“On the west coast of Africa, across the Middle Passage to the plantations of the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America, there were Africans trying to put together a cultural sensibility—a way of imagining themselves in the world, a way of critiquing their condition, and just a way of being a regular human and chronicling everyday reality, including humor, love, luck, and misfortune,” said Burnett, an assistant professor of systematic theology at Fordham. “They did a great deal of this through music.”
Burnett’s work explores how divinity emerges in Black life. He came to Fordham in 2018 after teaching in the University of Notre Dame’s Africana Studies department and Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars Program. He has shared his expertise at panels for the World Forum for Liberation Theology, the American Academy of Religion, and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologies. This past summer, he served as a guest speaker on the podcast “We The Scenario,” where he spoke about the profound impact of his childhood church in Mississippi.
“The Black church was very instrumental in dealing with racial oppression, but it wasn’t always so good with recognizing and celebrating the differences among human beings. It had a one-size-fits-all approach of what a human is,” Burnett said. “What I’m doing now is challenging some of the limitations in how the human is imagined in the world.”
In a Q&A with Fordham News, Burnett explains how his research and two different subjects—music and religion—harmonize together in his mind.
You’re a systematic theologian. What does that mean?
I try to understand and convey the relationship between God and the world from the perspective of marginalized peoples. When we look at the marginalized, we usually don’t ask them questions about what they think. Instead, as theorist Sylvia Wynter suggests, we look at the marginalized with respect to what they lack. My work critiques that. I explore how they think about the world.
I’m particularly interested in groups marginalized by race, especially African Americans living in the U.S. I analyze the ways that they have negotiated life, despite the transatlantic slave trade, racism, segregation, and all types of contemporary injustice. One way is through music, or the sonic. As scholar of Black religion James Noel argues, Black religion emerges in the moans and shouts—the sounds—of a people trying to affirm their relation to an unspeakable experience of being turned into property and the unspeakable connection to a God (or gods), which suggest that a meaningful life way is possible.
How does music connect to religion in this context?
Sound was important for Africans forced into slavery because it was quintessential to communication with the divine, especially in many West African traditional religions. Sound is how you communicate with the deity. It’s not just about entertainment or virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. It has a function in communicating meaning, worship, and information. Sound also became a unifying way for enslaved Africans who could not talk to each other because they spoke different languages. They used music to communicate with each other. They developed spirituals, work songs, and slave seculars. The blues became a genre out of a transitionary cultural moment between what has been referred to as the “invisible institution” or “slave religion” and the formal institutionalization of Black American faith traditions. When the blues are read with respect to space, sound, knowledge, faith, and sensuality, we can see so much more than the musical genre that greatly influenced jazz, rock, gospel, rock and roll, pop, hip-hop, and other American musical genres. I look at this “more,” or the excess meanings in the blues, to consider how they play with, push on, and challenge theological ideas. My most recent book, Decolonizing Revelation: A Spatial Reading of the Blues (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), touches on this.
Is there a specific music genre—perhaps gospel—where people tend to feel more closely connected to God?
Yes. As historian Charles Long has argued, we can look to the worship practices of Black Americans as examples of how they gave meaning to their involuntary presence in the Americas, the meaning of God in light of that experience, and their ever-changing relationship with the continent of Africa. What they experienced was so tremendously terrible. It made them question the meaning of divinity. If something like this can happen, is there really any notion of the divine? Long and other scholars help us see that the answer to this question is an emphatic yes.
I read gospel music as a way of evoking and worshipping a notion of divinity that is indeed commensurate with “the agony of oppression and the freedom of all persons.” This notion of divinity is articulated through the Black American reception of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. It’s an affirmation that divinity is real—that God cares about us and that we can feel comfortable celebrating this, despite our conditions. Why? Because if you think about the gospel narrative, in the Bible, Jesus speaks to those who found themselves on the outside of love, care, and justice.
What research are you working on right now?
I’m exploring how the blues relate to suffering. I teach this in a course called Spirituals, the Blues, and African-American Christianity. What the blues is trying to do—and I’m thinking with scholars like Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, and Hortense Spillers—is to consider, in a more nuanced way, how the blues provides an alternative to the conditions that flow from anti-Black violence. While the blues are always more or less than what we might want them to be, it is clear to me that “blues people” are trying to imagine another possible world. We see glimpses of that world in the momentary embrace of bodies swaying together on the dance floors of juke joints, in the moans and shouts of blues vocalists, in the spiritual imagination of hoodoo, and in confrontation and circumvention of the oppressive labor conditions of the Jim Crow South. As novelist James Baldwin once wrote, in the blues we find a “toughness” that makes the deep experience of pain in the U.S. articulate. However the blues, as Baldwin also wrote, does not stop with the reality of pain and anguish. It is also a representation of a deep sense of joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.