Martin Luther King Jr. is a matchless aesthetic presence in the 20th century. The sound of his voice continues to exist in the American imagination long after the end of his life, and, in some critical ways, exists distinctly from the things he did and the words he actually uttered. Histories of King’s life tend to focus on the legacy of his activism or the rhetorical style that defined his many speeches and sermons, but none have recognized fully the cultural resonances of the very sound of his voice. In Maurice O. Wallace’s King’s Vibrato: Modernism, Blackness, and the Sonic Life of Martin Luther King Jr., the sonic presence of King is brought center stage, where it can be seen as both the unique product of diverging aesthetic realities in modernism and the black church, and as a vital expression that continues to speak in black American life.
Wallace’s monograph is structured into three sections, each placing King’s voice within a different sensorial context. In “Architecture of the Incantatory,” Wallace presents King’s sound as the product, in part, of the material world of the black church, and he focuses specifically on the architectural style in which many black churches were constructed, the role of the pipe organ in the arrangement of church music during the mid-20th century, and the significance of the technological innovation of recorded audio. Particularly evocative in this section is Wallace’s recounting of King’s funeral in April 1968 and the way he describes the haunting presence of King through the playback of selections from King’s recorded sermons during the service.
The second section, “Nettie’s Lament,” situates King’s voice in its social and cultural context. Wallace pays particular attention here to the emergence of gospel music during the early 20th century, and specifically the sacred songwriting of Thomas Dorsey, as well as the women who inspired, and were inspired, by King’s vocal presence. Wallace effectively makes the case that there was a black motherliness that developed during modernity that manifested both as a sonic reality in the vocal performances of women like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, and which was present as a vital backdrop in the auditory environment surrounding much of King’s preaching.
The final section, “Technologies of Freedom,” draws attention to the role emerging technologies like photography, phonophotography, and amplifiers played in the dissemination and preservation of King’s voice. The last chapter in this section, “Dream Variations,” is particularly strong, and evinces the utility of the ongoing conversation between religion and aesthetics. An examination of the three deliveries of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—in a small high school gymnasium in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1962; in Detroit, Michigan’s Cobo Hall, a large amphitheater, in early 1963; and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in August 1963—Wallace expertly reveals not only the way the text of the speech evolved through each iteration, but, more importantly, the way the physical space in which the speech was given shaped its presentation, delivery, and reception in meaningful ways.
King’s Vibrato succeeds when it keeps the titular sound of King’s voice front and center. Whether describing the “strong, stentorian rumbling” of recordings of King’s sermons played at his funeral, or the “black ecclesiality and its drive to the incantatory” that characterized his preaching when visiting Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, Wallace presents King’s voice as a material, aesthetic reality able to sustain the weight of cultural and historical analysis (33, 78). Wallace demonstrates himself adept, too, at drawing repeated fresh insight by casting King’s voice through the lens of intersecting theoretical paradigms. While aesthetics remains the principal analytic mode, Wallace draws on phenomenology, acoustemology (the study of sonic ways of being in the world), critical gender studies, and media studies, among others, in order to represent the ongoing significance of King’s voice. Wallace’s text falters only slightly when, in a few instances, King’s voice fades and other subjects come to the fore. While the discussion of Ralph Ellison’s views on the organ in chapter 2 are engaging, for example, the connection between this description and the materiality of King’s acoustic environment needed to be more thoroughly reinforced.
However, this criticism is minor, and does not ultimately detract meaningfully from the strength of Wallace’s work. King’s Vibrato is a commendable entry into the growing discourse around history, blackness, and aesthetics, and will be of particular interest to historians of American religion looking for ways to further develop the kinds of subjects available for this sort of inquiry—in this case, the sound of an individual’s voice. This book has relevance, too, for scholars of African American history interested in an innovative look at a familiar subject.
Adam Sweatman is an independent scholar of religion.
Date Of Review:
December 27, 2023
Maurice O. Wallace is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, author of Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775–1995, and coeditor of Pictures of Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, both also published by Duke University Press.
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