BOSTON, Mass. — On January 13, Boston officials unveiled “The Embrace,” the 20-by-40-foot bronze memorial honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, at the 1965 Freedom Plaza. The artwork by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group was met with 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. Others argued that by abstracting the Kings, the sculpture reduced what was a complex and radical fight to end white supremacy to a symbol that White America finds safe and palatable.

But what do Boston-area residents — in particular, park-goers at the Boston Common this past weekend — think of the monument? Keeping in mind that those who choose to spend a cold, gray winter day visiting a public artwork may be predisposed to be positive, many of the Bostonians I spoke with expressed appreciation for the sculpture and frustration that thoughtful criticism has been drowned out 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, and others like it, highlights the gap between national discussion and the sentiments found at the Common. While the rest of the country is engaging in debate both serious and satirical, these Bostonians were considering the role the monument plays in the city. 

Nilesh Gandhi, 50, who works in product management and resides in nearby Somerville, was born and raised in the suburb Malden and lived for nearly 15 years in the Back Bay neighborhood. “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. 

That history has often blotted out the contributions of its Black populace. 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. 

A tweet by @fa_roose epitomizes many of the online responses to the new sculpture. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic via Twitter)

The greatest criticism was reserved for the plaza, with many residents frustrated by the lack of educational materials within the monument itself. While small stands found on the paths leading to the sculpture offer a short explanation and a QR code to learn more, you could easily pass them unnoticed. The only text is a quote by Coretta Scott King engraved into the sloping wall containing the memorial, and even that is unattributed. 

“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!”

And those 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 that for me. We can see the humanity behind the idolatry, [the Kings’] real love.”

As for the design itself? Whether they liked it or not, most Bostonians agreed: You have to see it in person.

Wellesley College art professor Andrew Mowbray, 51, visited the monument Saturday morning having followed the project closely 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.”

Most of the criticism was reserved for the plaza.

Over the weekend, families posed for selfies and children ran through and under the sculpture, pausing to look up at the unexpected shaft of sky you catch when directly under the work. 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.” 

And that $10 million price tag? Perhaps surprisingly, most residents were unfazed by it, noting that the monument was funded through donations. Keith Patton, 62, a Dorchester resident who is currently unemployed due to 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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Jessica Shearer

Jessica Shearer is a Boston-based writer and critic, interested in narratives of gender, community, and dislocation. She is an editor and writer for Boston Art Review.

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