A hug: the tenderness of leaning in and letting go, the strength of lifting each other up. To hold one another is an exercise in love.
“The Embrace,” at 20 feet high and 40 feet wide, is a huge bronze hug. Behold the love of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, the love of Boston civil rights activists, and anyone fighting for freedom.
From a certain angle, that hug the Kings shared looks like a heart. From below, you can walk through and look up into their arms at the heavens, imagining the possibilities of you and me. “The Embrace” is for all of us.
Based on a 1964 photograph of the Kings clinging to one another in celebration after Martin won the Nobel Peace Prize, the soulful sculpture is a reminder that liberation is the ultimate love language.
As Boston unveiled its latest and perhaps most beautiful and radical work of public art Friday, “The Embrace” is as much a remembrance as it is a 38,000-pound call to action. What are you embracing? Who are you holding? Have you been held lately?
“I hope people who experience ‘The Embrace’ understand or overstand the power of connection for the enhancement of our lives,” says artist Hank Willis Thomas, who designed the monument along with MASS Design Group.
“When I think about the way our story is told, the story of American history, it’s mostly a story of violence,” he says. “We reap what we sow. We celebrate violence, we beget violence. Dr. King talked about this in ‘Where Do We Go From Here.’ He said, ‘We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.’ I am excited about building markers that can direct us toward nonviolent co-existence and allow us to tell new stories about our history, our present, our future.”
Conceived over five years ago and made during a time when we could hardly touch each other or show our smiles, “The Embrace” has come to represent the tenderness we need.
The monument sits in an open circle with bench seating in the midst of Boston Common -- within another memorial, the new 1965 Freedom Plaza, which honors Boston civil rights activists.
The pieces are meant to lift one another. The art is not just of an embrace, but made to embrace people, to invite them to stay and be held.
“Designed like a quilt to bring people together, to share, to bring their powers and gifts to this quilt of friendship and community and family,” says Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston.
“I think there is power in relationships and family and togetherness. There is a light that emanates from the memorial. People can see it and feel it and know it’s more than stone and steel. It’s a connection we want people to get when they come to our city. I’m looking forward to what this memorial can mean to all of us.”
It’s also a towering, overdue affirmation of who Coretta Scott King is to us as a country. Yes, she was MLK’s wife, but she was also an artist, an activist, and a driving force who was by his side also doing the work, with him and after he was assassinated. She founded the King Memorial Center, she never gave up on fighting for a federal holiday honoring King’s legacy, she tirelessly fought for human rights and social justice.
“You think about how quietly she was depicted,” says Makeeba McCreary, president of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. “But then you start to understand how much of a leader she was and how important and necessary she was and it really makes you proud. It makes me feel proud to just be a Black woman.”
Mayor Michelle Wu believes this monument signals a motivation for radical love and change.
“‘The Embrace’ will be a revolutionary space in our country’s oldest public park for conversation, education, and reflection on the Kings’ impact in Boston and the ideals that continue to shape the fabric of our city,” Wu says.
“The recognition of Coretta Scott King shows that we are a city that will take on the full legacy of the Kings and challenge injustice everywhere from a place of love. As we continue our work to ensure Boston is a city for everyone, this memorial is a powerful call to embrace each other more, embrace our nation’s history, and embrace what’s possible when we center community.”
It’s also a centering of love, Black love, and a monument that shows a gentleness America often denies Black people.
“Black culture is not trauma,” says Toiell Washington, social entrepreneur and cofounder of the community organization Black Boston. “Oftentimes when we speak of Black liberation, we think about protest, lobbying, boycotting. I want the city to understand that Black joy is also a form of resistance. Creating monuments that exemplify Black love allow non-Black people in the city to see we are so much more than our resilience.”
One of Boston’s most celebrated muralists and artists of this generation, Problak, has long depicted Black joy, love, and children in his work. “The Embrace,” to him, is a necessary work.
“We can show people better than we could ever tell them. Love is a verb. Amplify the love instead of all the other things we are stereotyped as, make sure the city holds ourselves responsible and accountable,” he says.
“When I saw it for the first time I was like this is the exchange of energy. If love looked like something, here it is, because everybody can relate to it. If you can hug, you can hear, very loud but so silent, very strong, firm. To see it and have it be permanent, that’s the hug the city needs right now.”
A hug is a prayer and a dance, a hello and a goodbye, a remedy and a reminder. Let us embrace a Boston that embraces one another, knowing our individual freedom is bound to our collective freedom and that’s the love and lifeline to hold on to.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.