MLK Made in China


A Mirror of Greatness, Blurred, Edward Rothstein’s account of the new MLK monument

Maya Angelou’s criticism

Quotation (i.e. a poor paraphrase) on the monument: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

The original quotation from the Drum Major speech:  …if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

The quotation on the MLK monument, as Angelou protests, should have been the full quote.  This is proper citation, so as not to lose meaning taken out of context.  Otherwise, the particular quote chosen is probably a valid quote, because it’s what apparently MLK himself wanted as his eulogy.  If they’re going to spend the money to erect the statue, they could spend the money to chisel out a paragraph rather than a sound bite.

The insult to MLK goes far beyond leaving out the pivotal “if”.  I suggest reading the actual speech, and then it becomes obvious how the truncated paraphrase and the monument truly insult MLK.  The drum major speech is said to be taken from a prior 1952 “Drum-Major Instincts” speech by J. Wallace Hamilton (which I haven’t found, but would like to for reference).  The “drum major instinct” is defined, perhaps a little akin ego or self-confidence, as the longing of people (be it an individual, a group, or a nation) to be great, to receive praise, and to obtain recognition.  The speech is framed by the Biblical verses Mark 10:35-45, where James and John ask to be seated at the right hand of god, and Jesus’ response is that greatness is defined by serving others.  MLK talks about how everyone has the desire for recognition and how that desire can be twisted:

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive… I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted.

…And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, (Glory to God) he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. (Amen) And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. (Make it plain) And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct…

Then MLK went on to describe other ill consequences of Ego (from seeking recognition to feeling superior), such as racism and exclusion in the name of religion.  Here’s what he had to say about America:

…But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation….

But then, MLK stated that the “drum major instinct” wasn’t altogether bad.  After many paragraphs cautioning against rampant self-aggrandizement and the need to harness the will to be great for good, he noted Jesus’ response to the disciples:

[Jesus] said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

…And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness….

Lastly, reflecting on death, “life’s final common denominator”, MLK had this to say about his eulogy:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.

via “The Drum Major Instinct”.

Now does that sound like a man who wants a 30 foot statue erected to him?

And I think it really shows how insulting the clipped paraphrase is.  Here’s the architect’s response to criticism; Ed Jackson stated: The inscription is not intended to be a direct quote, and adding an “if” would make King sound unsure of himself, he said. “We have the historical perspective. We can say emphatically he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. … You can’t get any more succinct than that.”  Wow.  I think Ed Jackson doesn’t understand the meaning of “if”, nor does he really get it.  Is “succinct” the proper word here?  What about “terse”?  Yes, the statement is short and to the point, but when you’ve lost the inherent meaning, it’s no longer succinct, but simply inaccurate.  a lesson to kids about plagiarism, maybe?

However, if Angelou was on the committee, she should’ve showed up to meetings, rather than not attend and protest afterward.  If that’s true, she had her chance to voice her criticisms in the drawing board process, so her criticisms should be somewhat invalidated now.

An interactive collection of MLK monument photos here.

Also, it was a poor choice to have Chinese artisans sculpt the statue.  If the best sculptor for the job happens to be Chinese, that’s not a problem.  My concern is that the statue does not seem to reflect the humanitarian nature of Martin Luther King Jr.  My ire is not due to the sculptor being Chinese, but more with the actual look of the statue.  The statue looks formidable and dictatorial.  (whether it’s an “Asian” look, I wouldn’t know.  I actually wanted to find some of Lei Yixin’s Mao statues for comparison, but failed to find any)  They should’ve chosen a sculptor who would reflect both the nature of MLK, a sense of African-American culture, and – maybe – something that would also blend well with the other DC monuments.  As these articles point out (here and here), the MLK statue is apparently both very Communistic in style (socialist realism) and very totalitarian in tone.  Reminiscent of the Lenin statue.  which, while appropriate for empires, would be against promoting democracy and against what MLK tried to symbolize or embody.


Goodbye Lenin (2003)

( )

I’ve never studied Asian sculpture, or even the Lenin statue.  What I studied was Roman (and Greek) sculpture, and, specifically, how Romans used sculptures (of themselves and gods) in a very political propagandistic way.  The Roman use of sculptures, once they became an Empire, was propaganda to show legitimacy of power.  Caesar needed it, because he changed Rome from Republic to Empire.  And his adopted son Augustus needed it even more, because he wasn’t a blood heir. etc.  Having an arm outstretched on the statue was the pose of an orator, to remind people of being a senator.  Having legs apart was an action stance to show power.  Musculature could reflect Greek art, reminding people of history and culture.  The statues would also be imbued with certain symbols, which would connect them to prominent wars they won or powerful gods, namely Mars and Venus, or Romulus and Remus – like connecting yourself to the founding fathers and to legitimacy of power.

(also, later, there was a big Egyptian fad and Romans would steal a whole bunch of obelisks and other Egyptian things and just scatter them everywhere; is this reflected in the Washington Monument?)

I don’t know how much of all that has seeped into America, or modern day America.  back in founding father times, Grecian style was still a fad.  designing important capitol buildings with Greek styles and columns could propagandize a legitimacy and solemnity to such a new fledgling country with no real history…or it was just in vogue.  Currently, you could say there’s no need for statue propaganda, or that it wouldn’t be interpreted as such.   Before literacy and media, news was best conveyed to the masses via monuments, whereas now, statues are more likely to be interpreted more as art than anything else, I suppose.

Clearly, it’s still political.  While I’m all for the MLK monument (about time America starts to show that people other than white males can have power, influence, and importance; and what better time than under Obama; and it could be a good thing to add something new to a stodgy old DC), unfortunately, the first thing my cynical mind thought of when I heard of the monument was (thanks to the timing more than anything) that it was a political ploy to win votes for Obama for the upcoming election.  and that bothers me.  (I’m still pro-Obama.  but win my vote through acts, not statues.  statues, if nothing else, convey affluence)  And, it’s not easy to swallow imported Chinese sculptors, at least at a time when our economy is failing in part because everything is outsourced to China.  (at least hire Americans)  apparently even the granite is from China.

The apparent photo after which the MLK monument is modeled.  I don’t think the statue reflects the humanity expressed in the photo, but rather has a cold dictatorial stance.

Well, the backers and corporate sponsors of the monument are American, corporations of course.  Best Buy’s CEO, Brian J. Dunn, has said,  “It’s in Best Buy’s DNA to carry forward these same values and the spirit of inclusion and respect promoted by Dr. King; our involvement in the memorial is one way to honor him and his dream.”  It’s in Best Buy’s DNA?  Such a truly American sentiment.  It bastardizes and popularizes the concept of DNA, reflects a science-based society, and gives human identity to corporations.

From the Best Buy website:

“In conjunction with the donation and Memorial dedication, Best Buy is excited to share the Connected World at the Partners in the Dream Expo! Best Buy BlueShirts and Geek Squad Agents will be on-site to help visitors stay connected and capture/share their memories of this occasion.  In addition, there will be a Best Buy Charging Station, a Best Buy Express Shopping Kiosk, and exhibits from local artists and community groups.”

Yes, while you’re visiting the nation’s capitol, paying respects to Martin Luther King Jr. and reflecting on peace and equality, be sure to charge your iPhones, text your friends, and buy some shit, which is probably made in China anyway.  That’s what America’s all about.


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