Intersections Working Group

King's Vibrato: Modernism, Blackness, and the Sonic Life of Martin Luther King Jr.
Feb 13, 2024, 12:00 pm1:20 pm



Event Description

In King’s Vibrato Maurice Wallace explores the sonic character of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice and its power to move the world. Providing a cultural history and critical theory of the Black modernist soundscapes that helped inform King’s vocal timbre, Wallace shows how the qualities of King’s voice depended on a mix of ecclesial architecture and acoustics, musical instrumentation and sound technology, audience and song. He examines the acoustical architectures of the African American churches where King spoke and the centrality of the pipe organ in these churches, offers a Black feminist critique of the influence of gospel on King, and outlines how variations in natural environments and sound amplifications made each of King’s three deliveries of the “I Have a Dream” speech unique. By mapping the vocal timbre of one of the most important figures of Black hope and protest in American history, Wallace presents King as the embodiment of the sound of modern Black thought.

King's Vibrato Book Page

Duke University Press's King's Vibrato page features links to purchase in paperback, cloth and e-book.

About the Speakers

Maurice Wallace is associate professor of English at Rutgers. His fields of expertise include African American literature and cultural studies, nineteenth-century American literature, the history and representation of American slavery, and gender studies. He is the author of Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775-1995, a book on the history of Black manhood in African American letters and culture, and is co-editor with Shawn Michelle Smith of a volume of scholarly articles on early photography and African American identity entitled Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African-American Identity. Professor Wallace has served on the editorial boards for American Literature and Yale Journal of Criticism and is a contributing editor to James Baldwin Review. His current research and writing agendas include a monograph on the religious life and leanings of Frederick Douglass, and a critical exploration into the sound of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice. Professor Wallace also teaches in areas of visual culture and sound studies.

Discussant Herman Beavers, the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania, is currently a departmental guest of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton. He has taught at Penn since 1989, where he teaches courses in African American and American literature, including courses on Southern modernism and 20th-century African American poetry, as well as "Trading Fours:  The Literatures of Jazz," and a section of the introductory poetry workshop in the creative writing program.

Department of English