Across America, many artists and activists have expressed great concern about the creative “outsourcing” of the epic sculpture honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall to Chinese artist Lei Yixin. Regardless of your views on this issue, a broader question should engage our community:
Have African-American artists, activists and others in the creative realm been good stewards of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr “streets” in neighborhoods across this country?
A study by a University of North Texas researcher estimated that there are over 730 streets throughout the country named in honor of Dr. King. In fact, almost every major city in America has a “King” street or boulevard, and so do many counties around the world. Only 10 states in the Union have yet to name a street for Dr. King. Social scientists have brought attention to the widely varying scales of progress along these streets as they wind in and out of African American and non-black neighborhoods.
The data show that there are over 100 streets in predominantly white neighborhoods named after King, including at least 30 in wealthy neighborhoods — all in great shape.
But it is in predominantly black neighborhoods where King streets where we often find empty storefronts, no sit-down restaurants, and violence gripping the pavement. The same North Texas study that people who live in neighborhoods with a Martin Luther King Street or Boulevard are more likely to be black, and more likely to be poor, and to experience violence.
Comedian Chris Rock once commented: “If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is ‘Run!” In other words, no matter where you live in America, if you are on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going on.”
It’s no laughing matter.
Streets honoring Dr. King have been in our communities for up to 30 years. And yet, the development, attention and economic empowerment have long stopped just shy of the central African American neighborhoods in our cities and towns.
As an artist myself, and one who has fought to include the image of Dr. King in our public spaces, I have to ask, after 30 years, what does it take for the creative realm: visual artists, photographers, writers, musicians, performers and other creative spirits to use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s streets as a “geographical canvas” to give these neighborhoods the initiative and inspiration they need to progress?
There is no better example than the man who to took that same independent initiative: Dr, Martin Luther King Jr.
He created a platform and a vision from despair, and helped to bring about our long march toward progress.
It’s time we began to harness and control our iconic visions, and that we as artists honor Dr. King by becoming the stewards of our of own legacy.
Like King’s message of upward mobility and personal moral reflection, the African American community must embrace the dream of self-imaging, redefining the community before we can achieve real and substantive change. In this new era of technology, global visualization and the learned lessons of King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman should prepare us for the next frontier in the next battle: the war for our image.
Black artists and cultural advocates have a grand opportunity to create a platform to use their skills, talents, and visions to rehabilitate the greatest resource: the spirit of our communities.
We have a hidden resource in the black creative industry in this country, who can be a powerful force if we seize the opportunity to take these streets and the people who walk them to the next level.
Capital improvements are not the only way to revitalize. Can our artists be stewards of that change?
We may not have had a say in the selection and direction of the welcome memorial to Dr. King In Washington D.C., but we have a bigger and more challenging opportunity to create a movement that can chisel into granite, the spirit and image of these neighborhoods.