"The Embrace" (2023) by Hank Willis Thomas at the Boston Common (photo by Skanska, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery)

Artist Hank Willis Thomas’s memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled last week at the Boston Common in the park’s 1965 Freedom Plaza, which honors local civil rights figures. The 20-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide bronze was inspired by a photograph of Dr. King embracing his wife Coretta Scott King after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But images of the sculpture on social media have drawn mixed reactions, with some praising the artist’s design and others wondering about his interpretation of King’s legacy, going so far as to accuse the work of resembling a phallus.

Some, including members of the King family, applauded the commemoration of the famed civil rights leader who gave a speech in 1964 on the Common about “de facto segregation” and unequal schooling. 

During the unveiling ceremony, Martin Luther King III said the monument represents his parents’ love for the city and its abolitionist past, and that it memorializes their relationship. The couple met while King attended Boston University’s School of Theology and Scott King attended the New England Conservatory of Music. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown tweeted that he’s enjoyed photographs he’s seen of the artwork and added that “it’s also nice to think of the Kings being honored with a depiction of them hugging one another.”

Others had starkly different responses. Seneca Scott, a cousin of Coretta Scott King and former Oakland mayoral candidate, wrote in the conservative online magazine Compact that he was “insulted” and called the statue “masturbatory metal homage.” The comment has begun to see traction with right-wing media and the alt-right, some members of whom see the statue as the result of “wokeism.” 

Responding to some criticisms of the sculpture, Thomas told Hyperallergic, “You have thousands of people there and only one person online comes to that conclusion.”

“A lot of folks’ interpretations are because they’ve never seen anything like it,” he added.

Another view of “The Embrace” (courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery)

Embrace Boston, a racial equity organization that raised $8 million in private donations, picked Thomas’s proposal out of over 100 submissions, saying it was the only design to include Scott King. In an interview, Imari Paris Jeffries remarked that the statue was meant to enact the “four-dimensional experience of looking inside a hug.” But some critics of the statue also opine that the work is softening King’s legacy and activism — that the affectionate gesture does not call forth King’s history with the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), his speeches calling out White moderates, or more controversial campaigns like his anti-Vietnam War rallies, for instance.

In a series of Twitter posts, Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah addresses some of these concerns. She notes that the statue is in line with a history in public consciousness of glossing over King’s radicalism in favor of quotes about love and non-violence. “MLK — in his fullness — is still too much for them,” she wrote.

“There is nothing radical about the disembodied, de-racialized Embrace statue,” Attiah added in another tweet. “It is sending a whitewashed, multi-million dollar message — that MLK and Coretta overcame structural racism and systematic injustice with love — interpersonal, colorblind love.” A collaboration with MASS Design Group, Walla Walla Foundry, and the local nonprofit Embrace Boston, the sculpture reportedly had a cost of $10 million

Her sentiments are echoed by some self-described Black Boston residents who find that the statue does not adequately address ongoing struggles for Black people or modern racial justice organizing. Others express confusion that the statue is headless, a feature of some of Thomas’s work, and say the sculpture resembles a phallus from certain vantage points — though that interpretation is largely based on photographs that some say don’t fully capture the work.

Genisa Hurdle, a Caribbean-American resident of a nearby Boston suburb, said she was “not impressed.” “It wasn’t something that was needed as far as making or breaking his legacy … To me it’s poor representation,” she told Hyperallergic. “I shouldn’t have to stand at a certain angle for something to make sense. There’s so many other ways they could’ve gotten their point across.”

Editor’s note 1/18/23 11am EDT: This article was updated with an additional comment on the sculpture from a nearby Boston suburb resident. The quote was received after the time of this article’s publication and was included after the fact in an effort to offer additional viewpoints on the artwork.

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Taylor Michael

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School...