Opinion: The absurdity of the backlash over the MLK statue

Editor’s note: Adrienne L. Childs, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and art historian, associate curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and the 2022 recipient of the Driskell Award for her contributions to the field of African American art. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Decorative Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Art.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more comments at CNN.


Hands and arms can represent the physical and emotional life of humans. A sign can show strength, resistance, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and much more. Rosie the Riveter’s pumping bicep and the soaring fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith have communicated some of the most powerful cultural messages in American history.

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Using the powerful language of symbolism — which has long been part of his symbolic repertoire — artist Hank Willis Thomas has created “The Embrace,” a public memorial to American idol Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. .

Unveiled on January 13 at Boston Common, “The Embrace” quotes the embracing arms of Dr. and Mrs. King from a photo taken when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In the photo, Thomas saw the couple’s bond, the warmth between them, the support that carried them through the years of their marriage and more.

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 13: 'The Embrace' statue unveiled in Boston Common on January 13, 2023. Credit: Katy Rogers/MediaPunch /IPX

The compositional system of his King tower is not the only statement for Thomas. Disembodied arms and hands are among the artist’s trademarks. He has used condensed examples to tell great stories of violence, the sports industry and now, the power of love.

In “Raise Up” from 2014, we encounter the raised heads and arms of 10 Black men – although these dismembered body parts refer to the image of South African men forced to take this dangerous position in a group medical examination, it also tells a lot about the situation difficult. the traps that Black men have experienced from the “official” forces of violence throughout American history. These types of layered references are typical of Thomas’s practice.

Hank Willis Thomas, Raise Up, 2014 © Hank Willis Thomas.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

From social justice to social upliftment, Thomas used a single bronze hand pointing to the sky in his 2019 public sculpture, “Unity,” placed near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

© Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, original work authorized by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Percent of the Arts Program, Department of Transportation and Department of Architecture and Building.  Photo credit: Matthew Lapiska, NYC Department of Architecture and Construction

Although the bronze may suggest a Black hand in the context of Thomas’s larger work, “Oneness” conveys the general and deliberate ascension sense given to the mystical symbol. Perhaps its elegant simplicity is more readable than the compositional complexity of “The Embrace.”

Although Dr. and Mrs. King have some of the most recognizable faces in American history and there is so much power associated with those faces, Thomas chose to highlight the expressive possibilities of weapons once again.

I have heard Thomas say in a recent commentary that a great burden is placed on Kings and their example to do the difficult work of social justice. I agree that Dr. The King’s face has become an index of the movement at the expense of many others.

“The Embrace” aspires to reveal the unity of love and support in a situation that is not removed from the ubiquitous face of Dr. Who could argue with this bold intention? In fact, many, including members of the King’s family, have praised his vision. Yet his approach has led to opposition and troubling implications for the tower.

Some have complained about the conceptual nature of the tower. Others complain that it does not adequately represent the memory of Dr. The King’s Legacy. Does his view of love diminish the fact that the struggle continues? From some angles, observers have imagined a dirty, dirty and dirty image. This was not the artist’s intention.

But when sensational remarks are spread on social media, they gain a lot of traction and take on more importance than they deserve. It’s no wonder that sexual references have become a staple of the complaint mill.

Even comedian Leslie Jones took the idol to task, claiming she “can’t see past” the sexist rumours. But like comedy so often, its routine revealed its complexity and absurdity.

2011 memorial to Dr. King designed for Washington, DC, arguably the most politically charged site for an American historic monument, was also mired in controversy. Was the tower very ordinary? Did it really look like Dr. King? Was a Chinese-American artist standing to represent an African-American hero? These questions are not answered.

The 30-foot, 8-inch granite statue of King stands amid cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington.  The statue shows the King in a business suit with his arms folded, holding a book and looking out over the valley.

There is never a shortage of objections to public sculpture, especially when Black people are at risk. In 2011, after being commissioned for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, African-American artist Fred Wilson’s sculpture, “E Pluribus Unum,” was canceled before it could be installed.

The design was a picture of a coward slave released from Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, where the original figure was a symbol of Black submission. Wilson’s work would change the figure as an image of empowerment – a critical intervention often used by Wilson. However the African-American community objected to the submissive representation, and the project was eventually abandoned.

Thomas’ concept of King’s legacy comes at a time when controversy surrounding cemeteries has become part of our public reckoning with America’s brutality and racism past and present. Confederate monuments – erected as much in support of European supremacy as a reminder of past glory – have been attacked and dismantled as relics of systemic racism perpetuated by visual culture. Indeed, art is an important tool in using and questioning political power.

For too long, stories of Black resistance, struggle and success have been absent from America’s vast web of celebratory idols. At the top of the climb is the tomb of Dr. King and other African Americans, such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who remember the fighters for social justice and challenge the mass graves of White supremacy.

Renée Ater, a visiting professor in Africana Studies at Brown University, has delved deeply into the history of American monuments that deal with American slavery and was recently in conversation with four Black monument artists who discussed the issues they have encountered in the process. to make a monument. in the United States.

For decades we have been confronted with the inequalities that exist in our public art, and now we are reckoning with them. Thomas’s brave foray into the tumultuous world of public historic monuments was never easy.

There are many memories of Dr. King across the country, and indeed around the world. Most are representative models that tend to be more popular with the public. Thomas’ “The Embrace” takes another step into the business of remembering Dr. King. I applaud her decision to take risks with her compositions and focus on love and compassion


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