Muse Profiles: Jamal Burns

Madison Catrett and Sophia Li

Jamal Burns is a first year student from St. Louis, Missouri. He is considering a double major in public policy and biology. Jamal is involved in NAACP, Duke LIFE, Duke Tour Guides, Spoken Verb, and allies with Mi Gente. He is also a David M. Rubenstein Scholar.   If he could have a song play everytime he walked into a room, he would choose “Unstoppable” by Sia. 

Jamal and I grabbed lunch in Marketplace with today’s top hits blaring in the background. We started discussing our childhoods. Jamal recalled being a hearty eater, consuming anything and everything that was available (perhaps this diet is what led to him being over six feet tall?). His preferred hiding spot was under the sink in his second floor bathroom. More than anything else, he enjoyed spending time with his eight siblings.

Our conversation then moved on to the recent past and present. Jamal said that as a first generation student, his most significant accomplishment thus far was being accepted into Duke. On a related note, he explained that perseverance is his strongest personal quality. “I can take a lot of hits and keep going. I believe persistence can develop intelligence, talent, etc. A mundane example of my resilience would be me making a C+ on my first chemistry exam last semester. Instead of being discouraged or deterred, I worked harder, and my grade in the class improved.” Continuing the topic of difficult situations, we discussed the hardships of college so far. Jamal related that he struggled with the transition from high school to college. He comes from a high school where only 20% of the graduates attend a four year college. Coming to Duke, where many students have friends who attend universities like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, was overwhelming. This transition was difficult in multiple spheres but mainly in the academic realm. Additionally, Jamal said, “Being away from home is a challenge I did not forsee. There are events and circumstances back home that affect me here, and they are completely out of my control.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jamal whether he considered himself a feminist or not; he said yes. I proceeded to ask him to first outline what a feminist is and then to explain why he identifies as a feminist. His response: “Being a feminist is arguing for the intersections of identity and the equality of those intersections between men, women, and all other genders. It’s critical to understand how these intersections of identity play a role in the disenfranchisement of people, especially on a gender basis, and how this can propagate into a form of hatred that is often expelled into communities. I consider myself a feminist because I continuously advocate for the rights of other oppressed people and groups while recognizing my own privilege as a man. I think allyship is important here. It’s detrimental to think that one cannot be an advocate for a group that one does not belong to. It’s critical for me to use my platform to speak on behalf of those who cannot or will not, but equally important for me to step back when it’s not my place to speak on an experience I did not have.”