As snow flew on Boston Common Monday, Nancy Onyejiaka gazed at the colossal figure, absorbing its features in contemplative silence: the round buttons adorning Martin’s sleeve, the string of beads encircling Coretta’s wrist, the grooves between their knuckles, the ridges in their fingers, their simple wedding bands.
The Northeastern University student was underwhelmed when she saw photographs online of “The Embrace,” a 20-foot-tall sculpture depicting the interlocking arms of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in brown patinated bronze. Observing the monument beside her partner, Ethan Humphries, in person on Martin Luther King Day, Onyejiaka was moved.
“I was like, ‘What’s the message here?’” she said, about her first impression. “But I don’t think I looked at it close enough.”
Now she eyed it closely, joining a multiracial crowd of visitors who thronged “The Embrace” as morning gave way to afternoon. They snapped photographs of the imposing structure at all angles on their cellphones, marveling at its larger-than-life details, exploring its snow-covered bends and curves.
Designed by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, “The Embrace,” unveiled Friday, has drawn plenty of controversy on the Internet for its portrayal of the disembodied arms of the country’s most famous Black civil rights leaders; some critics called it ugly or insulting. Art is subjective, after all.
But perhaps “The Embrace” is best appreciated up close, remarked Host Valcin, of Dedham, who couldn’t resist sliding his gloveless hand against the monument’s smooth surface.
“I think it’s definitely designed more for when you see it, when you feel it,” Valcin said. “It’s beautiful. It speaks volumes.”
Valcin’s oldest son, 11-year-old Noah, thought so, too, knocking on the sculpture with his elbow and wondering if it was hollow. At first, Noah, a fifth-grader, admitted he didn’t want to go out to see the statue on his day off from school. But his mother and father insisted on bringing Noah and his younger brother, Nick. Noah changed his mind about “The Embrace” upon seeing it for himself and came away with a new understanding of its depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.
“He’s kind of like a superhero,” Noah said.
Valcin wanted his children to “know their history,” he explained, a sentiment he shared with several other Black parents who made the pilgrimage Monday to the monument. Isis Patterson, of Beverly, made an impromptu trip to Boston with her son, 10-year-old Kaiden, and infant daughter, Genevieve, in tow. She cradled Genevieve on her hip, while Kaiden splashed in the puddles of melted snow that had pooled beneath Coretta and Martin’s hands.
Patterson said she was proud to be there, commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Emotion swelled within her.
“Seeing how many people there are today, coming together to see this statue and honor him, it’s a feeling of, like, embrace I guess,” she said with a laugh.
Situated within another memorial, the 1965 Freedom Plaza, honoring local civil rights luminaries, “The Embrace” is based on a black-and-white photograph of Martin and Coretta, wrapped in a hug after Martin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The couple met as students in Boston in 1952. Martin returned to the city in 1965, where he led more than 20,000 people in a procession from Roxbury to Boston Common, the first major civil rights march in the Northeast.
Peering up at the sculpture, Courtney Small, of Mattapan, reflected on how much Boston has changed through the decades, particularly since his Dorchester boyhood, when he was bused to a predominantly white high school in Roslindale during the city’s violent busing crisis in the 1970s.
“So much has happened since that time, from [Black Americans] getting involved in politics to having the freedom to visit and interact with communities where you typically wouldn’t be welcome,” Small said. “Boston has a way to go, but it’s come a long way, too.”
Taking in the bronze memorial, Raymond Porch, too, was reminded of his Boston childhood. Porch grew up in a redlined neighborhood in Dorchester. He remembers hearing a middle school teacher read King’s sermon on the “ultimate measure of a man” at the end of the school year. Porch didn’t fully understand those words until he was in high school, attending a wealthy private school on a basketball scholarship where he was one of a handful of Black students.
“Being in an independent school and growing up in the projects was living in two different worlds, so when I think about Dr. King’s words, ‘the measure of a man,’ it’s about what you do when things are difficult. And what I did was focus on learning,” Porch said. “That’s how I approach the world at this point.”
Then Porch and Valcin locked eyes. Porch was Valcin’s old basketball coach at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Moments earlier, as they viewed the memorial, the men had bumped into each other for the first time in years.
“I’ll text you,” Porch promised, about getting together with their families again.
“We’ll make it happen,” Valcin said. “I love you so much.”
Before they parted ways, they hugged.