Kimberly Burnett

Kimberly Burnett is a PhD student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She studies the role of gospel music in African American literature and its relationship to depictions of Black womanhood.

May 12th, 2021

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: It wasn’t so much a what as a who. I mostly wanted to be Whitney Houston. I would sing into a hairbrush and try to imitate her vocal runs. I thought I was pretty decent. But I laugh when I think about the squalling noise my parents must have heard from the other side of the bedroom door. Later, in high school, I joined the mock trial team and thought I would become a lawyer.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: I always liked writing. I had written for the school newspaper and literary magazine in high school, but it wasn’t until I took an English class as an undergraduate that I started to think about writing as a profession. My freshman English professor was a young, fashionable, African American woman and witnessing her on campus really helped me to reimagine the possibilities for my own future in the field. That experience helped me to decide to pursue a PhD in English and forge a career where I could continue to write.

Kimberly Burnett, her husband Otis, and her two sons Braxton and Bryce

Burnett enjoys spending time with her husband, Otis, and her sons, Braxton and Bryce.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: When I started my dissertation project, I knew that I wanted to study gospel music in African American literature and, more specifically, among Black female literary figures. But, at the time, there weren’t many materials detailing these performances. For communities of color who were not always afforded equal access to literary traditions, for example, I learned that oral accounts were their literary traditions. This challenged me to think about the evidence that I did have access to and to think more expansively about how I define literature.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Reimagining Black womanhood through gospel.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: I am passionate about making a difference in my community. My dad was a pastor, so this was important in my household while growing up. Whether it’s through my research or writing, or through volunteering with local programs, my aim is to make a positive contribution and use my voice to promote change. Beyond that, I love music. I think it is just the soundtrack to life, and I still love to sing — even though it’s just in my car. With the pandemic, I miss live shows, but I look forward to enjoying a concert again as soon as it’s safe.

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