June 28, 2008

Colorblindness and the Martin Luther King Jr. Statue

author_cn By C.N. Le

You might remember my previous post that described criticisms over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington DC. That initial controversy centered on the fact that the sculptor was not African American, or even American -- he was Chinese. Critics charged that King's legacy was being "outsourced" to China.

Well, a new and different controversy about the statue has emerged -- as MSNBC reports, the federal commission that has final approval over the statue now wants the form of the statue changed: the current pose appears too "confrontational" and "totalitarian":

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that mlk1 has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April. . . .

The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. . . .

Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said. . . .

The team wants to hold on "to the power and inspirational image" of the current version, [the memorial's executive architect] said. The sense of confrontation in the sculpture is not a coincidence. "We see him . . . as a warrior," Chaffers said yesterday. 

"We see him as a warrior for peace . . . not as some pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla, but really a man of great conviction and strength."

It should come as no surprise that such national memorials are inherently prone to historical, cultural, and political disagreements and controversy. We only have to remember the initial storm of criticism surrounding Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In my previous post, I included a picture of the current sculpture. In my opinion, King’s pose in the statue is certainly serious rather than playful. And it is probably true that a lot of statues of totalitarian leaders through the years also strike a "serious" pose. But for me, that is where the similarities end. Dr. King's pose is a reflection of his legacy -- one of the most inspiring and important leaders in modern American history.

As such, I think it is more than appropriate that his pose symbolize the significance and weight of his accomplishments and the entire Civil Rights Movement. Isn't that one of the main reasons to create this memorial in the first place?

I see this latest controversy about Dr. King’s “warrior” pose as another example of a 21st century American society that is trying to be “colorblind.” As I recently wrote, the dominant discourse in American race relations these days seems to stress the virtues of a "colorblind" Society.

mlk3In theory, it's great to not treat people differently based on their racial/ethnic identity. But in practice, ignoring people's racial identity means ignoring their different histories, characteristics, and community needs and instead, relying on the simplistic idea that we now live in a true meritocracy where racism no longer exists and everyone is on a completely level playing field. 

In that context, I am not surprised that the federal commission (perhaps composed predominantly of whites?) found the current pose too "confrontational." Apparently, they do not want the statue to remind people that the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle and that many people actually died in the process of "confronting" racism.

They would rather pretend that everything is perfectly fine now and that as a "colorblind" society, we don't need to dwell on the past and be reminded that a little over 40 years ago, it was perfectly legal and normal to treat people of color as inferior, subordinate, second-class citizens.

In other words, the commission’s desire that Dr. King's statue look less "confrontational," reflects a desire to avoid confronting the racism that Dr. King fought against and that still subtly pervades the mind set of American society today.

Like I said, that is what it means to be colorblind these days.


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Dear author i believe with you many people today are as you describded color blind Martin Luther King jr respresented the struggle of civil rights and so much more and i disagree that they should change the pose of the statue.

It is interesting to notice the fine print everywhere in today's society such as the American memorial statue being not African American or even American. But does that really make that much of a difference to people who acknowledge the statue? To some people it may while to others it makes no difference. I think in today's society, though, many more people are becoming colorblind and it does not affect their way of thinking when it comes to things like the MLK statue pose debate. They will look at the statue and see the true meaning behind whether or not the pose stays as is or is changed. This is a great post and gives many people something to consider in today's society.

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