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Championing resilience: Dr. James Howard Hill, Jr. reflects on self-actualization, empowerment

May 31, 2024


James Howard Hill, Jr. embodies many titles: a first-generation college graduate, a North Texas native, a husband and a father to two beautiful children. Now, he takes on yet another title: an assistant professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University.

Hill’s interest in the study of religion came early in life, directly from the community he was raised in.

“To understand the world, you have to understand religion because in Texas, in my neighborhood, that’s how people shamed you and celebrated you.” Hill said.

He said Christianity was everything to his community. Hill’s desire to study religion was not initially academic, rather he said it was driven by his deeper desire to understand the world and his place within it.

Hill said graduate school encouraged him to experiment. Northwestern invited him to ask questions such as: What does it mean for us to think about freedom as something that is carefully managed? How does the country and society treat people who want to be free on their own terms?

Hill said he is appreciative of the support and enthusiasm the department showed when he shared the line of thinking he had for his dissertation.

The Northwestern alumnus successfully defended his dissertation “Undeniable Blackness: Popular Culture, Religion, and the Michael Jackson Cacophony” in 2022. 

His dissertation explored politics, race and religion through the contested legacy of Michael Jackson. Hill said to say we don’t know how to think about Michael Jackson or are uncomfortable around Michael Jackson is not really a conversation about Michael Jackson. 

He said it demonstrates we’re uncomfortable talking about race in the United States. Hill said there is an idea that MJ is a weirdo or gross, but at the same time, we come from a nation that brands itself on making yourself into whatever you want to be. Hill examined what it really means for Michael Jackson to push the American idea of ‘freedom’ toward its limits.

Michael Jackson tested this country on the freedom it sells itself on, and it showed itself to not be ready to live that out, he said.

Hill described his time in graduate school and journey to becoming a professor as a challenging yet rewarding experience that was anything but linear.

“We learn as scholars to hold complexity; we are tasked with handling complex stories,” Hill said. “So, graduate student life is no less complex, particularly if you are Black, minoritized and first-generation.”

Hill said since higher education was not made for non-white, working class communities, it can be difficult to be in these spaces upsetting algorithms. Hill thought about leaving several times after feeling like he couldn’t sustain a healthy mind space in graduate school.

For Hill, and he hopes for many others, it is important to maintain and hold yourself fast to an anchor of: ‘I come from a proud people, and I will not let these spaces take that out of me.’

He said he was also able to vocalize his struggles, receiving immense support and understanding from the religious studies department.

“I had faculty that recognized that it was so difficult for me to make it in these racialized spaces… the microaggressions, the harm that I experienced that people don’t even know is harmful,” he said. “They used their influence, names and status to help me get on the other side, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

He said the students and colleagues he met during graduate school positively shaped the person he is today. Hill said his political sensibility and commitment to people and communities of struggle came from Northwestern.

Hill said he was lucky to meet different people from different walks of life that he would have never meant otherwise. 

Today, Hill uses the interdisciplinary training he received at Northwestern to be an educator in various subject areas. He said he can teach introduction to religion as well as religion and black politics, religion and black popular music and religion, race and climate change because of his training. 

Hill said Northwestern truly trained him to be an intellectual—a scholar that remains intellectually curious and willing to experiment. He now invites his students to be curious as well by always asking questions and not being afraid of where their questions may lead them.

He said he further recognizes how hard college can be and knows many of the students sitting in his classroom seats may be going through a situation similar to his own. Hill said he was always anxious at school, looking at his tuition balance. Hill said when you’re taking classes in the Spring, but you don’t know if you can afford the Fall, you aren’t able to rest like other students.

As a faculty member, scholar, professor and educator at Boston University, Hill said he thinks about the students that have real, difficult situations going on in their life while juggling his course at the same time.

“When I go in every semester, I know there is going to be a student in my class who is struggling and doesn’t know if they’re going to make it because they haven’t had that person look at them and tell them they will get through this,” Hill said. “That’s all I needed.”

Hill said he tells students “sometimes the only hope we have is that we are stubborn.” He said once someone has a commitment to force the world to deal with them, all they need is a person in their corner to help them keep going; that’s the person Dr. Hill wants to be for his students.

His goal for his students is for them to achieve self-actualization—to see themselves for who they’ve always been. Hill said the joy he has as a professor is seeing students who are at the University learn what it feels like to be themselves, without shame or apology.

He said that it took him a long time to see himself for who he truly was; however, Hill said it is his job as a professor to be that mirror for his students. 

Hill said he hopes they can use his class as an instrument to figure out who they are and the conversation they want to have with the world. He said every semester he becomes a mentor to a new student, walks alongside them through the class and material and sees them figure out the conservation they seek with the world.

“The fact that I have the blessed privilege to work with students that are able to have a conversation with themselves that they weren’t having at the beginning of the class, that’s why I do what I do,” Hill said.


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