Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dr. King Belongs To Us All

I recently read an article concerning the Martin Luther King National Monument movement and some internal bickering in regards to the artist chosen to sculpt the monument. The artist that was chosen was Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor.

Politicizing national monuments is nothing new and dates back to the Statute of Liberty, but in this case I think it has greater significance because of whom the monument depicts and what he stood for. Dr. King dedicated his life to the pursuit of character over color and so it seems odd that there are those who would want to use color as the criteria for the artist.

Politics have dogged the King memorial since it was first suggested after his death in 1968. And trailing behind this latest squabble, like tin cans tied to a cat’s tail, are lofty concerns about cultural memory and racial sensitivities, as well as the mundane realities of turf battles, egos and flawed communication.[1]

There have been trouble-spots throughout this whole process; from the King family wanting to be paid to use the likeness of Dr. King for the monument to the argument that anyone but a Black artist could not capture the essence of Dr. King. It just goes to show you how far we have come as a nation only to see how far we as a people have not. This monument will be the first national monument dedicated to a Black man on the mall. The monument will be between the Lincoln and Jefferson Monuments and will be a testimony to the history of Blacks in helping to shape America.

The problem I have with the whole debate is this, Dr. King was more than just a Black icon, he was an international symbol of struggle against not only racial intolerance, but human intolerance. At the time of his death he was in the process of speaking out against the war against the Vietnamese and other third world countries. For a group of Black people to claim that only one group owns the legacy of Dr. King is ridiculous.

It’s funny how the only time Black people want to own the legacy of Dr. King is on his birthday and when money is involved. I look at the state of Black America and I wonder where are the values and beliefs that Dr. King espoused in our communities? Young black men are killing each other in ever increasing numbers, our communities are still under assault both internally and externally, and we continue to fall behind in education, but these people are worried about a statue.

I agree it would be cool to have a Black artists do the monument, but based on the design chosen that wasn’t possible. So, let’s just redesign the monument to accommodate the black artists that were not chosen. The only problem with that is unless all of them are chosen there will still be controversy and jealousy. It’s too bad our art community could not rise above petty jealousy and celebrate that at least we are going to have a national monument. But I guess that isn’t the important thing, the important thing is that we keep it black.

It should be noted that the majority of people on the monument selection committee are black, so this isn’t some group of white bureaucrats dictating the project. I recently went to one of the disgruntled artist’s website, a Mr. Gilbert Young and I was appalled at what I read.

For those whose only belief is that King belonged to the world—that his work, his words, and his stance was international in scope—you need only take a few moments to review history. Watch the films and look at the photographs that show what was going on in African America that prompted King to become the icon he became. The images of “White Only” signs on drinking fountains and movie houses; scores of people marching and protesting bigotry, prejudice, Jim Crow, and segregation. Look again at the black men hanging from trees lit by Klan fires. See the young black men and women and children being hosed in their faces, bitten by dogs and dragged through the streets by police. Watch the men carrying out the bodies of those four little girls.[2]

For him to invoke the memory of the fallen of the civil rights movement to attempt to shame black folks into supporting him, I found tasteless and disgusting. It is one thing to disagree with a decision, but to use the historical symbols of racial intolerance to advocate racial intolerance for personal gain is unconscionable. Dr. King does belong to the world Mr. Young, because his message was universal in nature, it may have been spoken for the black man at the time, but it was applicable to all men. Just as the words of all great men transcend their time and circumstances, so did Dr. King’s. You want to cling to Dr. King as if he were some racial ragdoll that you can bandy around and pull out when it is convenient or profitable. I wish you had argued on the merits of the issue and not resorted to the emotionalism of language to incite and divide. I don’t think Dr. King would be approving of those tactics, do you?

As for how the foundation ended up with Mr. Lei, Harry Johnson Sr., the memorial foundation’s chief executive, said the overall design dictated that Dr. King’s image be carved from stone, so the selection panel searched for someone who had experience working with granite on a monumental scale. No African-American sculptor fit that requirement, he said. “Lei was chosen to work on this not because of his political beliefs, not because of his ideology,” he said, “but because he could do the work.”

He added that two African-American artists, Jon Lockard and Ed Hamilton, are collaborating with Mr. Lei to ensure the accuracy of King’s image. Construction is supposed to begin this year and be completed in 2009.[3]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/24/arts/design/24statue.html
[2] http://www.kingisours.com/
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/24/arts/design/24statue.html

2 comments:

Lea Winfrey Young said...

Your blog was very interesting...full of errors, but interesting. If you don't know, Gilbert Young is a 66 year old African American artist who paints. He is not a sculptor, so when you implied that this is about money, you were wrong. This is about our history, our culture, and our own legacy. Gilbert's work is considered "socially conscious". For more than 50 years he's created artwork that glorifies the beauty, the history, and the culture of African American people. His art has been in movies, and used as set decorations on television shows. He's been commissioned by organizations nationwide to create commemorative works of art. Procter & Gamble commissioned him to create the Salute to Greatness Award presented annually by the King Center here in Atlanta. Most people know him for a work of art entitled "He Ain't Heavy," which shows a black man reaching over a wall for another man's hand.

