Models Monday: Anita Hill

Anita Hill, Friday, 19 September 2014.
Anita Hill, Friday, 19 September 2014.

I had the privilege of being one among a small gathering of people who greeted Prof. Anita Hill before the screening of the Frieda Mock documentary about the impetus and the aftermath of Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991 regarding the sexual harassment charges Hill leveled against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas.  Anita foregrounds the many women who rallied in support of Hill in ’91 and interestingly, most of the women who narrate this highly provocative media spectacle wherein 14 white men interrogate a black woman, forcing her to recount Thomas’s crimes in graphic detail, are white women. While these women address the significance of the strong narrative of racial betrayal leveled against Hill for her charges against a black man, someone of her own race, and thus disrupting his smooth path to judicial distinction, the narrators say nothing about the sanitized spectacle of this country’s long history of rape against black women dating from the antebellum period. Maybe they did not want to seem to be making a case for Hill as a victim of a “high-tech” raping akin to Thomas’s charge of a “high-tech” lynching having occurred. Charles Ogletree appeared to understand the significance of the intersection between race and gender in this case and decided that showing solidarity with Hill was both his moral and civic responsibility; he said the words, “black woman,” that others noted but were not called to think of in terms of U.S. history. To that end, instead of embracing her as an “icon,” Ogletree acted as someone who knew she needed cover.


Ogletree recognized that no black men were seen who publicly supported Hill and decided he would be among the first. He not only saw Hill’s vulnerability, but that of his daughters and grandchildren who have been born along the same sick, sordid trajectory that begins with antebellum U.S. history and extends well beyond it. Beyond Ogletree, Hill’s former law school classmates and friends offer testimony on her behalf. One of the most moving moments in the film occur when Hill’s family arrives. Despite the Senate’s attempt to make Hill appear ugly and unloveable, her mother and father held their daughter in a loving embrace the moment they arrived. Their gesture models a worthy rebuke to a history and culture of contempt.

Towards the end of Anita, the camera’s gaze lands on the staged 1956 Look magazine photograph of Rosa Parks hanging on the wall of Hill’s Brandeis office. The documentary makes it resoundingly clear that Anita Hill’s testimony helped disrupt the marginalization of sexual harassment as a public issue. What the film does not do is make the case that Hill and Parks are analogous figures. Hill very explicitly and consistently contend that her professional goal was not to testify before the Senate against Clarence Thomas but, as she states, “teach her classes.” Telling “the truth” was Hill’s motivation to ultimately go before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Thomas’s conduct. Rosa Parks challenged systems of domination on purpose. Parks was not caught up in an overwhelming situation. As a lifelong activist, she was well prepared that December day. It seems odd to link Hill and Parks together; one black woman who chose to resist and another black woman who fell into the role. While both women were modest dressers, careful speakers, and highly visible socio-political actors, Rosa Parks’s consciousness was a radical one. The association Mock makes between Hill and Parks only works as a sentimental tale, but not as history.

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