The Controversy Over Boston’s ‘Embrace’ Memorial to MLK
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A new statue commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King was unveiled in Boston over the weekend. Title the embrace, it is a 20-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting arms locked in an embrace, the pose borrowed from a famous photograph of the torque that was taken when MLK won the Nobel Prize in 1964. During the dedication ceremony, Martin Luther King III said the statue “truly signifies the bonds of love shared by my parents”. But from the angle it’s viewed from, the disembodied arms looked a lot… like something else. “Now Boston has a big bronze penis that’s supposed to represent black love in its purest, most devotional form,” writes Seneca Scott, a cousin of Scott King, who called the memorial “performative altruism.” Countless memes have compared it to an oral sex position. “Has anyone here ever been eaten?!” actor Leslie Jones remarked The daily show. “Because they celebrate you right away.” In a more serious critique, Washington Job columnist Karen Attiah said the statue’s shape and lack of faces made it appear “deracialized“, a” whitewashed symbol “that distorted what the civil rights leader stood for.
The offending angle.
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Kidding aside, the conversation surrounding The To kiss rekindles the ongoing debate about how to commemorate black history, which is largely absent from public space. Each new commission — for Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, lynching victims, to name a few – sparked a discussion about narrative and artistic choices. While there is general consensus that it is time to remove Confederate monuments, there is no agreement on what comes next. Should we rely on the same visual language of classical European monuments with realistic representations of black historical figures rendered in bronze and marble? Or should artists have the creative freedom to create something entirely new? Should we continue to worship specific individuals, or can we shift the focus to collectives and social movements? In downtown Brooklyn, there is disagreement over whether or not figurative statues or a garden should commemorate Abolitionist place. San Francisco’s memorial to Maya Angelou made headlines after the design – a book featuring a portrait of Angelou on the cover – was scrapped by the city supervisor who sponsored the initiative because it wanted it to be a literal statue of Angelou, then finally reapproved. In general, those who make decisions about public art continue to turn to old idioms.
That is to say that The embrace started as the idea of a technology entrepreneur. In September 2017, Paul English, who co-founded Kayak.com, decided that his city needed a ‘world-class’ MLK memorial like the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, which he often visited. “Boston has a complicated history with race, and as someone who grew up in Boston, race is always on my mind,” The English said to the Boston World. ” The time has come. Let’s take this opportunity to celebrate [King’s] life and to have honest conversations about how we are faring today with race and civil rights. He started a non-profit organization called MLK Bostonwhich has since been renamed to Embrace Boston; set up a website; and spent $1 million of his own money to start the project. (It should be noted that Embrace Boston also has a research and lobbying branch to support social justice causes.) MLK Boston issued an open call for designs, and a panel of art historians and community members selected five finalists out of 126 submissions. They included entries from David Adjaye and Adam Pendleton, landscape architect Walter Hood, and artist Yinka Shonibare. While most of the designs were abstract – in the form of gardens and fountains – Hank WillisThomas and MASS Design Group The embrace was the only figurative. It was also the most popular with the public. Three teams then moved on to a feasibility stage to determine which piece would actually work in a historic park. In 2021, the city finally approved The embrace.
But the figurative character of the sculpture seems to have opposed it. Most of the negative reactions against The embrace relates to his appearance. There’s no doubt that most views of this one look a bit odd. Only one angle really makes sense: this is where the interlocking arms form the shape of a heart. The outline of this heart also appears as a logo on the memorial’s website and on the merchandise. Love – the bond between MLK Jr. and Scott King as well as the vision of a “beloved community” – is also the intended message of the memorial, a palatable ribbon by MLK philosophywhich also included end capitalismmilitarism and imperialism.
For those who have followed Thomas’ work, the form and subject matter will be familiar. The disembodied aspect of The embrace who receives criticism is a common characteristic of his sculptures – as Unit, a 22-foot tall bronze arm pointing skyward that was installed near the Brooklyn Bridge in 2019, or Hitin which one arm grabs the wrist of another arm which is holding a police baton. Love is also one of his recurring themes.. In his Campaign for Freedoms, an artist-led project to boost voting and civic engagement, Thomas created a billboard that read, “Who taught you to love? When he started designing The embrace, Thomas was drawn to the relationship between King and Scott King. “There are so many monuments to the victims of war; there are very, very few monuments to love,” he said. told CBS. With The embracehe said he wanted to recognize the collaboration and partnership between them and honor how Scott King continued King’s work after his assassination in 1968, a legacy rarely commemorated.
It’s a poignant sentiment, but one that won’t be apparent to most people who visit the sculpture (or those who see memes of it). I suspect the room – which is designed for visitors to walk around and browse – won’t feel as graphic in person as it does in photographs. But public art today exists as much in online images as it does in the physical world, and it seems no one involved in the project noticed what thousands of people immediately saw in the photos. A five foot high version of the sculpture, made in gold and exposed to Jack Shainman Gallery in 2022, seems to be more readable – the shape distinctly reads like weapons rather than anything else. What changed when the piece was enlarged and cast in bronze?
But the problems with The embrace are larger than a single statue. Cities all over the world are only too eager to build monuments to King (there are more than 25, including one in Bosnia), but it seems that very few are happy with them – either they look nothing like him, or there is something which does not go with the proportions, either the message is not good. When his monument in Washington, DC, opened in 2011, critics also disparaged his missing body parts. “We don’t even see his feet. It is anchored in rock like something unborn. At New York Times journalist wroteadding that he wanted it to sound more classic.
But beyond aesthetics, The embrace reopened a much larger controversy. For many, the MLK sculpture just reminds them of everything Boston hasn’t done to right its racist past. Here, and in many other casesthe face and words of MLK Jr. are used claiming support for racial equality when there is no real commitment to policies that would make a measurable difference, like ending over-font in black neighborhoods, the reduction of the racial income gap and reparations. Just a few years ago, Georgia explored building a monument to King on top of Stone Mountain, above the infamous sculptures of Confederate leaders. After NAACP leaders objected, the idea was dropped. “You can’t make hate more inclusive” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter. Can a Technician-Concocted $10 Million MLK Statue Fix Hundreds of Years of Wrong in one of the most racist cities in the country? Obviously not. But when a monument distracts us from the message of the person it is trying to represent, it simply becomes a bitter reminder of a culture that wants to wear rose-colored glasses. Perhaps the MLK memorial will be the catalyst for that larger conversation rather than an end that leaders can point fingers to and say, Good job.