The events of October 1991 hand-delivered me to feminism’s door. There is but one dark spot in my memories of my beloved second grade teacher; I recall hearing her discuss the ongoing Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings with a colleague and being shocked at her opinion. The same woman who encouraged me to believe in myself, to speak up in the face of wrong and to always tell the truth at all times felt that Anita Hill should go somewhere and let “the brother” have this job. Like many of the Black folks I heard on the radio, the city bus and the news, she was all about “the brother”, but seemed to care little about “the sister”.
By the time the sordid details of Hill’s complaint against Thomas had made their way to my young ears, I already knew about sexual harassment, ‘bad’ touch and ‘dirty’ words and, of course, the importance of being respectful to classmates, coworkers, friends and anyone else you interacted with. So the fact that this man had been accused of such a serious behavioral violations was very grave to me. Why would he talk to her that way if she didn’t not like him as a boyfriend? Why would he make gross jokes about private part hair? And if he did something bad to her, why is she the one getting treated mean? The other big issue that bothered me then and enraged me as soon as I was old enough to fully understand it: why were there Black people who felt the need to prioritize having a Black man on the Supreme Court over doing the right thing? If race was such an important issue, why did his race matter…but not hers?
I find the lack of support that Hill recieved from the Black community to be one of our greatest collective embarrassments. Had Hill been White, I could understand why people of color would be loath to turn their back on Thomas, due to the long history White women being used to sell the idea of the innately predatory sexuality of Black men. I would still support her, but I would be somewhat less dismayed by the reaction of others; it would be still wrong, but a bit easier to understand how that ‘wrong’ happened. Had Thomas been an Obama-type- wildly popular and liberal- I would not give people a pass for defending him either, but I could understand what was at stake were he discredited and why folks would want Anita to be wrong and/or out of the way.
But in 1991, we were presented with a Black Supreme Court nominee who had extreme conservative values (remember how he denounced his own sister for being a Reagan ‘welfare queen’- “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her check,”- only for us to discover that she was a single mom caring for an aging and sick aunt with no support from her upwardly mobile brother?), who opposed Affirmative Action, who seemed to be the absolute antithesis of the much revered Black man that he was tapped to replace by an unpopular figure within the Black community. And he was accused of sexually harassing a sister. Nothing about Thomas said “He’s gonna be good to us,” yet there were those who felt that Hill was a race traitor for getting in his way.
In 2011, most of those people who had advocated for Thomas simply because he was a ‘Black man under fire’ would certainly tell you that they are displeased with the work he has done on the Supreme Court, to say the least. He is one of the most loathed men in our community, a running punchline for Uncle Tom jokes. And were a radio host, an actor, a writer…I would gladly hold his image in the court of Negro public opinion as sweet revenge for those who supported him over Hill not because they felt we had to ‘have a brother’s back’. I would laugh and say “This is exactly what you sexist fools get,”. Alas, Thomas isn’t some Colored take on Rush Limbaugh. He’s shaping history on the highest court in the land and he will likely do so until his cold dead hand is no longer capable of writing anti-poor, anti-POC, anti-woman opinions.
While Thomas may be the most successful example of our choice of ‘the brother’ over ‘the sister’, he is not hardly alone. So many of us still seem to believe that the cultural and institutional attacks on the Black male are reason enough to support him blindly even when he is doing obvious harm to Black women. And as far as sexual harassment goes, many sisters still don’t believe or understand that they, too, have the right to defend themselves as Hill did in 1991. They still associate that level of personal advocacy with Whiteness or privilege. And those who do speak up are still challenged, attacked, punished for doing so.
How would the Thomas/Hill conflict look if it played out today? Hard to say. The world has changed a lot (largely due to the creation of the internet and social media, which would have a HUGE impact on such an event), but our country’s relationship to race and gender is still unhealthy. And our race’s issues with gender and pecking order are still dismal. But I’d like to think we’ve progressed past…wait, we had full grown women defending Chris Brown as if their lives depended on it, didn’t we? Well, we’ve had some growth, we just still have a long to go.
I hope that we take this anniversary of this historic case as a time to to make ourselves more aware of the issue of sexual harassment and to reexamine the abuse Anita Hill suffered at the hands of her former colleague, the Senate Judiciary Committee (headed up by your boy Joe Biden, natch) AND her own community.