Having a black sculptor for King would have been nice

Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 23, 2011

Let’s face it: There really is something peculiar about having an artist from communist China sculpt the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial statue. And, yes, it would have been fantastic had an African American sculptor been chosen instead.

I do not believe that such sentiments are racist, as some have charged. They are deeply rooted in America’s racial past and ought not be so easily dismissed.

Much has been made of how King’s memorial, which opened to the public Monday, is situated between Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s, as if they are inviting us into a three-way conversation about the nation’s ongoing struggle for racial justice and equality. Ingenious, to be sure.

Overlooked, however, is the White House to the north and the U.S. Capitol to the east — which were built using extensive black slave labor.

Last year in June, congressional leaders unveiled two bronze plaques commemorating the estimated 400 to 600 slaves from Maryland, Virginia and the District who helped build the Capitol.

“We’ve come here this afternoon to tell the rest of the story. To acknowledge the profound indignity that the slaves who helped clear this land and lay these stones must have suffered in building this great monument to freedom,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during that ceremony.

Must have suffered, indeed.

Surely, having a black sculptor of a black civil rights icon — working on ground once toiled by black slaves, on the National Mall, designed and surveyed with the help of a black mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker — would have added to the King memorial’s symbolic power.

So, yes, it stings when, centuries later, creators of the King memorial say they couldn’t find a qualified black sculptor.

“Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together,” Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the project, told me recently. “We don’t do this in America. We don’t handle stones of this size.”

Who gets the job? A Chinese national with an apparent preference for the heroic and authoritarian.

The sculpture is based on a 1966 photograph of King taken in his office in Atlanta, standing at his desk, with a picture of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi on a wall in the background. In it, King has soft eyes and an open face that conveys the blessed assurance of a man who walks by faith.

Lei Yixin has turned those eyes into something of a steely squint.

The result is a stern colossus, dressed no less in a style of suit similar to ones found on many statues of Stalin. In America’s militaristic culture, King’s take-no-prisoners personae will surely resonate — especially among many in the black middle class, which places a premium on order and discipline. King’s expression reminds me of a parent or teacher about to administer some tough love with a belt.

Nostalgia notwithstanding, the fact remains that Lei hails from a country that oppresses ethnic minorities, exploits its workers, and jails human-rights activists and the attorneys who try to defend them. In their day, King and civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall would likely have been taken by the Red Guard and never heard from again.

Now, I recognize that without the inspired leadership of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, there would be no King Memorial to speak of. And those who say now ought to be a time for celebration and not complaining have a point.

The distinguished fraternity of Alpha men, who count both King and Marshall among its members, certainly deserve all of the accolades they are sure to receive in the coming days — especially Jackson, foundation president Harry E. Johnson and the late Adrian Wallace, who as president of the organization in 2000 green-lighted the King project with an admonition to its members: “Failure is not an option.”

But I also recall the words of a Chinese artisan who worked on the memorial with Lei. Asked why he was so delighted with being chosen for the job, the man told The Washington Post that he was in it for “national honor” and wanted to “bring glory to the Chinese people.”

It just would have been kinda nice to hear an African American sculptor say something like that about this country.

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