Friday, February 27, 2015

I dreamed I saw Anita Hill last night...Darshan, part two

Actually, it wasn't a dream. I really did see Anita Hill last night. She had been invited to Santa Cruz to speak during the university's 50th anniversary celebration. Not surprisingly, it was an enormously popular event, filling one hall, and overflowing to another nearby where the event was livestreamed. By some good fortune and despite being far from first in line, I found myself sitting in the third row.

I am trying to remember just what my awareness was at the time of Hill's testimony during the hearings on whether Clarence Thomas should be chosen for the Supreme Court. I know I was aware of them, and the iconic images of her testimony are with me as much as the next person of that era, but I'm not quite sure why, as I know I didn't have cable and I did work, so wasn't watching the hearings during the day.  I suppose they were recapped on whatever version of the PBS Newshour was going at that time. So, though the general sense of the hearings remain with me, some of the actual details and players are pretty hazy. I hadn't remembered that Joe Biden had chaired the committee, for instance.

More than my own personal sense of identification with Hill, though, I was interested to go because women I know were remembering and getting fired up about that memory. They reinforced the feeling that Hill gave in her talk that though the battle may have been lost, in the longer view, things weren't that simple. Hill's own sense of what was going on with the men on the Senate judiciary committee is that they were handicapped in their understanding of how sexual harassment actually was relevant to this hearing. Sexual harassment had been declared illegal, but the world still hadn't come to terms with how to treat the perpetrators. Hill said later in the talk that it's an issue that in some ways we are still struggling with now. As my friend pointed out afterwards, though, ignorance is no excuse (and don't I know that better than anybody?) and the fact that, despite being ill equipped to weigh in on the subject, they refused also to hear testimony from people who had actually studied the whys and wherefores of sexual harassment, makes them something worse than merely naive. More on what Hill said last night can be read in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

For this friend and others, Hill's testimony was a pivotal moment in their lives, because it meant that people began talking to each other about it and about their own experiences of workplace harassment.

Several years ago now, I wrote a post on the word darshan, which is an Indian word conveying in Gretchen Rubin's understanding "the beneficial glow that comes from being in the presence of a great spiritual leader (or holy place or object). Merely looking at such a person – and even better, receiving his or her glance – bestows a blessing."

At the time, I was thinking about movie stars and other celebrities as sort of our replacement for the Indian pantheon of gods and understanding better why people are so drawn to them. But last night I think I understood the concept just a little better when I realized that all those people had come to that hall to receive darshan from Anita Hill's presence. It wasn't because of money or power or any of the usual things people want to get close to to see if it might somehow magically wear off. It was because she, I'm sure an ordinary fallible woman like everybody else in many ways, had also at a key moment become a vehicle for truth. She had made something available to us by her testimony that we had not, in some crucial way had access to before. And despite speaking about difficult issues, there was a lightness and transparency to her that was evident.

And if by chance you  happened to be sitting in the third row, at the end of the event, you were treated to a form of darshan that we never got from the hearings. You got a chance to see Anita Hill's gorgeous smile.

Obviously this was at Sundance, but you get the idea...


  1. Seana

    Clarence Thomas might be the weakest SC justice in recent history. He never speaks in oral argument, almost never writes rulings, always agrees with his more learned colleague the reactionary justice Antonin Scalia and is so archly conservative that it colours his reading of every case. The man is a complete embarrassment and I feel sorry for the women on the court who have so serve with such a big creep.

  2. It is odd, isn't it? You would think his impulse would be to justify his presence there rather than obscure himself. I mean, why does he want to be there at all if just to do nothing?

    Hill said that the thinking in the hearings was wrong in that they treated it like a criminal investigation when it wasn't and that the whole innocent until proven guilty idea is because in a criminal case, the defendant was subject to losing liberty and even life. But Thomas was subject to none of that. He was only in danger of losing one of the highest positions of privilege in the land.

  3. I remember when Thomas made news a few years ago because he spoke during oral arguments for the first time in years. And by God, you're right. Anita Hill does have a gorgeous smile.

  4. She seemed like the kind of person who would never have sought the limelight but unlike many who have, has handled it pretty well.

  5. What is she up to these days? I always thought she looked like an uptight Republican during the hearings, dressed the way women used to dress in movies in the 1950s and early '60s (not that too many black women appeared in Hollywood movies then) but she looks great now. Quite naturally, given the matter that brought her to fame, I feel some trepidation saying that.

  6. She's a professor at Brandeis, where's she at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She continues to write and speak on issues of women, race and class, and obviously she stands at an interesting intersection of all these civil rights issues. I was pleased though not surprised to learn that she is a friend of Patricia J. Williams, whose essays on law and society I have long admired.

  7. I had not known she was a professor at my alma mater!

  8. Well, she probably wasn't teaching when you were there, Peter...

    I just saw some article in the Huffington Post that claimed that even her own students don't largely know the significance she has even for their own professional lives. Judging by the audience in Santa Cruz this is true more generally, but to be fair, there were a lot of students there, considering that it was hardly a mandatory event.