Author, lawyer and educator Anita Hill will receive the 2020 Sankofa Freedom Award at 10 a.m. on Feb. 15 at the Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford Ave., to receive the award and give a presentation.
The Sankofa Freedom Award was stablished in 2005 by the African-American Resource Center (AARC) and the Tulsa Library Trust. Given biennially, the purpose is “to recognize a nationally prominent author whose life’s work positively addresses the range and complexity of cultural, economic and political issues affecting the greater African-American community.”
Hill was born in Morris, Oklahoma, a small town in Okmulgee County. After graduating high school as the valedictorian, Hill was a National Merit Scholar at OSU, where she received her bachelor’s in psychology. She went on to receive her law degree from Yale and taught at ORU, OU and University of California Berkley. In 1991, Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, alleging Thomas sexually harassed her at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Commission. Thomas was appointed narrowly to the Supreme Court, and Hill’s story sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and women’s rights.
Today she is a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and the author of multiple books, including “Speaking Truth to Power” (1998) and “Reimagining Equality” (2011), and served as the co-editor of “Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings.”
I know from reading your book, “Reimagining Equality” that your family, your great grandmother decided to move to Oklahoma. Why did she choose Oklahoma?
It’s a longer story than my great-grandmother. It largely involved, on my mother’s side, my grandfather … In the early 1900s my grandfather was threatened to be lynched. He left Arkansas, brought his family to Oklahoma, and his mother followed … I think they wanted to keep their family as close together as possible. Given the threats and the sense that Oklahoma was a safer place for him, they wanted to be together with him.
You describe a conversation with historian John Hope Franklin, where he says even as more and more rights are gained, Oklahoma uniquely defies the dominant narrative of a continued march to progress. How do you assess the racial progress in Oklahoma?
I really value the conversations I had with Dr. Franklin — to help me really understand my own heritage and to bridge my thinking, and to understand the role that history plays in sort of plotting our trajectory. Oklahoma defied odds in the 1920s … [with] development of communities like the Greenwood community in Tulsa. The black middle class was being established in that community. It was a time of prosperity and it was actually a time of prosperity for everyone. But Oklahoma, I think, was unique, or Tulsa was unique in the fact that progress and that prosperity was shared in the black community.
There’s stuff in the interim too. That is, the number of people who were fighting for equality during the 20th century. People like Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, for example, who I have the privilege of knowing. Who fought for racial equality in education and who became not just a plaintiff in a lawsuit, but a champion of racial equality going throughout the state, talking to people who were living in the rural areas and small towns, talking to African Americans about how important educational equality was for them. Education was being denied to them in ways that it was being granted to white citizens. She really gave them the inspiration to believe in the constitution and to believe in their own rights to equality.
That’s something that we also have to think about in terms of our movement toward progress. In a couple of weeks before I’m in Tulsa, I’ll be talking at an event in honor of Clara Luper. After Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher made her claim for her equality in the 1940s and throughout really the 1950s that law or that part of the law started to evolve, or educational equality started to evolve. Clara Luper staged sit-ins to Katz Drugstore in Oklahoma City and, but what people don’t know is that these sit-ins predated the sit-ins that we hear most about in the South. And so what we have to do is to take our history as a whole. We can’t just take snapshots and say, where are we today? We have to understand that we are working and able to talk about equality in the way that we talk about it today because of those pioneers and because of people who have fought for that in the generations before us and in the decades before this decade. Are we where we should be in terms of equality in Oklahoma? I don’t think we are where we should be in terms of racial equality anywhere in this country. And I can’t separate that from gender equality either because we’ve got to understand that the two are linked and we’re starting to see that more and more.
You mentioned in your book that it seems that ‘the progress of equality seems to have stalled,’ has it stalled?
It has stalled, but there are people fighting on new fronts. And I was thrilled to read in the New York Times recently there is a city council woman and who’s fighting for equality in the neighborhoods in Tulsa that now no longer have a supermarket. I talk about that in my book, this what we’re calling now food deserts, where people don’t have immediate access to grocery stores. And now what is being substituted for that are these sort of small convenience stores that have some food but that don’t provide the ability for people to have a balanced meal and don’t offer a real savings around food because the inventory is just not complete. You can buy a few things, but you really can’t provide for a family in these facilities in the same way that people in other communities do. I live in the Northeast now and … I can leave my house and within five to 10 minutes, if I’m driving, I can get to probably four supermarkets.
So switching gears a little bit — and I’m ashamed to admit that I was not around on this planet during the 1991 hearings — it may seem the #MeToo Movement is just a replay. How is the #MeToo Movement different than what we saw in the 1990s?
Wow, you ask big questions. The #MeToo movement has done some wonderful things because in the 1990s there were people who had said, “I had never heard of sexual harassment, I never even knew it existed. I didn’t know it was against the law.” There were people who, within there, would say, “Oh well, it’s not that big of a problem. Even though it exists.” They would deny women’s stories. They would deny that it was truthful, or that they would say the statistics were that people were quoting, were wrong and the #MeToo Movement was really a wakeup call.It is really hard at this point for people to deny the existence. To say they’re unaware, either that they didn’t know it existed or that it doesn’t matter, or it doesn’t affect that many people. What we know now is that all of those are not true.
