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Jonathan Rieder
Barnard College (New York, NY 10027-6909)
A Reinterpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

My project reinterprets Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To grasp King’s inside-the-text maneuvers, I focus on two neglected aspects of context: his repertoire of “black talk,” elements of which migrated into “Letter”; and his oratory in Birmingham’s black churches, which retracted aspects of “Letter.” This evidence allows us to glimpse in “Letter” not just flashes of racial anger but a counter-text, in which sublime universalism yielded to irrepressible blackness and acts of rational justification could not mask prophetic preaching and the sting of chastisement. This project revises our understanding of an iconic text of American letters; recasts King as a code-switcher gliding in and out of black and universal idioms and identities; and underscores the value of cultural sociology and the ethnography of speaking for all disciplines concerned with the interpretation of written texts and oral performance.

[Grant products][Media coverage]

Project fields:
American Studies

Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Research Programs

$29,400 (approved)
$29,400 (awarded)

Grant period:
6/1/2012 – 12/31/2012