On Jan. 13, just a few days ahead of the holiday honoring the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a memorial was unveiled at the Boston Common. The 22-foot high, 40,000-pound bronze sculpture called “The Embrace” shows two arms intertwined, hugging one another tightly. Well, that’s what it’s supposed to show: an abstract rendering of a photo taken when King and Coretta Scott received word that he’d won a Nobel Peace Prize. However, on social media, people quickly interpreted other things. Some folks saw a woman holding a massive penis. From another angle, others saw an oral sex act.
Hank Willis Thomas, the artist who designed the structure, told PBS that he was inspired by the bond he saw in that photo. “It wasn't just his celebration. It was their celebration,” he said. “I saw the warmth of the hug and the power of that embrace. And I saw her strength literally holding him up throughout all of these different trials and tribulations. And the fact that she was with him every step of the way, and then carried on the legacy after he was assassinated was something that I really felt needed to be highlighted with this work.”
It’s fitting that this massive bronze Rorschach statue is turning a lot of people’s dirty minds on. What is oral sex if not, at times, an act of love? Thomas is a talented conceptual Black artist who knows exactly what he’s doing and is no stranger to large public installations. I don’t know if he intended for The Embrace to look like a big ‘ol d**k if you look at it just so when your hormones are off the charts, but to be frank that’s the beauty of art and something only a great artist can do, with or without intention. This loving embrace sans the otherworldly joy on the Kings’ faces is a compelling way to commemorate the powerful couple. In its ambiguity, “The Embrace” tells a story about how that could and should be any of us, displaying radical acts of altruistic love, community, and peace.
While Thomas’ sculpture is indeed beautiful and it’s a big deal to have a great Black artist create it, its ambiguous and obsequious nature only helps obfuscate Dr. King’s true legacy. He was a peaceful man who loved deeply and cared for the health of his country, but he was a radical person too, whose ideas on politics were despised while he was alive and are despised today.
How Dr. King loved is important, but there’s too much emphasis on this rather than say, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This fiery screed written by Dr. King in an Alabama jail cell was about America’s moral failings, white silence, and the duty to break unjust laws and was fittingly a response to an op-ed in a newspaper that called for peace and unity. It's important to remember our heroes in their totality. Dr. King was an embrace, but he was also a battering ram and we should celebrate him as such. How long will it be before his combative nature is forgotten if peace and love are the only ways we remember him? Words spilled through ink can wash away. But monuments? Those remain forever.
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