Topic: Society

The King Memorial Controversy: A Response to The Ethics Scoreboard

[African-American artist Gilbert Young, who has spear-headed the protest in this matter, sent the following to the Scoreboard in response to its essay. I will eventually write a response to Mr. Young here, but in the meantime, his article prompts a reminder about The Scoreboard’s purpose. It is to encourage critical ethical analysis that isn’t based on emotion, bias and rationalizations. The purpose is not to deliver the definitive verdict on any controversy, nor is it necessary or even desirable that sound ethical examination by others results in conclusions that match my own. Many of the issues discussed here deserve far more research and exposition than The Scoreboard can manage; the focus here is on the process of reaching a conclusion about right and wrong, and not on an exhaustive inquiry that will generate a definitive conclusion. The King statue controversy is one of those complex issues, and the Scoreboard welcomes Mr. Young’s perspective.]

It’s always a good practice to know the facts about a matter before attempting to discuss it. That you would boil the King Monument controversy down to the notion that we are racist without knowing the facts is a mistake. There’s more to it than that.

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a 66 year old African American artist. My work is considered “socially conscious”. For 50 years I’ve created work that glorifies the beauty and culture of African American people. My work is in movies and on TV. I’m commissioned by organizations nationwide to create commemorative works including the Salute to Greatness Award presented by the King Center here in Atlanta.

I’m old enough to have witnessed Jim Crow, and I survived it. If you remember history you know African Americans are not native to this country. We’re not immigrants. We didn’t choose to come here. Our ancestors were brought by force. Up until this time our most indelible footprint in history has been that we are descendents of survivors of the horrendous institution known as American Slavery. Our names appear sporadically in history books, and every February our accomplishments are condensed into brief sentences for PR purposes.

That changed 8 years ago with the announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–an African American–would be immortalized in a national monument in the capitol of the most powerful nation on this planet. In my mind, that meant African American History would be important to the world 365 days a year.

Through misguidance, ignorance and apathy, it was decided by a few to hand the most incredible honor of sculpting the centerpiece of the monument to an artist famous for his statues of the mass murderer Mao Tse Tung from Chinese granite quarried using slave labor. Workers are not even provided proper masks to keep killing silica dust from their lungs. No granite company in the USA was allowed to bid on this project before it was outsourced to China.

Your ethics asks, do we punish the artist for what his government does? Take into consideration that Yixin receives a stipend from the government, that he is listed as a “treasure” of the PRC. Do you believe someone who disagrees with the politics of the PRC would receive such favor? Would he be allowed the highest honor of sculpting Mao if he was not “of the body”? Then how could someone who upholds and represents such a government consider sculpting King an honor?

In case you haven’t read or heard, Yixin did not win a competition. The Los Angeles Times reports him saying that he was napping in the grass when committee members found him. He had been recommended to them by his peers. The members asked if he would sculpt the monument without even seeing his work. Yixin said he did not know how big a project he’d agreed to work on until he saw the plans. “This is a great compliment to Chinese artists,” said Yixin. What you may not know is that Yixin was originally hired as a subcontractor. A black artist, Ed Dwight, created the original models for the monument and Yixin was hired to take the models from 12 clay to 28 foot granite. When Yixin’s model was presented, Dwight wrote a 13 page critique, and the Foundation kicked him to the curb. Their excuse? “Artistic differences.”
Dwight’s explanation? A donation from the People’s Republic of China if their artist was used.

Remember this: King didn’t die. He was murdered. He was assassinated for leading a protest against injustices toward “Negro” garbage collectors. It’s true his hope was that someday black people would have the same opportunities as everyone else. He wanted us to go to school together, attend the same churches, get the same pay for the same jobs. Yet here is our very first opportunity to display our culture and heritage in the FIRST monument to an African American man (will there be another?)and we’re being told we’re still not good enough. As far as the Foundation is concerned there’s nothing wrong with the monument being “Made In China.” They like to quote passages about colors of skin and brotherhood. There were other quotes from Dr. King: “Where Do We Go from Here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of value. We must no longer be ashamed of being black.”

African American people must be allowed to take the lead in this chance to honor our beloved hero. WE care that someone who sculpted memorials to a murderer has been given the honor of sculpting King. We WON’T allow someone who knows nothing about the Civil Rights Movement and nothing about what King stood for to have his named carved into Chinese granite in a monument to an African American & American national hero.

Ethically, it just ain’t right.

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