THE “HOUSE SLAVE” REMINDS THE MASTER OF THEIR DEAL
When Judge Clarence Thomas called the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry into Professor Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment a "high-tech lynching of an uppity black man," declaring himself the victim of "racial attitudes about black men and their views of sex," he invoked the most vivid symbol of racial oppression, the lynch mob.23 Thomas spoke to his white male panel of interrogators in language that resonated with the Master Narrative of our national history. His claim was that they were using false charges of sexual harassment in the same way that their grandfathers had used false charges of rape: to raise the specter of black sexuality in order to keep black men out of public life and to maintain the racial hierarchy in the public transactions of men.24
Of course, there was a perverse irony in this scene. This would-be victim was the same Clarence Thomas who had scolded fellow African Americans for complaining about racism.25 This was the man who had invoked the racist stereotype of the black welfare queen to slander his own sister.26 The same man who had proven himself the paradigmatic assimilationist accommodationist, the ultimate house slave,27 had cast himself in the role of "uppity black man." And yet, this miscast theater of the absurd got rave reviews in the Senate and was a hit in living rooms across the nation.28
Clarence Thomas’s resort to the lynching metaphor was successful in part because of the power of the history he evoked. For African Americans the memory of Emmett Till29 and the Scottsboro Boys30 is all too fresh. The modern-day lynch mobs of Howard Beach31 and Bensonhurst32 remind us that the story of vigilante justice is told in the present as well as the past tense. No matter that Judge Thomas had little concern for the legal lynchings of his brothers and sisters in a racist criminal justice system.33 No matter that he had shuffled and grinned his way through two weeks of testimony.34 The visual image of the lone black man facing a white male panel of inquisitors (the mob) caused African Americans to reach out instinctively in a protective embrace.35 There were some of us who quickly recognized this calculated appeal to the memory of our shared horror for what it was, but all of us experienced a brief moment of terror and kinship. Such was the power of the image and the narrative it evoked.
Of course, Judge Thomas had no interest in calling up the image of the parallel history of terrorism through rape that was visited upon black women in the service of the same institutions of racism and patriarchy served by the lynch mob.36 This story is excluded from the Master Narrative. It is a story all too often omitted from the counternarratives of the civil rights and the women’s movements.37 When Anita Hill spoke of her victimization, there were few in her audience who saw the legions of her sisters violated and silenced, with no one to tell of their horrific pain and degradation.38 Ida Wells, Elsa Brown, Zora Hurston, Alice Walker, Paula Giddings, Toni Morrison, Nell Painter, Angela Davis, Patricia Williams, Kimberle Crenshaw, and many others have struggled mightily to give these violated sisters voice, but their story remained a whisper in the Senate hearing room, drowned out by the roar of stories told by men.
Thomas’s story reminded the senators and the nation that in principle we no longer tolerate lynching. His tale invoked a more recent chapter of the Master Narrative, the story of racial progress and reform. "Remember, black men are no longer treated this way" was a prominent subtext of his lynching metaphor. This story of racial reform is a gendered story. In saying this I mean something more than "There were sexists in the civil rights movement" or "Black men are sexists." I mean that the quest for racial equality in America has been a quest after a patriarchal grail. When African Americans demanded equality, we sought an equal place within a legal system dominated by men.39 When we were given the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, it was the male franchise that was granted.40 When we demanded an end to segregated schools, jobs, and housing, we sought entry into schools that taught boys to look down on girls and into a world where men went to work and women were kept at home to cook dinner and raise the kids. When young black men seek to express their manhood by carrying guns, wearing gold, and "dissing" their sisters, they are emulating Clint Eastwood, Donald Trump, and Hugh Hefner.
There was a final message in Thomas’s lynch mob scene, a message central to the larger tale. Judge Thomas was reminding the senators of a bargain they had struck, an unspoken gentleman’s agreement that should not be broken. Historically, white men had denied black men the patriarchal authority to "protect their women."41 White men’s rape of black women was a way of delivering this message of domination from one man to another. But these same white men had allowed black men to inflict abuse on black women.42 Now Thomas was calling in his chips on this historical deal that put whatever went on between him and Anita Hill outside the white man’s law.43