life and he's so important to the life of my family, because when we're thinking about what does it mean to sustain ourselves in this work, I think so important - who in your space challenges you in core areas? Who in the space, when you say things they're not going to give you a “yes, amen.” They're gonna say, “can you say that again? Unpack that for me. What do you mean by that? “And you're like, damn, I don't know. I just thought you were going to say yes and amen and kind of flame me up a little bit, you're going to gas me up. Now I got to critically think about this. And now after I'm thinking about it, I think that's not what I want to say now! That's my advice. Take the time it's going to be two years, it's going to be three years, maybe your whole damn program. Take the time to figure out who you are and never stop figuring out who you are. Then as you're doing that, as you're on the road to that, try to seek out people who will expand your own concepts of who you can be, expand your own horizons of the possible. Because I think in any profession whether you're talking TheoEd, health care, whatever the profession is, there's going to be possibilities within the profession, but there for every possibility there's going to be so many more obstructions and challenges.

And I think that FTE does a great job in providing space where we can really lean into the difference. And I would just, encourage colleagues and discerning students to really offer yourself. Offer yourself, because you're going to get every invitation from every organization, everyone to be a different version, a slightly augmented version of who you've always been. We need you! Howard Thurman said, find out what makes you come alive. What we need is people who come alive and figure out what makes you come alive until you know who the hell you are apart from your CV and credentials.

Jorge: I would also add that I think a central thing to coming to know yourself is accepting the fact that you're complex and that you are complicated. And that the world we live in is complicated. I think so much of what allowed James and I to have these conversations that we had throughout the years that were challenging, I remember there were many times where I would say something I would frame it as, I don't know that I got this figured out.

And then, James would hit me up with unpack that - that's one of his catchphrases. But I think part of building on what James said is that we live in a world, and I think both of us are very much on social media - social media encourages this, we are socialized to be marketable and we are socialized sell. And I think that social media creates these conditions that we don't necessarily understand and we don't necessarily sit with ,where have a product: our thoughts the things we share, our opinions that we sell to a marketplace of ideas that is then purchased and reproduced.

And I think that what we don't realize sometimes is that disciplined in that to always toe party lines solely because that is what is marketable. The reality is that if we sit back, we're actually so much more complicated. We want to be free and dream of a world without capitalism while using money and paying rent. How do we hold that? I don't think that there's a right answer. We want to be writing about our grandmas, in these universities that never had us in mind 50 years ago.

Jorge: How do we hold that? We want to be the best scholar for our people while publishing in academic presses that our people can't necessarily afford to buy. How do we hold that? To James's point, I got to know myself when I accepted the fact that everything was messy, including myself. I got to know myself when I surrounded myself with people who were different than me. And in some regards, I think about James in this regard that we have different stories, we have different gifts, but we have a shared posture towards the world, a shared love towards the world, a shared desire for what we want the world to be. 

And we could sit with and work through the messiness as opposed to running away from it in order to lean into just another version of fundamentalism. We both came from a fundamentalist background. The only difference between the fundamentalism of then and the fundamentalism of now is that the language is different sometimes. But in so many regards, we're being encouraged the time to walk a party line because that's what's marketable in this neoliberal world.

And so I would just say that a precondition for knowing yourself as accepting the fact that you're messy and working through that and trying to be less messy as the days go by, but understanding you're going to continue being messy. I think that that's a theme that I've heard throughout this whole conversation.

Patrick: Here's my last question for you both, I mean I ask, everyone who comes on the Sound of the Genuine this question. And I think you both are leading to it very nicely. I mean like James, you’re on this find your people, but know who you are. Do some of that deep work. Jorge, this sort of deeper discernment around finding yourself, what is it that you're passionate about? What is it that you're good at? How much of where you guys are right now as administrator, as educator, as Jorge as James, as complex people who are holding all these different narratives, who's holding hauntings and dreams simultaneously, holding community and self simultaneously. How much of that discernment is driven by you as a person, as an individual and how much is driven by the divine or community or something beyond yourself?

