The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas situation is one of the darkest moments in Black history to take place in my lifetime. Twenty years ago, a debate raged in our communities over who was right and where our support should lie. Devastatingly, many Black men and women felt that getting a Black man on the Supreme Court was more important than acknowledging the indignity a Black woman had suffered at his hands.
The notion that Hill should shut up and let Thomas live is just as horrifying today as it was two decades ago. While Hill lost from a legal standpoint, she certainly scored a significant victory both for herself and for the rights of women everywhere.
‘Sexual harassment’ was still a relatively underused term in 1991 and she helped kick off a very important international discourse about the inability of many women to work without being subjected to inappropriate and abusive behavior at the hands of colleagues and superiors.
As the bold and brilliant Melissa Harris-Perry discussed at the “Anita Hill, 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking Truth” conference in New York this weekend, workplace sexual harassment was not an unfamiliar issue to Black women at the time of Hill’s ordeal. Even as our ancestors were freed from the bondage of slavery, they were not released from the predatory behavior of many men who treated Black housekeepers and maids (and, later, Black office workers and other employees) like sexual property.
Women of all races have long since been subject to unfair treatment in the workplace, but the widespread lack of respect for the dignity of Black women has made our maltreatment especially profound. And as Black men started to have the opportunity to manage and work alongside us, many of them were no less abusive than their White counterparts.
All this makes the fact that many Black women derided Anita Hill — instead of praising her for defending both herself and our ability to work in peace — much more depressing. We took our charge of protecting the oft-maligned Black man so seriously, that we threw our own sister under the bus in the service of defending a despicable, hardcore conservative so that he might use his role on the Supreme Court to attack the rights of Blacks and women even more. En masse, the Black community let Anita Hill down, and twenty years later, we need to acknowledge that.
At the conference, noted legal professor Kimberle Crenshaw brought down the house with her analysis of the significance of the hearings. She recounted being in DC volunteering during the time and seeing Black churchgoers lined up outside the Capital and singing Negro spirituals “in hopes that we would be delivered” from Hill and her attempts to denounce Thomas. While there were plenty of women who stood up for our sister, there were countless others who did not seem to realize that we have a right to be taken seriously when we speak up for ourselves and a right to work in peace.
While Hill may not have ever set out to be an activist, she performed one of the true revolutionary acts that we have witnessed in the past two decades. By testifying about her experiences, she asserted the dignity of Black women in a way that had not been seen on the public stage since Rosa Parks. We owe her a debt of gratitude for having the conviction to stand up, and we should pay homage to her by doing the same thing when we find ourselves in similar situations… even if a “brother” is responsible.