On The Dedication of The King Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I’m going to let Robert Pierre‘s “Martin Luther King, Jr. Made Our Nation Uncomfortable” speak for me:

Martin Luther King Jr. has a new monument on the Mall, but he might not recognize the person so often lauded in public today.

Corporations use his quotes and likeness to sell their products. Most often, he is remembered for his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, particularly the references to judging people by the “content of their character” and the “table of brotherhood.”

That day, he also said: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

It’s easy to see either the tea party or growing Occupy movements taking up the slogans. But I guess revolt is not so good for business. Nor were King’s exhortations against war, the hypocrisy of the media, American arrogance and corporate greed. It seems that we have whittled away the outrage and righteous indignation from King’s popular image.

That current, popular, G-rated image makes me very uncomfortable.  It obscures as much as the memorial statue.   It makes people think that those demonstrations and marches were mere cake walks.  There are still people walking around with the after-wounds of that time, from beatings, shootings, stabbings, lynchings, and psychological breakdowns.  And people–not only King–died.

I still say that the statue does not resemble Dr. King.  I still wish that a black sculptor from the U.S. or even Africa could have completed such a memorial.  I say this because the statue was realized by a Chinese sculptor who gave it an Asian cast.   It looks a bit like something out of Maoist agit-prop–not that I don’t think that agit-prop has its uses and even beauty.  I seem to remember the Goddess of Liberty of  the Tiananmen Square Protests in a positive vein, but this is close to how some  contemporary, approved Chinese art is.

As the British Daily Telegraph put it:

[…] However, there has been controversy over the choice of Lei Yixin, a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province, to carry out the work. Critics have openly asked why a black, or at least an American, artist was not chosen and even remarked that Dr King appears slightly Asian in Mr Lei’s rendering.

Mr Lei, who has in the past carved two statues of Mao Tse-tung, one of which stands in the former garden of Mao Anqing, the Chinese leader’s son, carried out almost all of the work in Changsha.

However, even King’s words, carved into the sculpture, have been changed as if he is puffing himself up.  Maya Angelou was publicly upset about that one.  “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness”?  That is taken from one of his last speeches, about how he would have liked to have been celebrated at his funeral.  This is part of the recorded speech, delivered in February, 1968, some two months before his death.  The parentheses are part of the call and response found in the black church:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.

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Though King’s surviving children have declared themselves pleased with the result, I am not, and I am not alone in the feeling.  I think that they were looking at how cheap inexpensive it would be to have the statue done in China, a country where labor and safety abuses reign.  The project was running several million dollars in the hole.  If the rest of the aging civil rights community is relatively satisfied, I think that it is because better this memorial than no memorial at all, and at least created in their lifetimes. It is as much a monument to their efforts as well as to King’s ultimate personal sacrifice.

Do I anticipate seeing the memorial for myself one of these days? Yes. No doubt, it will become in some way a rallying point for people who admire or adhere to King’s philosophy.  Like alchemy, the meanings of things change for those who need or discard them.  But I am under no illusions that the Memorial will stir me to remembrance, sorrow, and gratitude.

Because it is not the likeness of my King.  My Martin Luther King, Jr. who I saw on TV give his “I Have a Dream” speech.   Not my King of the “Drum Major for Peace” speech who foresaw his own death not once but several times, and just kept on going, refusing to give up.  Not my King for whom, when I was grown, I openly wept uncontrollably in Ebenezer Church in Sweet Auburn.


~ by blksista on October 16, 2011.

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