Blue Notes on Flesh: Regenerating Intimacy in a Racialized World

Author: Antônio Lemos


On November 15th, 2023, Professor Rufus Burnett Jr., Ph.D., delivered a thought-provoking lecture at the University of Notre Dame, exploring the complexities of racialization, embodied realities, and the profound implications for theology and cultural production. Drawing from his expertise in systematic theology and his latest text, Decolonizing Revelation: A Spatial Reading of the Blues, Burnett engaged the audience with a deep dive into the intersections of race, spirituality, and cultural creativity.

Burnett began by articulating the profound impact of racialization, describing it as an imposition of a sociological framework that influences meaning and value systems. Referencing Hortense Spillers, he emphasized how the modern colonial world shapes causality to maintain a certain order until it decides otherwise. Racialization, according to Burnett, extends beyond the physical body, affecting cultural productions, particularly those of Black communities responding to colonial and capitalist pressures.

It is interesting that at the heart of the lecture, Burnett introduced the concept of the juke joint—a space of cultural resistance and flourishing within an alternative sociology. Burnett illuminated the juke joint as a sanctuary for intimate contact, a place where the oppressed reclaim agency and improvise alternative possibilities for flourishing. He seamlessly connected this spatial resistance to the sonic experience of the blues, using Ma Rainey's "Prove It All Me Blues" as an example of how Black artists resist taxonomies and reclaim agency through their music. He used the analogy of the blues note being technically mistaken but pleasurable to hear.

The discussion then delved into Hortense Spillers' analysis of the crisis of intimacy within the context of racial enslavement. Burnett highlighted Spillers' distinction between the body and flesh, elucidating how the reduction of the enslaved to mere flesh robbed them of the power of touch, thereby unraveling the fabric of familial and societal intimacy. Spillers' work invited the audience to contemplate the profound implications of touch, care, and intimacy in the face of systemic dehumanization. It also emphasizes the binary foreigner and citizen.

Building on the talk, Burnett explored the work of scholars like Harry Judy and Thomas Landon, bringing historical perspectives on the complexities of racialized identity and the quest for liberty. The discussion extended to the decolonization of black religious experience, emphasizing the importance of delinking interpretations from primitive and civilized categories. 

The concluding part of the lecture situated Burnett's reflections within a broader academic debate between Charles Long and James Cone. The debate centered on the question of where divine presence is found in Black lives, with Long emphasizing a phenomenological approach to black religious experience and Cone asserting the encounter with the God of the oppressed. Burnett underscored the significance of this debate in framing the theological discourse on black religious experience.

In sum, Professor Rufus Burnett Jr.'s lecture provided a rich and nuanced exploration of the intricate relationships between racialization, cultural production, and theology, using the insightful analogy of blues music. By weaving together historical perspectives, cultural analysis, and theological debates, he challenged the audience to rethink conventional frameworks and consider alternative avenues for understanding and decolonizing the Christian imagination. The lecture left a lasting impression, prompting scholars and students alike to contemplate the profound implications of his insights for theological scholarship and societal transformation.

About the author

Antonio Lemos
Antônio Lemos hails from Curitiba, Brazil. After studying law at the Universidade Federal do Paraná, he graduated in philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, Italy. It was there that he attained a degree in licentiate in sacred theology (equivalent to a master's degree), with a specialized focus on moral theology and Catholic social teaching. His licentiate dissertation bore the title “Perspectivas morais do fenômeno migratório no magistério recente” (Moral perspectives of the migratory phenomenon in the recent Magisterium). Presently, he is engrossed in the pursuit of a Ph.D. in moral theology from the University of Notre Dame. His ongoing research journey navigates the right of migration as laid out in Catholic social teaching and the traditions of Christianity. He holds a particular fascination for the theological and moral principles that serve as the bedrock of this right, while also tracing its historical origins, with a keen eye on the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish scholastic influences. His other interests include virtue ethics, economics, business ethics, and bioethics. When Antonio is not studying, he enjoys drinking IPAs, listening to German heavy metal, and playing Dungeons and Dragons with fellow theologians.