James: Yeah, that's a great question. Jorge says, I say unpack a lot. I do, but I also use the term braided. My therapist has helped me to see this because of the way I entered the world, the chaos and the beauty we're always braided. It's like the house was chaotic at night, then I go to school the next morning and laugh with my friends and play basketball and flirt with the girl I like, and then go back home to the same violent house and I did that, you know, my whole life. And so I didn't really have this space is really this way, and then that space…it was all coiled and so like to that question, it's braided. It's like, I don't know where the divine, my sort of pointing to the divine begins and James ends. It's all that coil, I look at it as sort of a braided relationship. 

As I'm thinking about discernment once again, our Galilean brother said, the kindom is within. I said first once again to Jorge when we were talking about our relationship to the divine and Theo Ed, I said there is a gravitas that despite my best intentions refuses to let me go. And I choose to signify that unyielding gravitas, that unyielding mysterious gravitas as God. I'm trained in systematics. I'm a trained theological ethicist, but I'm of the intellectual tradition that says the more I learn, the more, I don't know. 

 All that to say that's for me, it's this braided... like it's James, but as much and insofar as James is coiled, is braided with this ineffable, mysterious, poetic, beyond -that's why to quote Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler's Parable, God is change, cause everything we touch we change, that includes our own lives to the degree that we actually put fingerprints to our own existence, that existence is going to change and everything we change changes us. And so as I think about that, it's braided for me, it is the divine, but it's not the divine in ways that may neatly pack onto our gatherings because the closer I walk with the divine, the less language I have. And I think that's why for me, the divine and the personal, the self and the cosmic is necessarily braided and coiled .

Jorge: It's often cliche, but it's true, I am because of who made me and who made me is everything around me. The historian in me wants to really situate the fact that we are contextual beings. and to understand one another, we first need to understand the block they grew up on, and we first need to understand the people that raised them.

And we first need to understand the complexities of that story. And we first need to understand how things that didn’t make sense came into their lives and made sense only when they embodied it. I can't tell you, Pat, how much of my discernment and my journey comes out of self or community or the academy, but I can tell you who my grandma was and is.

I can tell you who my momma is, who my dad is, who my Uncle is, who my neighbors are and were. I can tell you about the courtyard I grew up in. I can tell you about the evangelical college that was the most complex place I've ever been. And I can tell you about meeting James on Twitter, and I can tell you about going to cold ass Evanston so I could meet my godson for the first time.

I don't know that I'm ever apart from everything that made me and continues to make me and I continue to respond to. And that's why I said before, we' re messy, we're messy. Because even the things that made me for the better were always couched within this broader context of complex systems that never wanted us alive. And so I would say that how much of it had to do with me, how much did it have to do with the community or the academy- I would respond and reframe it and say that I am who I am because of the ways I negotiated the world alongside others. And that negotiation was necessarily messy. 

Patrick: Thank you to you, both for sharing your journeys and for, to use James some of your language here, braiding and unpacking and that constant going back and forth. I think what you've offered up for those of us who operate on multiple planes and know that hauntings come with dreams, know that community comes with self ,and acceptance comes with… disavow the kind invisibility, the flip side of invisibility to who, respectability to who, I love how much you all have held your own stories, your own lives in grace, your communities in grace, your own arcs of engagement in grace.

And want to say thank you for holding each other as well, because I think one of the things I have loved about this conversation is to see you all be in conversation with each other in your lives and not try to make it sound like y'all are living the same life. True friendship works people through their narratives, through their own lives, their own spaces and I think this is a really way that I wish the academy, the church, broader society could live into a little more of this complexity. I don't actually think it's all that messy for those of us who like just live regularly. It’s just our lives and I appreciate the way you all are holding it. So thank you again for being on Sound of the Genuine. I love you both. This has been a gift to me. So thank you. 

If you have enjoyed James and Jorge's story, we encourage you to share yours with us. Head on over to and go to the contact page, let us know who you are. Tell us that you got a story and let's get you on the showA Again we all want to say thank you to my team Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, @siryalibeats for his incredible music and Diva Morgan Hicks for putting this show out. We'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine