There’s No Place Like Home
In a new book published in October on the 20th anniversary of the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hill, recently appointed a senior adviser to provost Steve Goldstein, calls for a national conversation about belonging, community and “finding home” through racial and gender equality. A professor of social policy, law and women’s studies, Hill ignited a national debate two decades ago about racial and gender bias in the workplace through her Senate testimony. Now, as then, she hopes her personal experience and professional expertise will help spark the conversation in living rooms and communities across the country.
“Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home” is an unusual hybrid of personal narrative, social policy, legal analysis and cultural history. In this book, Hill outlines her great-grandparents’ lives as slaves in Little River County, Ark., where they were sold away from each other and separated forever, spending the rest of their lives only a few hundred miles apart.
Hill’s research into census records led her to the discovery that her great-grandmother bore a son in 1864, soon after she had been separated from her husband, and that she raised him on her own in a slave cabin, even after the end of the Civil War. Hill traces her grandfather’s journey from Arkansas — where he homesteaded 80 acres only to lose them amid financial ruin — to Oklahoma.
A Yale Law School graduate and one of 13 children, Hill also recounts her own exciting but anxious departure from the family farm in Lone Tree, Okla., to attend college in 1973 and embark on a new life in the wake of the civil rights and women’s movements. Hill sat down with Brandeis Magazine editor Laura Gardner in early October to discuss the book.
How did the Clarence Thomas hearings influence your thinking on bringing about broad social change?
|Anita Hill and her mother, Emma Hill, mark her
high school graduation in 1973.
In 1991, when I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there was not much political will to recognize the issue of sexual harassment. Right after the hearings, polls said that 70 percent of the public believed that I had lied. But as women started sharing their stories about sexual harassment in the workplace, and people started talking with their spouses, with their children, with their mothers and daughters, things began to change. A year or so later the numbers were reversed: Seventy percent now said they believed my testimony. And I believe that engagement on a personal level is what moved the bar, if you will.
Now, 20 years later, we’ve seen monumental change in the workplace, in policies and in the law. And it didn’t come from the leadership. In fact, it came despite the leadership. It came because the public wanted it. All because we began this new conversation about sexual harassment — about issues in the workplace, gender equality, racial equality. This conversation opened up our understanding of what it took for us to truly be equal in the workplace. This is what encourages me to think that we don’t even have to be a majority of the population to start a conversation now about home and inclusiveness. And it’s absolutely critical that we do so.
Since the hearings, you have received some 25,000 letters, ranging from enthusiastically supportive to critical to downright threatening. What have you learned from these letters?
The first thing that I learned is that there is a strong belief in equality in this country. And I had to have that. I really needed that personally to survive the hearings. People assume that most of the letters talk about gender equality, but they talk about both gender and racial equality. I learned that my role was not going to be just to figure out, “Well, I got through this, now I’m going to go back and live my life exactly the way I did before.” My role and my relationship to my profession and to the law in general became one of helping other people understand how we could become a more inclusive society, how we could really embrace concepts of equality, and how critical it is to our understanding of our democracy.
How are the ideas of home and equality related in your book?
I begin “Reimagining Equality” with an idea about home as the location of equality. I had been struggling with how to talk about both race and gender. For me, the concept of home really is the way to do it. Home is a place where we can build on our dreams and use our imagination and feel that we can grow and prosper personally. Home is not exactly the same as equality, but, indeed, I don’t believe that you can have equality without first securing that place where you can live out all the opportunities that the country has to offer at a national level. We are constantly reimagining what equality is going to be as we gain more rights, as we start to see rights develop. And home always plays a central role in that imagination.
You describe the evolution of social bias in this country through the prism of home and homeownership.
I outline a trajectory from the slave cabin to segregated housing to rampant discrimination in mortgage lending practices and now to reverse redlining — targeting women and communities of color for toxic mortgage agreements. Underlying each one of these developments is bias — social bias that is so embedded in our institutions, particularly lending, that it keeps coming up. Until we understand and really attack the historic bias and racial and gender discrimination that have become ingrained in the lending culture, we will not ever really protect ourselves against the kind of catastrophe that we have had in the last few years in the housing market.
Have you found a home?
Yes, I have. I found an intellectual home here at Brandeis and I found a physical home. I found that place where I feel very secure in Massachusetts. It allows me to do the things that I want, to have the opportunities that I think the country has to offer. So that’s how I define home. I sometimes miss things that remind me of home in Oklahoma. The people. The food. The songs. But I am happy — at home where I am. One of the things that I have discovered is that home is really as much a state of being and a state of mind as it is a physical location. And I believe that I’ve found both.