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The Artist Behind the New MLK Jr. Sculpture Has a Message for Its Critics

18 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

By the time The Embrace, a bronze sculpture by the artist Hank Willis Thomas, was unveiled on the Boston Common on Jan. 13, it had been years, or by some measures, more than seven decades in the making.

In 1952, a pair of students met for a blind date in Boston. Coretta Scott was studying singing at the New England Conservatory of Music. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was working on a PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. It reportedly took the soprano some time to fall for the minister, but the two quickly discovered that they shared a driving belief that their brand of Christianity demanded personal action and sacrifice to create a beloved community, a world in which almost no form of human suffering, violence, inequality, or injustice is tolerated. And while it was King who was assassinated at 39 on a Memphis balcony, King whose name would become synonymous with the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and arguably the most effective, long-odds social justice movement the United States has ever seen, it is possible that none of that would have happened had King’s request that a friend set him up with a nice Southern girl led to someone else.

It was Coretta Scott King who is said to have brought King into an activist circle in Boston and it was between the two of them that they crafted parts of an American philosophy of nonviolent resistance, enriched by B. R. Ambedkar’s work on the immorality of caste and immutable group oppression, and marinated on ideas, strategies, and actions that would ultimately change the country. It was between the two of them and later with people such as A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Bayard Rustinwhom Coretta Scott King met long before she met her husband–that the commitment to demand justice, the tactics to make the seemingly impossible real, flourished. It was for those ideas and the actions that followed that Martin Luther King Jr. would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Although King is said to have asked or even demanded that his wife maintain some distance from the movement and occupy a more traditional wife and mother role as time passed, what they crafted and committed to in those early years built a legacy that Boston officials, activists, and philanthropists worked for years to recognize with a sculpture on the Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park.

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But in the week since The Embrace was unveiled, all of that has been almost entirely overshadowed. As pictures of the sculpture began to circulate, so too did descriptions, online and on cable TV, devoid of most context. Instead, reactions were heavy on sarcasm, cynicism, and one of the Internet’s favorite flavors: outrage. Tweets and posts proliferated describing the sculpture in terms so bawdy that they are more often conveyed by strings of emoji. In an essay published the day after the unveiling, in the online magazine Compact, Seneca Scott, an activist and cousin of Coretta Scott King, depicted The Embrace as an insult to Black people everywhere. He did so in language he later told The Guardian, reflected his state of frustration and grief which he knew would gain traction online: “a masturbatory metal homage to my legendary family members,” a “debacle” born of “the insidiousness of astroturfed woke movements that have come to dominate black America.” Since then, news outlets worldwide have covered the monument with a focus not on the rich history it evokes but on the controversy surrounding it, many with references to human genitalia.

So, when I called Thomas on Friday to discuss the most 2023 trajectory of public commentary about The Embrace, and his original intent, I’d expected a mournful or at least mildly angry conversation about the general public’s limited knowledge of history, a missed opportunity to expand knowledge of the central role Coretta Scott King played in the making of the mind and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., or the power of a meeting of equal minds. Instead, what followed was an interesting discussion about public critique, about grace and learning, and about what today drives public debate. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

There’s a lot that’s happened over the last seven days. So let’s go back to the beginning. Can you tell our readers a bit about the genesis of The Embrace, your sculpture unveiled on the Boston Common last Friday?

I believe it began with conversations between [the businessman and philanthropist] Paul English and [the] Rev. [Liz] Walker, after Paul learned that Dr. King and Mrs. King not only were educated in Boston, but also met and fell in love in Boston. And knowing about the historic march in 1965. [In April 1965, King led his first civil rights march outside of the South, to the public space known as Boston Common]. And so along with [others] they began a commission to [develop] a monument to the Kings, Dr. King actually, put up somewhere in Boston. As they raised money, in connection with the Boston Foundation, they got over 126 formal proposals.

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Eventually, I got a call from Michael Murphy of Mass Design Group asking me if I wanted to submit a proposal with him, because we just recently had done a proposal for an MLK Library in Cleveland, as well as worked on [a piece for] the Equal Justice Initiative. And we’re in the process of [others]. So I had done a lot of research on the Kings. I started to just look through archival images that I’ve encountered because in my own studio practice, I make a lot of sculptures that are about gestures, inspired by photographs. So I ultimately landed with a few different ideas, but the most compelling was what became The Embrace.

It was because it was not just about Martin Luther King, which the original commission was about. It was about his partnership with his wife, that picture where you could see the weight of his body was on her shoulders. I thought that was a powerful metaphor for his legacy. And the way in which she, after he was assassinated, literally carried it on her shoulders. But also, the way him winning the Nobel Prize was really them winning the Nobel Prize, right? Because it wasn’t ever just about him. It was about him and his family, but also about the community he was uplifted by. We wanted to make a monument that really highlighted this powerful moment between him and his wife, but also was a call to action, that reminder that we all have the potential to embrace another that could have a transformative, productive impact for society.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hugs his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference following the announcement that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

You mentioned that you have looked at a lot of images of King. What made that one the right inspiration for Boston public art?

