If our monuments tell the story of our country, Imari Paris Jeffries is working to broaden that story into one of greater inclusion.
Jeffries is executive director and CEO of Embrace Boston, the multicultural institution and research and policy center behind The Embrace sculpture honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common. He spoke at a Black History Month event sponsored by the Friends of the Needham Public Library on Feb. 4.
“The Embrace is one of the first waves of new American monuments,” said Jeffries. “It’s contrary to the way the average American monument is built.”
He said most American monuments follow a neoclassical style and are mostly of men standing on elevated plinths that we can’t touch. “They are set up high, so you have to look up,” said Jeffries. In contrast, he said the prompt for this monument was to find the most inspirational way to honor Dr. King that people can touch.
“We’ve been trained to build and only see monuments in a certain way, so we’re trying to retrain ourselves,” said Jeffries. The Embrace is a 20-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide bronze sculpture depicting four intertwined arms that represent an embrace between Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, who met and fell in love while they were students in Boston in the 1950s.
“It is a conceptual piece. You want to touch it. So the experience is in counterbalance to the way that we normally experience monuments,” said Jeffries. He said our monuments have been as much about the individuals who decided to commission them as they are about those being memorialized. “I think it was important that we as Americans move away from that narrative and focus on the values and less about the individuals. It’s not about the Kings but more about those values of belonging, love, embracing our loved ones.”
Of the 50 most memorialized people in the U.S., only five are black or Indigenous, and three are women. Jeffries likened monuments to the digital “cookies” that follow us online, tracing our browsing and shopping habits and continually reminding us to return to buy more of the same. He sees monuments as the analog version of those cookies, reminders that frame and reinforce our way of thinking. He hopes The Embrace is part of changing those “analog cookies.”
Reaction to the sculpture included some initial resistance. “That was difficult,” said Jeffries. “I think it is hard to introduce new concepts to folks.” He said he feels a lot of the feedback or backlash was about Boston and its past. “It was not conceived that a city like Boston would build a monument for the Kings.” But he said the sculpture has since exceeded expectations for what has happened around it organically. People not only touch it, they walk and sit under it. Jeffries said it is the most accessible monument in the country. “From memorial services to union protests, it’s been a meeting place. I’ve seen flash mob dances. It’s become an outdoor sanctuary and a destination for tourists,” he said.
In one of Dr. King’s final speeches, Jeffries said, there were three things he wanted to fight for in his next stage had he not been assassinated. “That was the evil of racism, the evil of poverty and the evil of war.” So for those who ask what they can do, short of building monuments, Jeffries encourages creating what he calls analog cookies of love.
“We have pictures of people we care about, that we love. Print out at least five of those pictures, put them in frames and put them in places where you spend most of your time,” he said. “Surround yourself by analog cookies of love. I promise you, it will change your perspective.”