As Gilbert tells everyone, he is old enough to have witnessed first hand prejudice, bigotry and Jim Crow. He survived it with bitter memories. If you remember history you'll hear only truth when I say that African Americans are not native to this country. We are not immigrants. We did not choose to come here. Our ancestors were brought here by force. Our most indelible footprint in history has been that we as a people are the descendants of those who survived the horrendous institution known as the system of American Slavery. You don't like that we have invoked history, but the situation in Jena tells you it's still here and now.

Nearly 8 years ago, a handful of black men went to Congress to ask permission to build a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--African American man and descendant of slaves. He would be immortalized in a national monument in the capitol city of what is known as the most powerful nation on the planet. His monument would stand throughout time on the National Mall among America's greatest statesmen. African American History would be important to our nation 365 days a year.

But through misguidance and greed and ignorance and apathy, a few folk decided to hand this most important commission, this most incredible honor of sculpting the centerpiece of the monument to an artist whose claim to fame are his monuments glorifying the mass murderer Mao Tse Tung. Yixin has created 14 of them. A deal was made for the stone for Dr. King's monument to come from China, quarried using slave labor. The workers have no rights and are not even provided proper masks to keep the killing silica dust from their lungs. No granite company in the USA was even allowed to bid on this project before it was outsourced directly to China, which is why the granite unions have joined King Is Ours. How do you think Dr. King would react to knowing a monument to him was being built with slave labor?

The King Foundation board members have one answer, and one answer only, when asked how they allowed such decisions to go forward. They quote a line from King's speech about people being judged by the content of their character. But King used that line often in speeches, in one version it reads "Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character..." King was talking about how black people were being treated back then, and are still being treated to this day. He was talking about how he hoped the world would change toward people of color. The word "Negro" is used 14 times in his "Dream" speech. It's interesting how people use erasers on King's speeches, they "bandy around and pull (them) out when it is convenient or profitable."

My favorite quote of King's, and the one that fits this situation perfectly is "Injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere." And people from around the world, of every nationality and creed, agree with us, that's why they're signing our petition. So we certainly don't need to "shame black folks" into agreeing with us. This is not about race. It's about right.

The artist the King Foundation has chosen did not win any kind of competition. He was recommended by his peers. In fact, he was recommended by the folk the Foundation bought the Chinese granite from. You quote the King Foundation's PR spin that "a majority of people on the monument selection committee are black" and they chose Lei. A few words have been erased from that sentence. It should end with "to serve as subcontractor to the project." The truth is Ed Dwight was the original artist of record for the King monument. He's a black artist, and America's first black astronaut, and he's created monuments all over this country. Dwight was kicked to the curb for criticizing Lei's work.

It's true, Dr. King's hope was that someday black people would have the same opportunities as all other people. He hoped African Americans would be able to attend the same schools, worship in the same churches, live in the same neighborhoods, get the same jobs for the same pay as others. You wrote "at the time of his death..." That's a nice way to put it. He was murdered. Assassinated for speaking out. And now we come to this day. Here is our very first (and last?) opportunity to display our culture and heritage in the first ever monument on our National Mall to an African American man and we're being told we're still not good enough. The King Foundation feels there is nothing wrong King's monument being "Made In China." We protest.

We at King Is Ours DO care that someone who has sculpted memorials to a mass murderer has been given the honor of sculpting Dr. King. We won't allow someone from a communist country who knows nothing about the Civil Rights Movement, nothing about Dr. King, and nothing about what King stood for to have his named carved into pink(!) Chinese granite in the first monument to an African American national hero in the history of this planet. You wrote, "for a group of Black people to claim...blah blah..." For your information, King Is Ours is multicultural. Check out the names on our petition. They come from China, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and other countries. The front team for King Is Ours is Gilbert Young, Clint Button (who is White) and John Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association (he's also White). Ann Lau is Chinese American, and Dr. Harry Wu is Chinese. They are also on our team and all are proud to say King Is Ours. You should be too.

Forgiven said...

First of all thank you for your posting your comment, I appreciate it and you.

Judging from your last name I would hope that if you were related to Mr. Young that you would have acknowledged that fact, not that it matters but it would be full disclosure.

You wrote, "for a group of Black people to claim...blah blah..." For your information, King Is Ours is multicultural. Check out the names on our petition. They come from China, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and other countries. The front team for King Is Ours is Gilbert Young, Clint Button (who is White) and John Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association (he's also White). Ann Lau is Chinese American, and Dr. Harry Wu is Chinese.

In the list of your names they all seem to have an agenda that some would say might qualify their participation in the campaign. It appears that either they have a political or financial incentive to their inclusion.

The point of my essay was to say that the Chinese artist should not be disqualified because of his nationality or race. If he is the best qualified let him do the job, that is what Dr. King stood for...

 
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