Well, I think most of us are not familiar with how intimacy played a role in social justice and civil rights. And this was more of a tender intimate moment. When I started to read certain quotes by Mrs. King, learn about how often she talked about embracing, I thought that was a really poetic thing. And I felt like it was essential for my proposal, that both of them were represented, and also that there was a representation of them that encourages others to see themselves rather than to see them [the Kings] on pedestals. Which has been done a lot, but to really start to create a space to invoke and embody and celebrate him, this notion of the beloved community. So this is, to some degree, an artist’s portrait of that and the embodiment of their love.

The image includes the Kings’ entire upper bodies. Why did you elect to focus your sculpture on the Kings’ arms and the limited space between them?

In part, it was to see how much she was holding him up. But also, I was really excited. When you’re inside The Embrace [those who visit the statue can also walk beneath it into the space between the Kings’ arms], you’re in the heart of their love. We come together with another person, we embrace our hearts. Meet. And so in this case, basically the viewer becomes the heart. The heartbeat. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the notion of Celtic love knots, but I wanted to create something where the arms almost formed this infinite loop. To me, it’s powerful.

It’s interesting that you use the word powerful. I would like to think of myself as reasonably well read. But I have to confess I knew almost nothing about how central Coretta Scott King was to helping Martin Luther King embrace a commitment to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance as a vehicle for radical social change, the moral obligation to soldier for equity and justice, until I was a working adult. I sort of stumbled upon it in the late 2000s while working on a news obituary about a North Carolina educator, a woman who had been a bridesmaid at the Kings’ wedding. She’d told her children some very personal things about the kind of life her friend had been expected to lead before deciding to marry Martin Luther King, the way the Kings felt about one another, the way they’d explored and developed ideas together that had also inspired this woman’s own lifetime of work. She’d told them it was powerful to witness. That sent me on a reading spree about the Kings’ Boston years. But, even with that arc of my own, I have been shocked by some of the commentary about the sculpture this week. Not all of it, but certainly some of it, I think Grandmother would say, is “as deep as a puddle.”

Well, you never know what to expect. Right? I mean, when you put this in context, it’s fair to say that over a billion people have seen this work – mostly by internet.

I can say that the experience I had with people in person was probably the most powerful for me, because the most common response I experienced was crying. It was almost a holy experience. And it’s hard to erase that, with what people are commenting online, based off of some pictures.

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I can’t really I can’t blame anybody on the internet for seeing what you see when you have only seen something from one angle. It’s sculpture that people are invited to go inside. So, honestly, the fact that there are no pictures of [that] online, on the inside, says how much more to the work there is. So I’m very excited that there’s elements of this work that can’t be captured [in images online].

That’s what I’ve always dealt with in photography. I come from a photographic background. It’s only one perspective of a split second of time. And what I’ve always been interested in, is there are things that are in the image and there are things that are cropped out of every photograph. But this is a chance to go and ponder a portion of a photograph in four-dimensional space.

When you walk underneath the statue into the space between, what does one see? What have the people looking at pictures on the internet missed?

I really tend not to talk about what I see because I like to keep my ears open. Like I’ve said on NPR, I look up and it sounds corny, but I see the heavens. But what I was really amazed by, being inside the sculpture with Martin Luther King III; his wife, Arndrea [Waters King]; and their daughter, Yolanda King, you know, Yolanda looked up and said, “Wow, it’s like a portal.” She’s 14. Fourteen years old. That’s why I like to listen. If I was in there talking, I might not have heard that.

There’s so little of what people understand about the sculpture that can be represented online. I would encourage others to reserve judgment until they experience it just as I must reserve judgment on their responses.

It seems incredibly generous of you to reserve judgment on some of the ribald commentary and critiques. This is perhaps the most basic question in the world, but why? Why are you willing to do that?

Well, there’s a guy named Martin Luther King who in [one of] his 1957 sermon[s] said love your enemies. He says that we must, I think, be integrated in ourselves to meet every moment with an unbounding love. So I have been invited to answer the call.

Of course, anyone who does public work, particularly creative work, understands that there will be commentary. Some people absorb and are devastated by or defensive about every single thing said. Some studiously try to determine then absorb what’s valid. Some avoid any and all commentary to maintain their mental equilibrium and ability to produce. And I suppose some people are somewhere in between. Over the course of your career, what has your approach been?

