Dr. Rufus Burnett joined the First Year of Studies advising faculty in August 2016. He and first-year students interested in the blues host the First Year Blues Review, a radio program on WSND 88.9 FM, every Monday from 10:00 PM to midnight. Spinning Blues, Hearing Knowledge: An Introduction to the Blues Through the Role of Disc Jockey, Burnett’s one-credit course based on this ND Ignite program, will be offered for the first time in Fall 2017.
Rufus Burnett describes himself as a “convert” to the study of theology. “I completed my undergraduate degree in biology at Xavier University, but I was deeply affected by the intro to theology course I took from Fr. Phillip Linden [Ph.D, S.T.D.] as a requirement in my first year. In fact,” he explains, “that course had a Notre Dame connection — the book for the course was by Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.”
“There was so much that I identified with in Gutierrez’s words about the eruption of the poor in history. I was just enamored with his explanation of how poverty in Latin America came into existence and what that had to do with God and Christianity. It kind of jarred me from the sort of Christianity that I had been practicing up to that point, where you go to church, you do the rituals, but you never ask yourself ‘how does Christianity relate to larger political issues like poverty, gender, race, or class?’”
Connecting Theology to Music
After receiving an M.A. in religious studies, Burnett returned to his passion for liberation theology for his Ph.D. “I was looking for a connection, a cultural parallel, between the experience of indigenous people in Latin America that Gutierrez was talking about and the African experience in North America. I asked myself ‘What is the cultural center of African American Christian life?’ and I started looking at all the music: spirituals, gospel, jazz, and — the blues. This is the ‘stock’ that the African American imagination of the divine is cooked in.”
“I think the ‘blues people’ are people who were pushed to the margins of life as the black middle class moved toward access to mainstream civic life. The problem then is that those people claim they are the representatives of what it means to be a Christian, they define faith, religion, and culture. And the blues people say ‘no, no, no … we have our own culture, our own history.’ There was very real risk in taking that position.”
In his work, Burnett found a fundamental question for himself. “How was this religion that was used to enslave my ancestors something they also found meaning in to free themselves?”
“For me, this isn’t armchair theology; it’s the question of how is hope produced. I think we’re still in a crisis of hope and it’s getting increasingly difficult to speak across the identities we’ve created for ourselves. It takes courage to speak across divides and blues people are examples of this courage — that’s why I like to think of my theology as a blues song.”
First Year Advising and the Blues
Because Burnett sees the blues as “a kind of toughness that speaks to the struggles of everyday life,” he sees a strong connection between this musical genre and advising students who are making the transition to college.
“The blues are all about resiliency and grit,” he explains. “Surviving and thriving in hard times or low spirits.”
“Students often need a push to understand that there is a flow, a life, to being an undergraduate. They’re so future-oriented: I’ve got to get my resume together, I’ve got to apply for this grant and this internship — I’ve got to be competitive because I’ve only got four years to get this right. But, in the midst of that, life hits them. And when it hits, well, there’s some blues songs that can speak to that,” he says.
"Blues songs speak with the voice of a people attentive to the ‘hard times’ that life often deals us. The great wisdom of blues people is that they realized the ritual power of naming and sharing their struggles and triumphs,” he continues.
“Advisement for me is blues ritual; it is soul work. It is my hope that all of my students feel invited to the work of naming their struggles and triumphs."
Rufus Burnett earned a B.A. in Biology from Xavier University of Louisiana, an M.A. in Religious Studies from Loyola University New Orleans, and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. His dissertation, Decolonizing Revelation: A Spatial Reading of the Blues, was selected for the Duquesne University Distinguished Dissertation Award for the Humanities and a book-length version of the work is forthcoming with Fortress Press.