Earlier this month, Audible released an exclusive audio production of 2015’s The Radical King, a collection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essays, sermons, letters and speeches curated by Dr. Cornel West. This production features the voices of both prominent black activist actors—LeVar Burton, Mike Colter, Colman Domingo, Danny Glover, Gabourey Sidibe, Wanda Sykes, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Michael Kenneth Williams—alongside giants from the world of professional narration—Bahni Turpin, Robin Miles and Kevin Free.
In an effort to underscore Dr. King’s broad intellectual and social justice interests, The Radical King is split into four sections: Radical Love; Prophetic Visions: Global Analysis and Local Praxis; The Revolution of Nonviolent Resistance: Against Empire and White Supremacy; and Overcoming the Tyranny of Poverty and Hatred. Among the 23 pieces included within those sections are “Palm Sunday Sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi,” “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” “The Drum Major Instinct” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” Each piece is read by a different narrator, delivering an interpretation entirely unlike and yet still fully present in Dr. King’s own voice.
Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr. explains in Audible’s behind-the-scenes video, “So much of who he was is imbued in the words and so you can kind of fall into his cadence, you fall into your version of Dr. King, somewhere in the middle there.”
The 23 unique performances prove to be The Radical King audiobook’s greatest strength. By handing over the lauded words of one of modern history’s greatest writers and orators, Audible and Dr. West have made an object lesson of both the universality and the specificity of the human experience. From the mouths of all these performers, Dr. King’s words gain a visceral clarity, a sharpness that makes it possible to understand that these speeches and sermons and essays are not historical record but living documents.
Even for audiobook listeners who are familiar with multicast performances of fiction like 2017’s blockbuster Lincoln in the Bardo or the bar-setting YA series The Illuminae Files, multicast interpretations of nonfiction remain rare finds. And reinterpreting anything in the medium is rarer still—at least outside of public domain classics. The Radical King, however, utilizes a well-trod history to set its own exciting bar for a modern medium. Following The Radical King’s example, how illuminating could a multicast production of Frederick Douglass’ work be? Of Sojourner Truth? Of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson? Of Emma Goldman? There is too much social injustice in the world not to take every opportunity to share the lights of these great thinkers.
There is, unfortunately, one downside to this production: the absence of—for lack of a better term—liner notes. While some audiobooks fare just fine with nothing but what flows into the ear, edited collections like The Radical King suffer without them. A table of contents that explicitly names the sections and pieces would at least make this dense work more accessible (my app only lists them as “Chapter 1,” “Chapter 2,” etc., and even then those “Chapters” don’t correspond with the official Table of Contents from the print edition). But some indication of which individual is reading which piece, and why they either chose or were chosen for it, along with a link to PDFs of the images from the print edition would go even further to give this compelling project its best chance at shining. Physical audiobooks also lack these details, sure, but that only gives Audible the opportunity to set itself apart. The digital audiobook space has more flexibility than that of physical disc sets or Playaway devices; whether in a browser on a desktop or within a tiny mobile app, options for Audible to include thorough liner notes and extensive supplementary digital materials for projects like The Radical King abound.
Still, ease of use isn’t even close to the most important thing here. Dr. King’s words, and the significance they hold for us not just as historical record but also—as Sykes, Sidibe, Burton and everyone else in the video above make clear—as living documents, is the most critical lesson to take away. In the end, it’s the strength of the performances and the message of the text that matters. A savvy listener can cue up a PDF of that official Table of Contents for reference; a reader more deeply dedicated to taking Dr. King’s words as a call to action might even go out and buy a print copy to keep on hand so that their internal voice, weighted by their own experiences and backgrounds and geographies, can imbue the pieces with a part of themselves, just as the performers did for this collection.
Or, as Michael Kenneth Williams’ explains in the video, “I’ve listened to several of Dr. King’s speeches. None of that prepared me for the emotions I was filled with having to recite his words.”
The Radical King is available now from Audible.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.