This is the story that I meant to write for Where You From number 4 but I am glad I waited. The day I finally wrote this I also found the following news headline. . Anita Hill's Testimony Could Resurface If Biden Runs Maybe a whole new generation will know her name.
Attending a large state university in my 30’s as an undergraduate, I was disillusioned by the conservatism of my school. I knew this college town and state capitol was more conservative than the city I came from only 80 miles away,but I thought the youth were with me. I thought they were looking ahead, and behind, with a perspective. But this college town is also a state capitol, in the south, still heavily segregated and largely denying it. At a diner downtown, the all-black kitchen staff made grits and eggs and pork chops and slid them through a small window to the all-white serving staff to be delivered to the tables of politicians and lawyers as the owner looked at the tattoos on my arms and shook her head “no”. I thought it was hilarious, somehow not getting a job in a diner in 2009 because of tattoos like I had somehow never escaped my small hometown.
The night of the 2008 presidential election, I walked across campus with a classmate, eager to get home to hear the results. A boy from our class waved to us and asked us who we voted for. “ I know you voted for McCain…” he said to my friend and i laughed. Oh the humor! But she had. She told me she would have voted for Bush if she had been old enough. I know this is over simplifying, to assume assume all college students, art students at least, refused the lies of the Bush era. They were lies, right? Can we agree on that? She told me that he did the best he could, considering they had Weapons of Mass Destruction. I tactfully reminded her that “they” actually did not. She shrugged.
This was my first semester of school. I had a roommate, a friend of a friend. She met me at the house after Obama's acceptance speech, in gleeful tears as she recounted that he referenced gay people being a part of the national fabric. I remember Reagan and the AIDS quilt. Now I was grateful for a friend, for someone who was as equally disheartened by politics in general but not so hardened as to not feel the electricity and promise of our first black president who acknowledged queer people as, well, people. I assumed that my classmates would feel the same, the excitement, the future! But old conservatives were once young conservatives and I was in school with them.
My roommate graduated and moved to the city. I listened to NPR alone in the house often as I cooked and cleaned and procrastinated my school work. I often yelled back at the news, threw my hands in the air. I was most surprised by the phrase “supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.” I had been away from media for a few years and hadn’t thought of him. He wasn’t doing anything newsworthy, but he was there, voting on things and occasionally his name would flicker across the room and I would get angry again.
I tried to explain to classmates. “I still can't believe he is still a justice. That his nomination was confirmed and here he is…” but they always looked blankly at me.
“You remember, Anita Hill?” More blank stares.
Oh no. I had been a freshman in high school at the time of the Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. Most of my classmates would have been 1 or 2 years old, maybe 6 for the grad students. They don’t remember nightly news images of Anita Hill, seated a table opposite the committee investigating the allegartions of sexaul harassment , how she stated her story as evidence against the character of a potential supreme court justice and was herself seeming on trial . The commitee questioned her, having her spell out for them why a pubic hair on a coke can is unwelcome from a co-worker and might make someone feel uncomfortable at their job. They questioned her and doubted her as if she would make that shit up. News crews and senators, including Joe Biden, questions the existence of sexual harassment in the workplace. I remember the jokes, the disbelief, the refusal to believe this woman state things that many women already knew, and lived in their lives. I am sure that women at work had to explain to their male colleges: this shit is real and it is happening and trying to discredit her does not erase the existence of this behavior. Actually we still have to do that today. Except that today we have laws to protect against it, even though it is difficult to prosecute, even though some people still think it is a joke, an overreaction, a lie. Anita Hill told the whole country what was and still is perpetrated often men to women, queer and trans colleagues yet the harassers still become supreme court justices and the harasees... well in this case Anita Hill is a lawyer and professor of law and women’s studies at Brandeis. But my classmates didn't know her name. You might not know her name. But you probably understand the basics of what constitutes sexual harassment and that there are laws against it. After Hill’s testimony, despite all the backlash and doubting, President GHW Bush dropped his opposition to a bill that allowed people to sue for damages in sexual harassment cases. The bill passed. To be fair, I don’t think all my classmates knew the name Clarence Thomas either, unless they listened to NPR talk about his reticence on the court. I wonder if she’s glad he doesn't say much, if she is happy to never hear his arguments voiced by NIna Totenberg, or if, as I suspect she might be, is a better person than that, too busy teaching justice to future lawyers and maybe a future supreme ct justice. And maybe she can already see that her legacy is already deeper and more influential than his. Even if you didn't know her name.