Twenty-seven years after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Anita Hill recalled that the most wrenching part of her testimony was not being asked by an all-white, all-male judiciary committee to repeat Thomas’s graphic and grotesque comments. It was knowing that her elderly parents had to live through the ordeal, too.
Irma and Albert Hill were deeply religious people. They raised thirteen children while working as farmers in Okmulgee County, Oklahoma, and taught them “to be honest and truthful and hardworking,” Anita Hill explained in an interview, in 2017. Irma turned eighty on the day that the vote was taken to confirm Thomas. Looking back on the hearings, Hill said, “They felt that they couldn’t protect me. . . . It was hard for me to see that I couldn’t protect them.”
Years ago, I was sexually assaulted. Afterward, I winced at the thought of telling my parents. When I did tell them, they were loving and supportive, but they also wondered aloud how this could have happened to me. I was at a loss myself. I was supposed to be a source of pride to my parents. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was a source of shame. We don’t talk about it anymore, because there is nothing that can be said to make it less searing for any of us.
I have few memories of the immediate aftermath of the assault. I pushed it out of my mind, until a month later, when I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean to attend a conference. As I looked out the window, the most unwanted and unwelcomed images visited me and then evaporated into the black sky. They were out of order, disconnected, and disgusting. A revolting feeling came over me, first in waves, and then settled in my stomach.
At the conference, I stumbled through my paper, flubbing lines that I knew by heart. I called my therapist, who referred me to a psychologist who specializes in trauma. I saw her the week that I returned, and I’ve seen her every week since. She assured me that it was not my fault and that it is not uncommon to block out traumatic events.
During this time, I received tenure at Stanford. I should have felt relieved and secure; instead, I felt vulnerable and more anxious than ever. I retreated to the safety of my bedroom and slept at every chance I could get. Before, I was travelling almost every week. Now I was lost in a fog of exhaustion. I began to confide in friends and colleagues so that they would forgive my absences.
A year passed, and I believed that, finally, I was beginning to heal. But, one afternoon, as I drove to meet a friend, I saw signs for a highway exit that reminded me of the event. Suddenly, the sickening feeling returned, and I had to pull over. At any moment, I now knew, a sound, a touch, or even a highway sign could bring back those terrifying images. Eventually, I would understand that this is how trauma manifests itself—episodically and fitfully. I would learn to live with unpredictability. But I still feel my left hand slowly clench into a tight fist when I tell my story to others. I search their faces for signs of judgment or pity.
As a historian, I understand the countless reasons why women, particularly African-American women, might not share their experiences of sexual violence. Long before the #MeToo moment, black women weighed different survival strategies—sometimes turning inward and choosing silence, sometimes turning outward and choosing protest—in the aftermath of sexual assault.
Sexual exploitation has become a part of black women’s collective history and memory. For centuries, white men routinely harassed, abused, humiliated, and raped black women, especially those who worked in white homes as domestic servants. As a result, the historian Darlene Clark Hine has written, black women developed a “culture of dissemblance” that “created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.”