So that [was the point] of the #MeToo movement, to inform people not only that the problem was huge, but that’s the problem was horrific, that terrible things are happening. And so today, what we do in response to having that information is now on us. We can’t deny it any longer, and now we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do about it before we pass it along to another generation. Accountability is where we are right now. We know it exists. What are we going to do, and how are we going to hold people accountable? And I mean not just holding the people who behave that way accountable — who do these horrible things and who really deny people their right to safety and equality through behavior — but what are we going to do about holding of the people who were in charge of the space … accountable? And we’re moving in that direction, but we’re not there yet. We haven’t finished the work yet.
You’re currently leading the Hollywood Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, collecting data and finding solutions. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what you hope is the outcome?
We’ve set up some focus initiatives. Two things that are happening right now that are really important. First of all, one of the things that I know I’m hearing from people is that they have no systems to report to, either they work in places where it’s under 15 people [employed], so they can’t access protection through the federal law because federal law doesn’t cover a small employer. Or maybe they’re contract workers and not even employees technically, so they’re not protected under the federal law. So one of the first thing we’re doing is to establish a system that people can report into and get help. It’s not the same kind of protections that they get under federal law, but it is a system to help people resolve their issues and report their issues.
And we are, I’m really proud of that because we shouldn’t live in a country where people are told that, “Yeah, we know that there’s someone in your workplace is harassing you.” Maybe they’re extorting sex from you for some kind of benefit or promotion or just even get a job. Maybe they’re making life miserable when you’re on the job, creating an environment that just is impossible to work at. Maybe there’s actually assault that’s going on. I just don’t want us to ever be content to sit back and say, “Yeah, we know this is happening, but there’s nothing we are going to do about it.” So we want everyone to have a place to report.
Second thing … surveying the industry to not only find out what people’s experiences are, but to find out what their resources are, what’s lacking. What’s lacking in terms of systems, what’s lacking in terms of resources if they can get relief ... So for anybody who has ever had a job in the industry, we are offering them an opportunity to tell us about their experiences. So that when we put together our system, our systems are informed by the experiences of people. Not informed by the structures necessarily of the corporation or the employer’s structure. That’s been part of the problem. Many of the systems that have been set up, been set up sort of from a top down approach. What we are trying to do is design a system and let people know what a system that is designed from the perspective of workers looks like.
And let me just say one more thing because I do always talk about history. People think about me in 1991. But I also want people to be reminded, and I’m coming in in February, so it’s going to be black history on the eve of women’s history month, that there were women, pioneer women who took on the issue of sexual harassment in the ‘70s and ‘80s when nobody was talking about the issue. You would have courts saying to them, “Look, this is just a personal matter and you just have to deal with it.” A lot of them did not prevail in their cases. Some of them did, and because of them I can do the work that I do now. And what those people do not know is that the majority of those women who did so, who filed complaints in the ‘70s and ‘80s were African American women. And one of the reasons that I mentioned that is that it’s important for us to honor them, me personally, but it’s also important for us to know that, and I believe this is why African American women were ready to make those claims. It’s important for us to note that there is a link between the rights that were been pursued in the ‘60s for racial equality and the rights that these women were pursuing for their gender equality in the ‘70s, so there’s link in time, and I see all of that as part of a pattern, a path toward equality.
You’re going to be honored by the Tulsa City County Library with the 2020 SANKOFA award. SANKOFA means, “Go back to the past in order to build for the future.” So how do you harness the past to build for the future?
It’s interesting that you mentioned my great-grandmother. Lately I have been thinking because of everyone now, it’s just things are so uncertain in terms of the future. And sometimes we look at what’s going on and we say, “Gosh, we’re just not making any progress,” or, “Progress is just not possible.” And so it’s helpful me to think about that great-grandmother who was raising a child, who herself was born into slavery, raising a child in Jim Crow. And think about my grandmother, who again was forced to leave her home with my grandfather, moved to Oklahoma. They were leaving land that they had taken because of the homestead act, moving. And I think about my mother who raised 13 children, most of whom went to segregated schools, graduated from segregated schools, and really lived into the 21st century. And I think about progress … in terms of all of them, all of their lives. The difference in my great-grandmother’s life and in mine, and all of the progress that was made in between. And that’s how I am inspired and it allows me to realistically believe that change is possible. Because if change was possible then, it’s certainly possible now. We know more now we have more people fighting for it … we have more people who are engaged in this now in was always seeking new ways to approach it or new things that need to be done to create a better future. And that’s how I think about progress and not only from a history but, but also I think about it in terms of what will generations who are yet to be born, what will they get, what will they be able to see from their point of view looking back at this time? And if as long as we keep moving forward, I can think about that with not complete satisfaction, but I can think about it with a sense that yeah, they’re going to see a better world because we’re going to make sure it happens.