Remarks of Jamia Wilson
Vice President of Programs, Women’s Media Center
October 15, 2011
I extend gratitude to the organizers of today’s event and to all who are gathered here today, to honor the legacy of Anita Hill’s brave stand for equality. Professor Hill’s endurance and resilience has inspired my generation to stand up for ourselves, live authentically and to trust in our outrage in the face of grave injustice.
I’m here to speak about “witnessing” the hearings through the media as a “tween” and share how they ignited my “click” moment of feminist realization and my development of my personal identity as a young black feminist.
Prior to Anita Hill, my definition of women’s rights extended mostly to what impacted me personally. I believed that I was just as smart as any boy and was annoyed that boys were called on more often in class than girls. I didn’t like having to stand outside of the men-only record store in Saudi Arabia where I grew up while my dad entered alone to buy me censored Janet Jackson CDs. Of course, it was difficult having to rely on my dad or taxis to drive us everywhere, because women were not and are still not permitted to drive in the Kingdom.
I remember knowing that I was a Democrat, because I accompanied my family to progressive campaign events. I recall attending a civil rights march to challenge the wrongful firing of an African American teacher in North Carolina. However, I had no real connection to feminist mobilizing or organizing until the Thomas hearings.
When I was contemplating my remarks for today, I reflected on my friend Jamil Smith’s tweet and Facebook message in the aftermath of Troy Davis’ state-mandated murder. Jamil tweeted:I AM NOT TROY DAVIS, but I could be. Later Jamil and I spoke about it and he said that if he made a t-shirt, it would say: “I AM NOT TROY DAVIS. But I could be. And it scares the crap out of me”. Reflecting on his wisdom, I immediatly thought, I AM NOT ANITA HILL. But I could be—and it scares the crap out of me.
And this is why witnessing the hearings as an eleven-year old child, impacted me and transformed my view of the world and my place in it.
It was a year after the Gulf War rattled my community, causing me and my family to briefly leave our quiet expat existence, return to America and watch the battle on TV. 1991 was the year I watched Thelma and Louise with my parents on a bootlegged tape that was passed around our compound in Riyadh. That film and the Hill hearings introduced me to the grim reality of a victim-blaming, rape-shaming culture. When I think back to what I witnessed and experienced during the Anita Hill trial, I remember a lengthy road trip with my parents to visit family and friends in Georgia and South Carolina. We were back in the USA visiting after an eventful year in Saudi Arabia where we had lived for about five years.
I recall riding in my father’s new jeep, listening to the start of the hearings on the radio for the entire ride. At the time, I wasn’t aware of exactly how historically important Anita Hill’s testimony would be to my life and the lives of women across the nation. But I was aware that it must be pretty critical for my dad to opt to hear the testimony over his usual soundtrack of Motown, Old Soul and gospel during our trips.
I remember my parents being focused on every word, drawn in by the banter, and I recall them cheering on the testimony of progressives with claps and cheers. As progressive professors, my parents were the kind of so-called “uppity blacks” Clarence Thomas was claiming to be in solidarity with in his desperate quest to fuel fear and garner sympathy.
I also recollect sitting in the back seat pretending to read the Baby-Sitters Club while leaning in, listening, and wondering what Long Dong Silver was and thinking that I might never drink a Coca-Cola again.
After hearing the first day of the hearings on the radio, we spent the next few days watching it in hotel rooms and in the homes of friends. I recall thinking about a play I had seen, The Crucible, and contemplating the dreadful way former Senator Alan Simpson and Orrin Hatch interrogated Hill, resenting her credibility, decency, intelligence, and, most of all, it seemed, her race and gender. As Hill was accused of flat out perjury and Simpson warned us to “watch out for this woman,” I became aware that we were living a modern day witch-hunt rather than the so-called high tech lynching described by Thomas.
My mom has always said that I was born thirty-five. I guess she was right. I always fought to make sure I sat at the adult table because all of the juicy conversations happened there. At dinner, a family friend brought up the hearings and constructed Thomas as a martyr in need of being saved by all “conscious blacks”. He felt the need to protect his honor with the same vigor as he would his own. He saw him as a black man who was paving the way for others to “arrive” and achieve the same sort of upward mobility in spite of his conservative outlook.
I cringed when he said that he thought Anita Hill was lying and that she was just angry because Clarence Thomas dated white women. He presented the possibility of a conspiracy theory between Hill and “the white establishment,” designed to block Thomas from his rightful place in the Court, in an act of resentment towards all black masculinity.
At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about how to unpack all of the baggage connected to his assertion, but I knew it created a knot in my stomach that panged and made me feel as if someday, I too could be marked a traitor if I somehow stepped out of line by challenging patriarchy within my community and beyond. I understood then, that for some, being black was about normalizing and celebrating black masculinity at all costs, even if this erased or undervalued the realities of black women.
Without knowing it, I was getting an introductory education about Intersectionality 101. It was here when I retorted, “well I believe Anita Hill. I believe her, I am a feminist .” I remember it as clear as day because he laughed, took a swig of Crown Royal and looked around the dinner table at the other adults. He gave me one of those “isn’t she cute” pats on my head and said, “Lawd, she said she’s a feminist. Girl, you are not a feminist. You could maybe be a womanist if you are anything at all and you don’t even know what that means. I had not yet been acquainted with the theories of Alice Walker, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Pat Hill Collins, but I knew that it was wrong for him to tell me who I could and couldn’t be and how to define myself—it was decided then, I was certain, that I was a feminist—and a womanist too once I found out what it meant.
Anita Hill made it possible for me and many others to feel empowered to speak up. She fought to reveal the truth without fear in spite of being portrayed as an attention seeking race traitor by some, and jezebel stereotype by others. The character assassination she experienced and its impact on some of the disparaging words I heard friends, schoolmates, and family furthered my faith in the truth of her testimony.
Yesterday, I was moved when I saw the Occupy Wall Street video about an approach to building a movement and creating a new world together through consensus. Even though the Occupy Wall Street isn’t perfect and has its own work to do to transcend the clutches of hierarchy and oppression , I imagined what Hill’s hearing would have been like in a true democracy—in a society free of patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, racism, and white supremacy. Clarence Thomas would have never been confirmed, and the justice that would be appointed and confirmed to the highest court in our land would be more like you, like me, or perhaps Professor Anita Hill.
While it is often demoralizing that we still have a long way to go, I remain hopeful. I’ll continue to work diligently to amplify women’s voices and hold media accountable for victim-blaming and shaming and change the conversation in the media with the Women’s Media Center because I AM NOT ANITA HILL—but I could be.
Vice President of Programs
Women’s Media Center