In 2017, Embrace Boston, a non-profit organization dedicated to implementing equality and inclusivity throughout Boston, Massachusetts, announced a plan to implement a commemorative sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. According to MASS Design Group, the artist call received just over 100 proposals and in 2019, Hank Willis Thomas was chosen for the task.
The two-story high and 25-foot-wide monument pulls from both the nonprofit’s name and images of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King hugging, or embracing, after receiving news that Dr. King received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The MASS Design Group article goes on to say that, “The memorial design declares that love is the ultimate weapon against injustice. In evoking the love shared between the Kings, their commitment to each other, and their ideals, the message behind The Embrace is overwhelmingly simple and accessible: it is about what we share, not what sets us apart.” Flash forward nearly 60 years and this supportive, love-filled hug, brilliantly sits in Boston Common atop a 6,000-square-foot granite platform.
Unfortunately, just after the public reveal in late January 2023, The Embrace made its way into meme culture. While I hesitate to give this misfortune the light of day, it’s necessary to reflect on the ways American pop culture is respondings to memorializing Black history in public spaces.
One New York Curbed article written by Diana Budds asks several relevant questions in response to the backlash: “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 liberty to make something entirely new? Should we continue to lionize specific individuals, or can we shift the focus to collectives and social movements?”
On the one hand, Thomas’ unique rendition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s hug presents a world of possibility, providing a space for Black American history in a new way, and even expanding upon a history of American statues often commemorating white confederate soldiers. On the other hand, non-figurative statues (or if you’d go so far as to say abstract art) like The Embrace leave more room for interpretation and the question “What is that?” which, in 2023, can often lead to memes.
So really, perspective is a key component in all of this. It is easier to poke fun at something serious online, hiding behind a screen than it is in person, standing right in front of it. And to be fair, there are some angles where The Embrace looks more intimate. Leslie Jones guest-hosted the Daily Show on January 18, 2023, and even she remarked on the rumored sexual innuendos that people are assigning the statue. As for the memes and comments referring to certain “oral” positions, in my opinion, those are a reach. The sculpture is a hug. Nothing more. But I digress, because, like I said, perspective is key and while it's easy for me to say the sculpture is clearly two people hugging after looking at an aerial photograph, I haven’t seen it in person. Of course, standing underneath it presents an entirely new view. In one interview from Time Magazine, Thomas himself even said, “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 a sculpture that people are invited to go inside … So I’m very excited that there’s elements of this work that can’t be captured [in images online].
And really, who can confidently say they’ve seen two sets of arms (no torsos in sight, I might add) the size of a building … hugging? Well, no one.
The sculpture stirred up so much commotion in part because humans have never seen anything like this and don’t know what to make of it. And humans don’t always like “new.” So many of our world-famous artists took chances, did something new and were almost always dismissed at first, and later highly praised. Chances in the arts need to be taken. Thomas has always done so, and handled the mixed feedback with grace. Anyone remember “Unity”?
Personally, I love the idea that Thomas is giving a new meaning to the term “monument,” paving the way for the former understanding of historic monuments to take on new forms. Both in the physical representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the work provokes thought, inspires conversation, and challenges perspectives—all something a great work of art should.
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