Well, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I guess my general point, my belief, is artists learn through critique. Artwork becomes multidimensional through critique, and people’s perspectives of art changes over time. There’s things that we love that over time we get tired of, and there’s things that we’re not quite sure about at the beginning, but over time, we love. And the fact that the sculpture of mine is being discussed alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Vietnam War Memorial, and Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument – those things are timeless works of art. So I pray that this work will be around in 40 years, so that I will finally be able to have a fully resolved perspective of it.

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Listening, over time [is why] I feel like there’s also a lot of confidence, about the potency, the power of the work, because there has been so much discussion about it. And we’ve heard it.

[This is the] oldest continuously used public space in the country. Stuff doesn’t just sprout up there. A lot of people had to approve this, not only through the public process that they did with the voting, but literally like lawyers and officials and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They are a part of the work. They literally had to embrace the work. So I feel like all of those people who – you know, the paper pushers, the politicians, the advocates, nonprofit workers, they put their spirit in the work but also the masons and welders and the casters and engineers to the construction workers – a lot of people took action to make this possible. So I see the embrace as also a metaphor for the process of making it.

You talked about your desire to listen rather than deflect or redirect the critics. How much of the context of the Nobel picture, the King relationship, are you able to resist explaining?

It’s a collaboration with Embrace Boston, which is a nonprofit organization that is responsible for commissioning the piece and stewarding not only the piece, but also the work that continues for social justice in Boston, so we’ve been telling the stories all along.

I’ve been more fascinated by how what appears to be a very limited and, some might say, childish perspective of a work can somehow get as much credence and more attention than years of more elevated and more thoughtful and more earnest and sincere discourse.

We’re talking about the Kings, who, if anybody, should be taken seriously.

King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his work and those ideas which he and Coretta Scott King germinated between them – ideas that connected a broader philosophy of love and the obligation to the unrelenting pursuit of equity and justice in all things. I just have to ask if it pains you for something so profound to be overtaken by this torrent of juvenile commentary?

I just look at Bernice King, I look at Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, and the burden of responsibility and the burden of carrying on a legacy that they have done throughout their entire lives. And I don’t even get to think about myself. I’m in awe of it. Think about the daughters of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, who have this huge responsibility to carry on a legacy and tell a story. I’m honored to even be invited into the conversation.

What does that say to you? What does the wild ride the sculpture has taken on the Internet this week mean?

What it says to me is that I need to be more mindful of what I click on. We know our clicks are things that give our algorithms information on what is important to us. And so like I’m sitting here curious about what I click on myself. Not just related to The Embrace, but like literally everything. You know the headlines that we all are used to. Most headlines do not honor the text.

I am sadly deeply aware that we are reaching the point that you can create something that took eight years of research and work. You can expose massive injustice. And if it gets five clicks online, that story effectively does not matter nearly as much as a story about hand gestures some celebrity made on a red carpet because that’s going to prompt a lot of clicks. But where does public conversation, contemplation, and the spread of information by popular referendum, or clicks, really leave us?

I’m no holier than thou. I’ve read those articles too, about the hand gestures on red carpets. So, it’s, for me, a really powerful mirror for myself and how I operate as a citizen online.

We’ve gotten to see, as a result of Freedom Summer 2020, that the movement is still alive. I also am clear that movement was only possible because we were no longer distracted by the Internet. We were tired of looking at the internet every day. So we actually were probably the closest we have been for some time to the people in the [mid–20th century] civil rights era. We both had the information in front of us, but also had an urgency and a desire to be out amongst others and understood that it required risk. But now that we’re back and football is happening again and basketball is happening again and the award shows are happening, we have been lulled back into a form of sleep or inaction because we’re not dealing with the serious stuff anymore. We’re just dealing with the silly stuff.

But, hey, you know, pick your medicine.

Well, I feel like I have probably asked my major questions, but I wonder if there’s anything that we’ve not talked about that you really think would be critical for people to know, to understand, to contemplate?

Yeah, well, I think it’s important, definitely, to highlight, to acknowledge, that this piece is a call to action, or call to love. It’s important to highlight that the overwhelming majority of monuments not only in the park, but also in the world are monuments to violence, or memorials for victims of violence. And something as radical as a monument to love in a society that celebrates hate is going to and must necessarily challenge the status quo. And therefore, it should be scrutinized and critiqued. But as long as we’re using our heads, we’re not going to be very much in touch with the heart.

And I felt like that ultimately this work – really all artwork, but especially this work – has become somewhat of a Rorschach test. You know, where’s your head? And where’s your heart? What do you see? What does that say about the society? And what does it say about the way you see the world and yourself?


Correction, January 22

The original version of this story misstated where Martin Luther King Jr. was studying for his PhD. It was Boston University, not Boston College.

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