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Home, Equality, & The American Dream

Illustration by Ellen WeinsteinEstablishing or owning a home is, arguably, the single most important part of the American Dream. Yet in recent years, the housing and mortgage crises that have fed the larger financial crisis have placed Americans’ struggles to maintain a home in stark relief. In today’s America having a home is far from a guarantee—the opportunity is not available to everybody.

As a result of the subprime-mortgage meltdown, at the end of 2011, about 11.1 million of all U.S. residential properties with a mortgage were underwater, according to data from CoreLogic, and the total outstanding debt on those residential properties stood at $2.8 trillion. “There is more to today’s problems than just the moment that we are experiencing in time,” Anita Hill has said.

On February 27, 2012, Hill visited the campus to deliver the annual Helen Rogers Reid Lecture presented by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The theme of her hour-long address was the subject of her book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. The lecture, inaugurated in 1975, honors women in public life who have “shown significant commitment to improving the lives of all women,” noted Professor Elizabeth Castelli, acting director of the center, in her introduction. Moments later, as she stood before a crowd of nearly 200 people in The Diana Center, Hill stated, “I do believe I am a person who has paid some attention to women’s issues, so I do qualify for this lecture.” It was the first glimpse of Hill’s humor, ease, and optimism.

It would be wrong to assume that Hill’s interest in women’s issues stems from the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Her testimony at that time not only made her a household name, it also sparked a national conversation and debate about women and sexual harassment in the workplace. A long and proud family history has informed much of what Hill has done as a scholar, writer, speaker, and as an advocate for gender and racial equality.

A large family (Hill is the youngest of 13) and its role in her life are central to Reimagining Equality. The author and Brandeis University professor frames her view of home and its role in defining equality with a look back at her own family history on her mother’s side. “T.S. Eliot has said, ‘Home is where one starts from,’ so I began my writing Reimagining Equality with my own family history,” she explained.

In the book and the lecture, Hill introduced her grandfather, William Henry Elliott, and his life post-slavery, when he went from being property to owning property. Born in 1864, William Henry, as a free man, came to homestead 80 acres of land in Little Rock County, Arkansas; the property became the foundation of his life and livelihood. As such, Hill explained, the law worked for William Henry Elliott. His name was on the title to the land, which contained no reference to his wife, Ida Elliott. Ida raised seven children with William Henry in a two-room cabin while working on their farm. Yet she was denied the right to put her name on the title. “I realized, when I started looking at this whole system of ownership and having that place where we could begin to build our dreams, a place we could use to support ourselves, that there were problems not only of racial denial, but there were problems with a system that denied women,” said Hill.

The Elliotts ultimately lost their farm and land, and in 1915 they moved to Oklahoma to start a new life. Bad debt agreements, threats of violence and actual violence directed at William Henry, apparent government indifference to this plight, and no real safety net for people who came upon hard economic times contributed to the decision to move. Painful as it was, Hill’s grandparents had the courage “to move to a new place where they could imagine a new life for their children and their grandchildren.”

William Henry and Ida Elliott are among the many precedents Hill touched on in approaching the current housing crisis in America and the inequality and imbalance that persist in Americans’ access to and rights in establishing a home. In the recent crisis many of the same issues exist, Hill pointed out, “of racism, of devaluing of women, of the failure of the law to protect people’s rights, the failure of the law to provide a safety net.”

One quality more than any other emerged from Anita Hill’s address: optimism. As she recounted a family history of struggles and hardship, and described a present-day crisis confronting Americans that by most measures offers little hope, Hill challenged the audience to reimagine what home means, and in so doing, reimagine our lives and equality for everyone. Hill’s belief in the power of doing this, came largely from her mother, Erma Elliott Hill.

“[My mother] believed that you don’t build a vision of your life on your current circumstances, but you build a vision of your life, and even of your children’s lives, on what you can imagine for them in the future and prepare for that, and prepare them for that.”

Belief in one’s ability to reimagine a life and to work towards greater equality, to establish homes and communities, and hope for better times, has been strengthened by Hill’s own life over the past two decades since the Senate hearings of 1991.

“I’m optimistic because I know that we can move things, we can change things if we are engaged and if we are responding to the things that we need to respond to. I don’t have to go 100 years back to get to that point. Twenty years ago … there was my testimony [before the Senate]. And I thank all of you who were my supporters and I thank every one of you who believed in me, because you … spoke out.

“You did not remain silent about what really matters. And that’s why I am hopeful, that’s why I believe, that’s why I’m optimistic. Because I’ve seen change occur in my lifetime, but I know that it only occurs when people invest, and speak out, and make known their needs, and their desire for a better America.” —by Dimitra Kessenides ’89

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein