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View of Hank Willis Thomas's The Embrace, 2023, at Boston Common. Photo:  Hank Willis Thomas and Embrace Boston.
View of Hank Willis Thomas's The Embrace, 2023, at Boston Common. Photo: Hank Willis Thomas and Embrace Boston.

New Monument to MLK and Coretta Scott King Polarizes Public Opinion

A bronze sculpture memorializing married civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King was unveiled in Boston on January 14 to mixed reactions. The Embrace, by renowned sculptor Hank Willis Thomas, occupies Boston Common and realistically depicts at monumental scale the intertwined arms of the Kings, as portrayed in a 1964 photo taken shortly after MLK’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. A statement released by Embrace Boston, the nonprofit that comissioned the work, noted that the twenty-foot-tall public sculpture “differs from the singular, heroic form of many memorials to Dr. King and others, instead emphasizing the power of collective action, the role of women as leaders, and the forging of new bonds of solidarity out of mutual empathy and vulnerability.”

The Embrace has conjured other images for some commentators, with many finding sexual innuendo in its representation of disembodied limbs. Seneca Scott, a cousin of Coretta Scott King, wrote in Compact magazine that the sculpture “looks more like a pair of hands hugging a beefy penis than a special moment shared by the iconic couple.” The monument quicky became the subject of mockery and trolling on social media. “It looks like two sets of arms hugging a giant turd,” lamented a Twitter user with the handle American Soldier for Christ. Another with the distressing moniker William Butt Fuckley Jr. said of the sculpture, “Pretty wild how they sculpted the MLK statue to look like a different sex act, hole, or bodily function from every angle. Impressive tbh.”

Even those with broader platforms took to social media to weigh in on the subject, among them the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah. “It doesn’t sit well with me that Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King are reduced to body parts,” she wrote. “Dismembering MLK and Coretta Scott King is . . . a choice. A deliberate one.” She continued, “And yes I’ll say it. From another angle, the statue for real looks like one person is performing disembodied oral sex. No matter how much I try, I can’t unsee it.”

The monument was not without its supporters, among them artist Jordan Casteel and former Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who praised Willis Thomas’s “moving project” on Instagram, and Kickstarter CEO Taylor Everette, who cited the discourse surrounding the memorial as “disheartening, especially from those within the black community.”

The Embrace “inspires me today and all days to embrace our common humanity and our common antiracist struggle against one of the existential threats to human existence: racism,” tweeted author Ibram X. Kendi, who helms Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

“I think the artist did a great job,” Martin Luther King III told CNN. “I’m satisfied. Yeah, it didn’t have my mom and dad’s images, but it represents something that brings people together.”

In an interview with the same outlet, Willis Thomas defended the The Embrace. “This is a piece that was selected by the people of Boston,” he said. “Thousands of people worked on this, thousands of people saw it, and no one saw this . . . perverse perspective.” A page dedicated to the memorial on his website features the following statement by the artist: “When we recognize that all storytelling is an abstraction, all representation is an abstraction, hopefully it allows us to be open to more dynamic and complex forms of representation that don’t stick us to narrative that oversimplifies a person or their legacy, and I think this work really tries to get to the heart of that.”