Bigger than life means dead

August 24th, 2011

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion about the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.  The press clipping that sparked the discussion said that critics of the memorial are upset because it depicts King in a sombre, confrontational stance, and because it was done by a sculptor from China.  The reported criticism seems absurd to me.  It is a curious mythology that would recall King as a nonconfrontational figure.  On the other hand, I think MLK might have had some trouble wrapping his mind around the idea of a 30 foot tall statue of himself on a 4 acre plaza. I don’t think he would have much cared what country the perpetrator was from.

I haven’t been to visit the memorial, but based on what I can tell from descriptions and photos, it is one more example of the many ways America distracts itself from, distorts, and otherwise avoids dealing with the things that King spent his life trying to tell us.  This country – the majority of whites, anyway – never really accepted King as a hero until after he was safely dead. America, black and white, never really has accepted his message. My immediate reaction to my first sight of a picture of the monument was that it looks like the statues of Stalin that used to be all over the USSR, or of Mao that you still see in China, or the one of Saddam Hussein that the marines toppled after invading Baghdad. It is grandiose, ham-handed, intimidating.  Even if King’s face, full of brooding intensity, is carved with some sensitivity, the overall aesthetics of the thing is simply bludgeoning. The adversity he struggled with is shown, not as the product of hate-filled faces and snarling dogs and water cannons, but as a great huge amorphous rock. Wow, like, heavy. My point is, this monument has nothing to do with the man it pretends to memorialize, a man of passion and power, to be sure, but also of great subtlety, sensitivity, compassion, and interiority, and, above all, just a man. This disneyfied apotheosis is a way of encapsulating his memory and shielding us from the irritation of thinking about what it really means to love your fellow citizens and to work for justice and peace and social change.

As it happens, I’m reading Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X – highly recommended! – and I am reminded again of something I have thought many times before: you can’t understand King’s legacy unless you also deal with Malcolm. I’m not sure that it makes sense to have a memorial to King that isn’t simultaneously a memorial to El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. And vice versa. The two of them met only once, a chance encounter in the Capitol, when they shook hands; a life size sculpture of that moment would have made a good monument. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t like each other. They were the yin and yang of the black freedom movement in the sixties.

They were complementary, and they were moving towards each other.  The arcs of their lives pointed towards a convergence which assassins’ bullets prevented either of them from reaching.  It might surprise you to know which one of them said this: “Separation is not the goal of the Afro-American, nor is integration his goal.  They are merely methods toward his real end – respect as a human being.”  It was Malcolm, no longer a separatist after his 1964 trip to Africa, when he was abandoning so much he had stood for in favor of a richer, deeper understanding more consonant with King’s.  And here is King, in 1967, when he finally had begun to grapple with the frustration and rage at white hypocrisy that had so long fueled Malcolm: “They applauded us on the freedom rides when we accepted blows without retaliation.  They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.  Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise that I was saying be nonviolent toward Bull Connor.  There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children!  There is something wrong with that!”  Strangely inconsistent, indeed.

SOURCES for quotes:

Manning Marable, Malcolm X (2010), p. 332

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge (2006), p. 604

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 at 10:03 pm and is filed under art, Places, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.