BOSTON, Mass. — On January 13, Boston officials unveiled “The Embrace,” the 20-by-40-foot bronze memorial honoring Rev. At the 1965 Freedom Plaza, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by Coretta Scott King. Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group were praised for their artwork. nearly immediate backlash online and in the national media, with many likening the monument’s intertwining arms, based on a photograph of the Kings after he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, to various sex acts. Other arguedThe sculpture abstracted the Kings and made it a symbol that White America finds comfortable and palatable.
But what do Boston-area residents — in particular, park-goers at the Boston Common this past weekend — think of the monument? I should also keep in mind that many people who visit public artworks on a cold, gray winter’s day are more likely to be positive. Many Bostonians that I spoke with expressed appreciation for it and frustration at the way that thoughtful criticism has been drowned by memes.
Discussion of the sculpture’s possible suggestive nature was sometimes met with eye rolls. While most visitors admitted that they could “see it,” some questioned whether they would have had they not first read the commentary.
“It’s like a Rorschach test, people see what they are already thinking about,” said Cynthia Sarver, 70, a Boston resident and retired real estate agent. “I feel good about it, and I’m glad to have something on this neglected part of the Common; all of the action is over there, and this is such a major thoroughfare,” she said, gesturing to nearby Tremont Street. “It’s nice to have something positive and beautiful to see from that angle.”
This comment, along with others, highlights the gap between national discussions and the Common sentiments. While the rest the country engages in serious and satirical discussion, these Bostonians were pondering the role of the monument in their city.
Nilesh Gandhi, 50 years old, is a project manager and lives in Somerville. He was born in Malden, a suburb of Boston, and has lived in the Back Bay for almost 15 years. “We know that Boston has a long history of racial tension and injustice, and any steps to shed light and bring awareness to that is a beautiful thing,” he said.
Its history has often obliterated the contributions of its Black inhabitants. Many Bostonians don’t know that Crispus Attucks, an American sailor of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry, was the first person killed in the American Revolution, though he’s featured on a monument in the very same park. The Kings’ time in Boston has been similarly unrecognized.
The plaza was the subject of the most criticism. Many residents were frustrated at the lack educational materials within the monument. You could easily miss the small stands that are located along the paths leading up to the sculpture. They offer a brief explanation and a QR Code to learn more. Coretta Scott King’s quote is the only text on the memorial’s sloping wall. It is not attributed.
“There’s no plaque!” said Ann Schunior, a potter from nearby Randolph, 79. “How would you know who these people are?” she asked, pointing to the brass names of local civil rights leaders listed on the pavement. When a nearby visitor caught her gesture and asked about the names she retorted: “You would know if there was a plaque!”
These names are important. When I spoke to Kim Perlak, 47, chair of the guitar department at Berklee College of Music, she had tears in her eyes, having just caught the name of Martin E. Gilmore Jr. — a WWII veteran and social justice leader — etched nearby. “I work with his son!” she said. “There are people among us who make history and we know them as our friend’s dad. This monument speaks to me about that. We can see the humanity hidden behind the idolatry. [the Kings’] real love.”
The design? Bostonians agreed, regardless of whether they liked it or didn’t: You must see it in person.
Andrew Mowbray, 51-year-old art professor at Wellesley College visited the monument Saturday morning, having closely followed the project with his students. “My initial reaction after seeing the preliminary drawings was negative, but now that I’m here I like it a lot,” he said. “I appreciate that this is a real sculpture, with every angle considered. It’s not just a 3D drawing.”
Families took selfies, while children ran under and through the sculpture, stopping to admire the unexpected skyscraper that appears when you are directly beneath it. A 10-year-old marveled at the intricacy of the details: “I mean, look at the buttons!” he gushed.
“I love that [the design] of the sculpture enables us to put ourselves in the midst of the embrace,” said Boston-area educator Renique Kersh, 46. “We’re able to focus on the message, which is so important at a time when our world is experiencing so much pain and division.”
Her husband John Kersh, 43, an IT professional, noted that Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (2004) in Chicago — where the couple hails from originally — was met with similar responses. “They called it The Bean,” he said. “They still call it The Bean, but they love it. This is the same, you have to interact with it to appreciate it.”
That $10 million price tag? Not surprisingly, most residents were not bothered by it, noting the fact that the monument was funded from donations. Keith Patton (62), a Dorchester resident, who is currently unemployed because of a disability, winced.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “Do I think we could use that sort of money elsewhere? Sure, but I do think it’s beautiful that folks chose to give to create something that stands for love. Love is such a powerful force, and it includes each and every one of us.”
When asked for his thoughts on the monument, Andrew B., who hails from the city’s North End neighborhood, said he was still on the fence. “Right now, I think the concept is cool, the execution is TBD,” he said. “The Embrace,” he pointed out, is a permanent memorial, and the narrative and sentiments swirling around it now will settle into something different over time. According to him, that’s part of the point of public monuments. “If art is supposed to spark a conversation, this 100 percent does,” he said.
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