Monday marked the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, who is probably the most famous African American in history (don’t worry… Obama isn’t too far behind). My twitter timeline, facebook news feed, and email inbox were flooded with people’s attempts to commemorate, memorialize, or be inspired by King’s legacy. What surprised me, was the lack of commotion about updates to his memorial in Washington DC, despite that fact that its grand opening is scheduled for August 28, 2011.
The King memorial has seen its fair share of controversy over the past four decades ranging from safety approvals to outcry over the design. In my attempts to update myself with the project’s progression, I was reminded of some very interesting issues I thought I had managed to suppress in my psyche. Firstly, the hurdles that so many landmarks intended for people of color must jump to come to fruition, and secondly our lack of representation in the design of many of the sites dedicated the memory of my black experience.
From a designers standpoint I still stand with Gilbert Young in my desires to have seen the design team have more representation from a black designer (I would have even been placated had it simply included a designer of color). Despite my personal preferences, I applaud ROMA for their win in the MLK Memorial competition, and am excited to see their design completed this summer. Their design has a clear narrative that is sure to create a great experience to add to some of the design gems already on the mall.
The memorial truly encapsulates the spirit of MLK with the reflection niches honoring others who were major catalysts in our universal struggle for Civil Rights. ROMA’s ability to direct views with the elements of the stone wall, trees, and sculpture, frame King against the other historic figures on the wall, while giving him his own authority over the site. From the design drawings, the Jefferson memorial seems to be floating in the background as a backdrop. Lastly, their reveal of the Stone of Hope at the focal point will be the grand finale to the narrative as one approaches the rough stone and King’s likeness emerges larger than life. Whoever was chosen as designer, it will be a site to see and was a much needed addition to the National Mall.
It would have been a great opportunity to showcase some of the black artistic talent we have in this country, but the Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin has created a majestic likeness of King that is sure to be awe inspiring. That being said, I am elated to see the inclusion of McKissack and McKissack, being both a black and female led firm, on the design build team. They are one of the oldest black owned architecture firms in the country and their inclusion on this historic monument is a great moment for black designers. Hopefully this project will get them some well deserved public attention.
I understand how competition and project selection teams go and we see this issue as a repeating theme in the creation of American memorial. It has happened a few times with Maya Lin and her winning submissions for the Vietnam War Memorial and Civil Rights Monument. It was again a concern in the competition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which eventually was won by a mega team of Adjaye Freelon Bond; comprised of David Adjaye, Phillip Freelon, and the late Max Bond. What I pondered in this situation is who is the memorial really for?
The case of the MLK Memorial was to be expected. It is a NATIONAL monument. And as with all things governmental, the road to political correctness tends to leave many feeling unrecognized or unrepresented. This is why I am not surprised that most of the monuments to blacks are statues or historic buildings and sites managed by the National Park Service. If anyone (insert: any ethnic or cultural group) want to see an authentic representation of their history and story, it is only something THEY can tell. Waiting until Congress makes the decision to include you will not leave you feeling satisfied.
What needs to occur, especially from within the African American community in this country, is an inner movement to design and fund our own sites of commemoration that can represent us in totality down to the design team (and then we need to let it go the way of FUBU and BET). Beyond memorials, we should be actively working to seek out black designers on commissions from within our community. If we fail to promote our own, we cannot expect it from others. As the Ghanian proverb so clearly states, “Gnatola ma no kpon sia, eyenabe adelan to kpo mi sena.” Or “Until the lion has his OR her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” If we learn nothing else from MLK it should be to take initiative, pick up our pens and pencils and design our story so it ends the way we want.