Yesterday was the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s "I have a dream" speech on the Washington Mall; it was marked with the dedication of a new memorial. It’s the first on the National Mall to honor a man of color, and the only one that’s not dedicated to a past president or fallen soliders.
As Jorge Rivas told us last Monday, the memorial — 25 years in the making — hasn’t opened without controversy. Most, including Dr. King’s son Martin Luther King III, are pleased. But some are calling it "too Asian" — a comment that’s hard to take out of context from the statue’s Chinese artist, Lei Yixin. Ed Dwight, a Denver sculptor originally tapped to design the statue, said that Dr. King would be "turning over in his grave" if he knew his memorial was conceived and constructed in a Communist country.
Our readers had thoughts about this.
Our Global Justice columnist Michelle Chen provides some historical context:
I wonder if anyone viewing the memorial without knowing who designed it would eye it as suspiciously "Asian" looking. The criticism about a Chinese artist designing a memorial smacks rather detestably of the criticism of Maya Lin‘s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, which ended up redefining this genre of public art.
As for Dr. King’s views on "communist regimes" (if you want to refer to contemporary China as that, though many would clearly disagree), I would suggest Mr. Dwight revisit King’s speech on the Vietnam War, which has not surprisingly received less historical scrutiny than his other works because of its relatively radical approach to post-colonial revolutions. And if the issue is the seemingly business-minded decision to commission a Chinese artist, one should be mindful that this memorial, like so many others, is a product of all sorts of corporate sponsorship and other political deal-making, domestic and foreign (as noted in the Washington Post article cited here).
Of course, all memorials are by nature political, so the criticism is predictable. But the public reaction should be read with a little more nuance, I think.
I agree that the criticisms of it appearing "too Asian" or being done by an artist living under a Communist regime are ludicrous. One important issue that I think is an insult to MLK is this:
"[The Chinese workers] work for a sculpting company in Hunan province and have no idea what they will be paid for their work on the King memorial. They expect to be paid when they get home. The possibility that cheap imported labor was being used to build any portion of the King memorial was anathema to them. King was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike."
Would Martin Luther King respect the use of foreign laborers who are currently unpaid (with no idea of what they will be paid) at the expense of local unions?
and finally, Brotha Wolf:
I think Dwight would be right if he said Dr. King would rise from his grave, but I don’t think the memorial would be the his main concern. He would not be happy to discover that America has learned extremely little over the past 40-plus years.