Twenty years ago I declared my own emancipation proclamation. Not from slavery, not from some form of addiction, but from the tyranny of white male superiority.
Don't get me wrong. I did not renounce my masculinity. I still believe in and want to be a “real man.” But my definition of what makes a real or good man has radically changed over the past 20 years.
This all started in 1991 when Anita Hill was called to testify before the Senate committee looking into Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Dr. Hill, a law professor at Oklahoma University, gave testimony about her charges that Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at both the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s. There is no need for me to recount everything that happened. That has all been amply covered elsewhere. What is relevant here is the effect this all had on me.
First, her appearance as I saw her in the televised newscasts of the time: a smallish, dignified, pleasant looking black woman sitting alone and being grilled by the committee members.
Across from her, sitting on their dais and protected by a continuous desk that screamed power and privilege, were 14 United States senators. All male. It looked to me like a rather lopsided affair.
The mockery, meanness and
macho-centrism of those clueless, male senators was evident. Senators
like Joe Biden and Arlen Specter, to name just two who come to mind,
clearly considered Hill an insignificant mediocrity. It was clear that
they had no stomach for getting at the truth of her allegations.
Such disgustingly unfair and reprehensible behavior by powerful, alpha males raised some serious questions in my mind. That, in turn, led to a closer look at my own beliefs and behavior. How did I compare with those turkeys?
For that matter, how did I compare with Anita Hill? I, too, had testified before a senate committee. In my case it was at the state level rather than federal, 20 million people were not watching me on TV, and I had little to fear for myself. Nonetheless it was a stressful and frightening experience.
What Anita Hill was going through that fall of 1991 was immensely bigger, more important, and I would think, far more terrifying. Yet there she sat, respectful (outwardly, anyway), calm, and serous. Her hands didn't tremble nor did her voice quiver as mine had.
I remember thinking at the time that she was a better man than I.
Related to all this was a parallel train of thought triggered by something almost inconsequential I had heard about Hill. She was said to be the thirteenth child of her family, born in Lone Tree, Oklahoma, the descendant of slaves and sharecropper parents.
That made me think of my dad, who was the youngest of twelve children born to a sharecropper and his part-Cherokee wife in Perkins, Oklahoma, which is about 85 miles from Lone Tree. Had any of my dad's family ever crossed paths with any of the Hill family, I wondered.
Dad was a gutsy guy.
played football and boxed on scholarship at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma
State University). Even more relevant was that as an MP on border patrol
during WWII he refused to carry a gun. And got away with it!
Once when I was a teenager I asked Dad why he had refused to carry a gun and he said he didn't want to shoot anyone. I didn't realize until much later – until I began thinking about it in 1991, to be specific - what that really said about Dad.
Allthough Dad had been dead for about ten years in 1991, I scoured my memories of him trying to recall any instance when he had mocked, been mean to, or disrespected another person (man or woman). I could not remember one single time when he had.
That's when it became clear to me, in a way I had never understood before, why women had always liked my dad. He considered women his equal, he never talked down to them or was flirtatious, and he always treated them with courtesy and was respectful of their thoughts and ideas.
My awareness of these things - my transformational revelations - did not occur overnight. It was only gradually that I saw the light and declared my emancipation from male chauvinism. The job is not finished yet, of course, and probably never will be completely; I remain a work in progress.
And it all began when I saw a committee of white senatorial pricks trying to bully a demur little black female lawyer. Isn't it amazing what courage, intelligence and courteous resistance to bullying can do!
Thanks, Professor Hill. Thanks, Dad.