Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves

Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves

Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves

Sexual harassment had been a common experience of black women’s work life since they arrived in America, and it was black women plaintiffs who first comprehended that sexual abuse at work was discrimination. 


One of the lasting images of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy was the photograph of the “Boxer rebellion,” the all-female Congressional delegation marching up the steps to the Senate to demand that it investigate credible claims of sexual harassment. Outside this frame, and perhaps more compelling, are the stories of when each of these women realized that intolerably destructive dynamics of power were being normalized or even defended by colleagues, spouses, friends and elected officials. Every woman who was prompted into action by Anita Hill has a moment like this.

For me, that moment came after a long day working alongside two African-American men who had come to the Capitol to defend Hill against Thomas’s reckless claim that he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching.” We had hoped that this appeal to African-American racial solidarity would at least be tempered by the recognition that Hill was no finger-pointing Miss Ann but an African-American woman whose story of workplace sexual harassment could not have been a mystery to most African-Americans. Emerging from the Capitol, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of African-Americans, mostly women, hands linked in song and praise, seeking God’s help to vanquish this latest threat to Thomas’s elevation to the Supreme Court.

Shocked, shaken and disturbed, we pushed our way through to a taxi, where talk radio was blasting another harangue against Anita Hill, and the driver, an African immigrant, joined the chorus of denunciation. Our experience was not, as we’d come to learn, isolated. Across the country, black feminists were spurred into action, no doubt first by the shocking way that a black woman was being framed, and second by the absence of critical voices seeking to puncture the race and gender stereotypes in play. That these stereotypes were not solely the product of the white imagination simply added insult to injury.

In the days following the hearings, the New York Times printed an op-ed by Orlando Patterson that speculated that Thomas may well have said the things Hill described but nonetheless justified Thomas’s denial, arguing that Hill’s complaints came out of the “white, upper-middle-class work world,” whereas Thomas’s behavior was really just courtship, if you looked at it from a “Southern working-class” and especially black perspective. Frustrated, three black feminists—Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King and Barbara Ransby—gave birth to a manifesto that captured the rage of thousands of black women. In less than six weeks, nearly 1,600 women joined an effort to buy their way into the discourse, contributing nearly $50,000 to pay for a Times ad, published November 17, 1991, called “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” (AAWIDO).

That manifesto still stands among black feminists as one of the most poignant moments of our own truth-speaking against feminist and antiracist mobilizations that frequently ignored our very existence. In this episode, the histories of feminism and antiracism were put into opposition, rendering Anita Hill a raceless figure that could represent either the puritanical sexlessness of white feminism or the universal figure of female oppression. Within the African-American community, arguments that sexual harassment was a product of white sexual discourse and that lynching symbolized the essential character of racist terror in effect erased black women from the picture.

But sexual harassment had been a common experience of black women’s work life since they arrived in America, and it was black women plaintiffs who first comprehended that sexual abuse at work was discrimination. At the same time that the image of lynching came to capture racial terror, against which African-Americans revolted, the unpunished rape and abuse of black women across the South was in fact the rallying point for advocates like Rosa Parks, who built an infrastructure that grounded the civil rights movement. black women’s intersectional experiences of racism and sexism have been a central but forgotten dynamic in the unfolding of feminist and antiracist agendas.

While this anniversary brings attention to many positive developments prompted by Anita Hill’s courageous testimony, the trajectory of the issues raised by AAWIDO—indeed, even the historical memory that it occurred—is not nearly as robust. The conditions that prompted these black women to fashion their own podium twenty years ago have continued to generate new defensive imperatives. Cast as the “nappy-headed ho’s” of the Imus debacle, the simple-minded reverse racist of the Shirley Sherrod affair, the irresponsible defaulters in the subprime scandal, the illegitimate stay-at-home moms in the welfare debate, the carriers of badly parented miscreants in crime reports and the mules, enablers and co-conspirators who make up the fastest growing casualties in America’s endless war on drugs—black women still find themselves defending their name, often alone, sometime against friends and usually against predictable foes.

The legacy of AAWIDO today is the attention it draws to the damaging convergence between the rhetorics of neoconservatism and a non-feminist antiracism. At the core of conservative social policy about race are old ideas that link racial inequality to non-traditional family formation and its attendant culture of poverty. Marginalized in this frame are structural and historical forces that limit the upward trajectory of scores of African-Americans no matter how closely they stick to a male-centered script of family and individual responsibility. And while foundations, legislative committees, advocacy groups and others rightly address crises facing black men and boys, their mistaken assumptions that such interventions will simply trickle down to black women and girls obscures the gendered structures of race, romance and work that contribute to the inequaiities that stretch across black communities nationwide.


Also in This Forum

A Thank-You Note to Anita Hill,” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
How Anita Hill Changed the World,” by Katha Pollitt
Taking Up the Legacy of Anita Hill,” by Jessica Valenti

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