Martin Luther King Day Reflection: A Visual Art & GenAI Journey

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readJan 15, 2024
My 2024 portrait using Midjourney + Photoshop

Martin Luther King Day commemorates the life and legacy of Dr. King, who was born on January 15, 1929, and became a leading voice in the fight for racial justice. MLK Day, as the holiday is often called, was made a federal holiday in 1983 and was first observed in 1986. Although Juneteenth is considered to be the first Black federal holiday, MLK Day is the first that celebrates a Black person. I remember the struggle to make it happen.

My 2023 portrait as part of “The Heart of New England” IMAX film

My first portrait of Dr. King was a 1988 mural I painted on white butcher block paper, that was hung behind the pulpit at Green Street Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. Unfortunately, I can’t find photos of it but I remember making it in the basement of the church. Around that time I read Why We Can’t Wait, especially his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that remains a classic document of the Civil Rights movement and is certainly an appropriate read for Martin Luther King Day:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

My portrait of Dr. King for the “As Told By…” series of operas in 2022

Today, I still hear people use the word “Wait” when referring to bridging the digital production divide and leveling the playing field in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math). “Wait” because there is still not enough representation in these fields to attract and engage underrepresented and underestimated groups.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

My mural/portraits for IMAX film “The Heart of New England” in 2023

I have done several portraits of Dr. King over the years, including one for the Boston Modern Opera Project (see above). The one I’m most proud of is part of the IMAX/Omni film “The Heart of New England,” which includes 16 portraits of social innovators in an animated sequence (see above). Social innovators are individuals who strive to create solutions to social and environmental challenges using myriad approaches. Dr. King used a nonviolent protest protocol but that is not all that he did. He also used the written and spoken word:

Left: Dr. Claudine Gay; Right: Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey

Listening to Dr. King’s words I was reminded that, in 2024, there are still forces that thwart the progress of African Americans. This includes the targeting of Black scholars such as Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey who committed suicide recently and Dr. Claudine Gay who was forced to resign from her history-making position as president of Harvard University. I saw a thread on social media about the racial/gender targeting of Dr. Brittney Cooper that was supported (encouraged and liked) by Elon Musk.

As seen on social media this year

The kinds of issues highlighted by Dr. King has continued to be a problem for African Americans, even in the artificial intelligence (AI) space that is explored by scholars such as Dr. Joy Buolamwini and Ruha Benjamin. In 2016, I noticed the lack of Black faces and Black themes in generative AI art, so I started making and sharing some of my own images. This became a daily thing for me until this very day but it’s not just about creating pretty images and posting them on social media. I made a conscious effort to show that people like me can carve a space in emerging technological developments such as generative AI. Also, I recently wrote about AI bias in digital art and algorithmic bias in educational technology.

And we still have a long way to go.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.