If you find yourself on Boston Commons on the 1965 Freedom Plaza, you wouldn’t miss the newly installed 20-foot tall spectacle: a shining bronze statue of four intertwined arms in a tight embrace. The Embrace statue, designed by Hank Willis Thomas, was originally meant to commemorate and celebrate the love between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. In Mayor Michelle Wu’s words, this memorial “is a powerful call to embrace each other more, embrace our nation’s history and embrace what’s possible when we center community.”
However, not everyone views the statue in a positive light. For many, when viewed from another angle, the disembodied arms appeared to exhibit a sexual overtone that quickly inspired criticism across the Internet. In a critical essay, Coretta Scott King’s cousin Seneca Scott stated that The Embrace was a “masturbatory metal homage,” that it looked “more like a pair of hands hugging a beefy penis than a special moment shared by the iconic couple.” Other critics, mostly expressing their discontent on Twitter, denounce Thomas’s choice to reduce the Kings to body parts, stating that this dismemberment reflects the tendency to cherry-pick certain parts of Black History.
Amid its controversy, The Embrace intensifies the ongoing debate about how to preserve and memorialize Black history. One of the questions when it comes to public art is how do we publicly commemorate and memorialize something? Teacher of the Diverse American Voices class at the high school, Mr. David Charlesworth, offers his thoughts on the issue.
“[The Embrace] certainly seeks to focus on Boston as the place where Dr. King met Coretta Scott,” said Charlesworth. “But also the isolation of just the body parts feels twisted.”
However, Charlesworth points out that the focus on the statue’s potentially perverted appearance should not undermine its intended value of bringing commemoration of Black History to the local public.
“I haven’t seen this sculpture in person, so I don’t know if I’ve completely wrapped my head around the complexities of it,” said Charlesworth. “But I do know that the focus was really on striving to bring acknowledgement and recognition of Black History [into Boston], and I do think that’s a worthy endeavor.”
Another recent event involving the College Board contributes to this question on the preservation of Black History. In January, Florida, under the DeSantis administration, banned the AP African American Studies course. Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. called the course “woke indoctrination masquerading as education” in his tweet. On February 1st, the first day of Black History Month, the College Board announced the official framework for the course. Notable changes included eliminating material covering critical race theory and dropping units about intersectionality and activism, Black feminist literary thought, and Black Queer Studies. The Black Lives Matter movement is now listed as optional.
These revisions faced immediate backlash, including criticism from other states leaders, the National Black Justice Coalition, and over 200 African American history professors in an open letter. In response, the College Board maintained that its changes to the course were not influenced by DeSantis’s criticism. However, recent developments show that the College Board was in repeated contact with the Florida governor, further fueling the controversy.
The College Board’s decision to omit the contemporary aspects of African American history was condemned as political censorship that rewrites essential parts of Black History, ironically during a month dedicated to its preservation and amplification.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we seem to, as a nation, want to keep history in its place,” said Charlesworth. “We seem to not want to think of ourselves as somehow implicated in history, conditioned by history.”
According to Charlesworth, especially for a class that has been designed at the college level for students across the nation including those at the high school interested in the subject, the idea that contemporary African American voices should be taken out completely or rendered optional feels like a symptom of manipulating history.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author who advocated for reparations for slavery, was taken out of the course’s pilot program. Yet Ta-Nehisi Coates is an author whose work is taught in high school English classes across the nation, including our own Diverse American Voices class. Excluding the voices of such figures contradicts the idea of providing an all-encompassing education, a pursuit that educators try to adhere to. To teach Black history cannot be to omit parts of it.
“My thought would be that teachers, educators, adults who are in the business of shaping minds for the world we live in, know better,” said Charlesworth.
As we are in the midst of Black History Month, these controversies surrounding The Embrace statue and the College Board’s decision to restructure AP African American studies helps us to reconsider what commemorating and celebrating Black history truly means, to ask ourselves how we can honor the history of African Americans without compromising legacies, and to wonder if censoring certain parts of history rewrites the present and thus, redirects our future.