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, adjunct curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the 2022 recipient of the Driskell Prize for her contributions to African American art. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts.” The views expressed in this comment are her own. Read more statement on CNN.


Arms and hands can represent the spectrum of people’s physical and emotional lives. A gesture can express strength, protest, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and much more. Rosie the Riveter’s pumping bicep and John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s soaring fists have conveyed some of the most potent cultural messages in American history.

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

“The Embrace” was unveiled on January 13 at the Boston Common and features Dr. and mrs. King’s embracing arms from a photograph taken when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In this photograph, Thomas saw the couple’s bond, the warmth between them, the support that carried them through the years of their marriage and beyond.

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

The compositional framework for his King Monument is not an isolated statement for Thomas. Disembodied hands and arms are among the artist’s trademark symbols. He has used abbreviated incarnations to tell epic stories of violence, the sports industrial complex and now the power of love.

In “Raise Up” from 2014, we encounter the heads and raised arms of 10 black men – although these fragmented body parts refer to a photograph of South African men forced into this vulnerable position in a group medical examination, it also communicates a lot about the fraught entanglements that black men have experienced from violent “official” forces throughout American history. This kind of layered referencing is endemic to 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 arm pointing skyward in his 2019 public sculpture, “Unity,” installed near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

© Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, an original work commissioned by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program, Department of Transportation and Department of Design and Construction.  Photo credit: Matthew Lapiska, NYC Department of Design and Construction

Although the bronze may suggest a black arm in the context of Thomas’s larger works, “Unity” gives the sense of a universal and deliberate upward climb delivered in a stealthy gesture. Perhaps its elegant simplicity is easier to read than the compositional complexity of “The Embrace.”

Although Dr. and mrs. King has some of the most recognizable faces in American history, and there is a great strength associated with those faces, Thomas once again chose to emphasize the expressive possibility of the arms.

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

“The Embrace” strives to reveal the universality of love and support in a form liberated from Dr. King’s omnipresent face. Who could argue with this bold intention? Indeed, many, including members of the King family, have praised his vision. Still, his approach has resulted in some resistance and troubling reactions to the monument.

Some have complained about the conceptual nature of the monument. Others lament that it does not adequately represent the monumentality of Dr. The King’s Legacy. Does its focus on love detract from the fact that the struggle continues? From some angles, observers have imagined lewd, raw and lascivious images. This was clearly not the artist’s intention.

But when sensational remarks are retweeted on social media, they gain exponential traction and take on more importance than they deserve. It is not surprising that the sexual references became grist for the complaint mill.

Even hilarious comedian Leslie Jones took the statue to task, claiming she “can’t see” the sexual innuendo. But as comedy often does, her routine exposed both the controversy and its absurdity.

The 2011 monument to Dr. King created for Washington, DC, arguably the most politically charged site for American historical monuments, was also marred with controversy. Was the monument too conventional? Did it really look like Dr. King? Was a Chinese-American artist capable of representing an African-American hero? These questions are unanswered.

A 30-foot, 8-inch granite sculpture of King stands amid the cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington.  The statue depicts King in a business suit with arms folded, holding a scroll and gazing across the basin.

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

The design was an image of a cocking slave excerpt from the soldiers and sailors Monument in Indianapolis where the original figure was the symbol of black subjugation. Wilson’s work would reframe the figure as an image of empowerment—a critical intervention often used by Wilson. Still, the African-American community objected to the representation of subservience, and the project was eventually abandoned.

Thomas’ ode to the royal legacy comes at a time when controversy surrounding monuments has been part of our public reckoning with America’s violent and racist past and present. Confederate monuments—erected as much to support white supremacy as to commemorate past glories—have been attacked and dismantled as remnants of systemic racism fostered by visual culture. In fact, art is an important tool in exercising and questioning political power.

For too long, stories of black resistance, struggle, and achievement have been absent from America’s vast network of celebratory statues. On the way are monuments to Dr. King and other African Americans, such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, commemorating social justice warriors and challenging the abundance of monuments to great white men.

Renée Ater, Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, has delved deep into the history of American monuments dealing with America’s slave past, and was recently in conversation with four black monument artists who discuss issues they have encountered in the process of to make monuments. in America.

For decades we have been confronted with the inequities inherent in our public art, and we are now reckoning with them. Thomas’ brave foray into the tumultuous world of historic public monuments was never going to be easy.

There are countless memorials to Dr. King across the country, and indeed across the globe. Most are representational depictions that tend to be more palatable to the general public. Thomas’ “The Embrace” takes an alternative entry point in the work of commemorating Dr. King. I applaud his decision to take a risk with his composition and focus on love and compassion

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