King memorial: One expression, many interpretations

Courtland Milloy
Columnist August 21, 2011

My first impression of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial sculpture was of Han Solo frozen in carbonite from the movie “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”

Had King been carved out of black granite instead of white, the image of him being shipped off to Jabba the Hutt would have been impossible to get out of my head.

“If we’d used black granite we would not have been able to see him at night,” Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the King memorial project explained to me. “We thought this through.”

Thank goodness.

King is depicted as emerging from a “Stone of Hope,” the enormity of his legacy as a civil rights leader captured in a 30-foot-tall colossus. The figure is the centerpiece of a four-acre memorial situated along the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

“It took my breath away the first time I saw it,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen numerous individuals brought to tears when they see it for the first time.”

No doubt many others will be so moved when the King memorial opens to the public on Tuesday.

But Jackson and Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin have put an expression on King’s face which, along with the pose, lends the work to interpretation beyond the one they had in mind.

Han Solo being just one that came to my mind.

“We specifically chose an image that, from our point of view, was not stern but a concerned professorial look, a person deep in thought and deeply concerned about the issues of the day,” Jackson said.

Okay. I can see a concerned look. But sometimes King seems a tad pouty. Or disappointed. Even angry.

“Now, if you want to reinterpret that as confrontational, I can use the words of Martin Luther King III,” Jackson told me. “He said, ‘If my father was not confrontational given what he was facing in his day, what else could he be?’ ”

My friend, the poet Ethelbert Miller, saw the expression as confrontational. And he approved.

“I love that King is looking defiant,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “Hands crossed. Some folks are upset with this. I don’t know why. King looks more forceful than [President] Obama. With so many of our rights (and money) being taken away we need some cold ‘Stone Leaders’ to stop the assault. Maybe the King monument will become a regular meeting place for the poor who can’t take no more.”

Personally, I’d prefer he wore a look of contentment, satisfied knowing that he gave his all. Lincoln and Jefferson both have the standard look of immortality that you find on such honorific sculptures—the look that says “I’m so cool, pigeons don’t even bother me.”

If the intent of King’s sculptor was to show that he is, somehow, still concerned about “the issues of the day,” perhaps the angry look is appropriate. Maybe he should even be railing at us with both fists.

As with any art, I see something new with each viewing.

Lately, the King statue has come to resemble a giant carved chess piece on a plaza-size board of stone squares.

I imagine it representing the King legacy left unguarded—a king in a chess game on the verge of a checkmate.

Whoever sat on his side of the board has played the game most carelessly.

The parents of those flash-mobbing black teenagers in Germantown, perhaps, who allowed their future kings and queens to become pawns in a society of disposable people.

A memorial is a symbol to be infused with meaning. What do you see in that King statue?

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