Hank Willis Thomas: ‘Embracing’ Today’s ‘Negro’ Artist & the Racial Mountain

63c68b4f2600003b00f6b1e7On the weekend of what would have been Martin Luther King’s 94th birthday, Black artist Hank Willis Thomas revealed his depiction of the 1964 photograph of Martin & Coretta Scott King. In that iconic—though rarely publicized photo—the Kings are hugging after Martin was announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Called The Embrace, the ten million dollar, 22-foot sculpture sits in Boston Common as part of its 1965 Freedom Rally Memorial Plaza, thus acknowledging the Kings’ relationship to Boston—the place where they both met as students.

I initially saw Thomas’ 19-ton bronze compilation of 600 welded pieces on @KevonStage’s Instagram reel, when my partner lightweight shoved his post in my face. “Look at this!” she insisted—cause she knew it’d upset me. & it did. At first look, all I could see was a big brown dick. Exhales.

“What is this you showin me?” I asked her. “What is that? Is it a dick? Is it pieces of shit? I don’t get it.”

“It’s a Martin Luther King sculpture,” she said—to which I insisted she was lying.

Unless one looks at Thomas’ The Embrace directly as one would look at the picture from where Thomas drew his inspiration, his sculpture may look like a heart, like discombobulated arms, like discombobulated arms holding a dick, or well, like pieces of shit. Sigh. But my Black self refuses to see any Black artists’ work as shit—cause our creative energies are divine energies, expressions of our genius. So, while I ain’t like Thomas’ rendition, & I still don’t, I needed to understand it. & eventually, I did, after reading @fahamupecou’s IG post—which included a more digestible image of The Embrace, along w/some art discourse that made Thomas’ sculpture make sense. Kinda.

According to @fahamupecou, who claims to be “Basquiat with a passion like ‘Pac”:

The Embrace is brilliant. It’s a master class in abstract figurism . . . I love the movement in it. The form is dynamic and rhythmic. And the story it tells offers a unique and compelling interpretation of Dr. and Mrs. King’s legacy.”

In other words, @fahamupecou has identified Thomas’ work as abstract and figurative, which, together, defines The Embrace as an unrecognizable depiction of a real-world reference, usually of a human figure. & so it is: Hank Willis Thomas’ The Embrace succeeds at being an abstract figuration; he nailed it—while also hammering in the continued erasure of Black folks, the erasure of King’s whole person, & the erasure of a Coretta Scott King whose contribution to the civil rights movement made Martin Luther’s possible. Ugh. & that’s what’s really shitty.

In this post post-postmodern world, where she is he (or them or @ or zir), and an AI writing generator may be behind this blog composition, Black people—who are still being written out of K-12 school curriculums, who are still being disproportionately arrested, incarcerated, & murdered by police, who are still victims of medical apartheid, whose lives are still publicly threatened by government officials—can’t afford to be depicted, to have our civil rights activists structured as fragmented body parts, as pieces of shit. In other words, especially in this post post-postmodern world of blurred lines & visions, of fake news & scripted reality TV, Black people need to be clearly seen & depicted as whole human beings—w/souls & bodies intact. As togethered. That’s the embrace the world still needs to see. & I believe Black artists w/national platforms like Hank Willis Thomas’ need to ensure Black folks such visibility. That might not be a fair sentiment. Shrugs. I mean, it ain’t. But we need Thomas (& Beyoncé, & dare I say, Kanye West) to be our revolutionary artists—which sometimes requires them to be the voice of the people.

*      *     *

In his 1926 “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” essay, Langston Hughes advocates for Black artists to “build [their] temples for tomorrow, strong as [they] know how.” He asserts that white folks may not like it, nor may Black folks. “[T]heir displeasure doesn’t matter either,” he says. YiKes! But, it does. #blacklivesmatter, & nearly 100 years have passed since that essay, & Black folks are still climbing that racial mountain. My hope, however—cause we gotta keep hope alive, right?—is that while Black artists stand on their mountaintops, “free within themselves,” they will create work that frees us all. For, posits W.E.B DuBois in his “The Criteria of Negro Art” essay written that same year, Black artists have the “bounded duty” to create, preserve, and realize beauty, which “becomes the apostle of truth and right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is,” says DuBois, “but his freedom is ever bounded by truth and justice. Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” All art is propaganda, he says, “for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” DuBois continues:

“I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent . . . ”

Although DuBois was writing in 1926 to counter an overtly racist America—& really, so was Langston Hughes—years later, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, & Alice Walker echoed similar sentiments. We can’t afford to be blurred, said Alice Walker about purposely hazed photographs actor Richard Grier was showing the Dalai Lama on a stage the three of them shared at Emory University circa 2010. We’ve been erased for way too long to create art that erases us, too.

Therefore, abstract art, although it might showcase a Black artist’s range of motion & ability—his ability to assimilate—it may not be the best nationally staged representation of Black love, activism, & humanity. Undoubtedly, Hank Willis Thomas’ dismemberment of Martin & Coretta Scott King does more to uphold white folks’ sociological imaginations than it does to uphold the Kings’ memories. We still waitin for freedom to ring.


  1. Thank you, Kendra Nicole. I can always trust that you will give us some things to think about and feel about. You bring the ancestors with you in calling our attention and focus to “look at this”, and “remember this” – all the things that matter concerning the evolution of black people in this country. A prophetess (in my opinion) crying in the wilderness of America, to us black folk to disrupt our conditioning and return us to the call. The call to love and illuminate each other so that we can see our own genius and walk in it. Ase.

  2. I was happy to learn that I wasn’t alone in my state of utter confusion when I first saw “The Embrace.” I was afraid I wasn’t deep enough to appreciate it. Your blog has allowed me to move past this. 😬
    Thanks for tthis word!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s