Karen Attiah, Washington Post January 21, 2023
“Most of my rebellions are against mediocrity,” the writer Anais Nin said. In that spirit, then, let me rebel: When it comes to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., America loves to conjure up half-assed banalities in the name of “social justice.”
This year, the city of Boston added its own twisted contribution to the Disneyfication of King’s legacy. On Friday, the city unveiled “The Embrace,” a $10 million, 20-foot-high bronze sculpture in Boston Common. “The Embrace” features the disembodied arms and slender hands of a woman and the sleeved arms of a man in what is meant to be a hug. The arms are supposed to be that of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
From one angle the sculpture shows the arms interlocking in a way that evokes a heart, clearly the intent. But from another, shown in photos that are firing around the internet, the sculpture could be mistaken for something a bit, uh, NSFW.
As I wrote on Twitter, when I first saw “The Embrace” I felt a visceral discomfort that lingered for a few days. Public art and the processes around it are always political. Even more so in a nation that has few public monuments and statues of Black people.
A number of thorny vines get tangled in the politics of “The Embrace” as a universalist representation of King’s legacy.
First of all, one would not immediately know that the statue, a work of public art that is meant to be an homage to King, and by extension to his activism, depicts the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. and Coretta Scott King at all. The sculpture appears to not have any indication of race; these could be anyone’s hands. Sculptor Hank Willis Thomas said that he took inspiration from a photo of the two embracing after Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He wanted, he said, for the sculpture to be a universal symbol of love.
Let’s unpack that.
It’s bad enough that a casual visitor would need to see the reference photo to understand the intent of the sculpture. But beyond that, these static arms and hands don’t really show emotion. For all we know, it could just as easily show two people embracing in mourning or in a casual greeting among relatives. The embodied joy and love between Martin and Coretta were in their very Black faces. But here their heads have been separated from their bodies, leaving floating body parts that only form a heart if seen from the right angle.
“The Embrace” also evokes America’s compulsion to butcher King’s fight against white supremacy. The statue reinforces how White America loves to see King not as the radical who was murdered for fiercely challenging capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy but as a man who used feel-good, interpersonal love to overcome the racist violence of America’s institutions. That reduces racism to an issue of people not being nice to one another, not one of systems and institutions that perpetuate anti-Black violence and inequality.
This is why institutions like the FBI — which surveilled King and continues to surveil Black activists — have the audacity to tweet about King’s example. Politicians across the country have used King’s messages about love and judging people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to justify laws whitewashing the history on race that is taught in our nation’s schools — some even have proposed dropping from the required curriculum MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech that articulates that very concept.
So dismemberment of Martin and Coretta by “The Embrace” to form a superficial representation of love is both safe and grotesque.
On one level, considering that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, there is something violent about creating a tribute to him out of disembodied body parts.
On a deeper level, this dismemberment represents the misremembering of MLK’s legacy. Simply put: The deliberate forgetting of America’s history plays a crucial role in the self-understanding of White Americans. It makes them feel safe and innocent. It absolves them of the need to feel guilt, anger and empathy — all of which can be necessary emotional catalysts for change. Reducing activism to fuzzy feelings of love and niceness prevents the hard work of disrupting the vestiges of the white supremacy that continue to endanger Black lives and hold the country hostage.
And to answer one point raised in response to my Twitter thread about these themes: Some argue that “The Embrace” has nothing to do with White America — because the sculptor, Thomas, is Black.
C’mon. As contributors to the public discourse, Black writers, artists, intellectuals and critics need to be able to publicly engage with each other’s ideas, to look at them critically. The context of creation matters. And in the heavily White art world, one can understand that “safe” art about the struggle for social justice will easily find backers — and is more likely to end up on prominent placements like Boston Common. Let this be a reminder that representation alone is not the same as progress.
If you think I’m wrong about “The Embrace,” let me know, and tell me why. Regardless, I hope one day White America will stop cherry-picking MLK and actually embrace its responsibility to end white supremacy. But right now, sadly, that feels like a pipe dream.
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