Where They Have to Take You In
Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home
Boston: Beacon Press, 2011, 195 pp., 29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Renée Loth
Anita Hill begins each chapter of her timely new book with a dictionary definition of the word “home.” Webster’s Third is an adequate guide, but the prose might have been more evocative had she turned to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations instead. There, we would find lovely, familiar aphorisms about home; that it is
“…where one starts from” (T. S. Eliot)
“…where thou art” (Emily Dickinson)
“…the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in” (Robert Frost)
The meaning of home in the human experience has inspired poets and philosophers for centuries. Now Hill, a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, has taken up the challenge—but through the prism of gender and race. “I plan to examine home as a place and a state of being by interweaving discussions of law, literature and culture with stories of individuals, focusing on women, and African Americans, in search of equality,” she writes in her introduction.
It is the individual stories, beginning with her own family’s, that give Reimagining Equality its narrative drive. Hill’s trajectory from the youngest of thirteen children raised in rural Lone Tree, Oklahoma—a great-granddaughter of slaves—to law professor at an elite Eastern university may be known to some. But it is still poignant and thrilling to read how her mother sent her off to college with a set of Samsonite luggage donated by a local teacher who believed in her young charge. The two women “encouraged me to leave behind a world in which household roles were dictated by gender and where community divisions were delineated by race,” she writes. “I had to define what home would become.”
But her ancestors’ journey from being property to owning it was not a continuous march of progress. Hill writes movingly of the “messy, complicated reality” of her family’s history, which included violence, unplanned pregnancies, illiteracy, and debt. Hill’s grandparents were prominent members of their Arkansas community, founders of the area’s Baptist church, and in 1895, proud owners of an eighty-acre farm. But they lost the property to a series of bad loans and then fled to Oklahoma, their three-year-old daughter—Hill’s mother—in tow, to escape a threatened lynching. “My grandparents’ exile from their home in Arkansas resulted in a family diaspora that was, in its own way, as profound as my distant ancestors’ wrenching displacement from the shores of Africa,” Hill writes.
After harvesting her own family tree, Hill turns to the stories of four other African American women: Nannie Helen Burroughs, a nineteenth-century educator who campaigned to professionalize women’s homemaking skills; Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun, the semi-autobiographical play about a black family trying to integrate a Chicago neighborhood; “Marla,” a striving single mother whose son is killed in gang-ravaged Los Angeles; and Anjanette Booker, a hairdresser who is a victim—and survivor—of predatory lending in contemporary Baltimore. Each woman faces difficulty being home, and being at home, in a society hostile to her dreams.
Along the way there are cameo appearances by Booker T. Washington, who advocated for the development of a “comfortable, tasty, framed-cottage” as a way to bring credit to the race; Toni Morrison, whose novel Paradise, set in a separatist utopian community in Oklahoma, demonstrates “the impossibility of achieving equality through isolation and exclusion”; and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose famous 1965 report to President Lyndon Johnson about the state of black fatherhood gets the standard disparaging treatment from Hill. “Moynihan’s assessment of matriarchy in African American communities amounted to a stinging indictment of all black women,” she writes. She goes on to describe Moynihan’s Great Society prescriptions as a zero-sum game, in which black men could gain equal rights only “if black women agreed to give up theirs, stay home and raise their children.”
Something about Hill’s self-assured indictment of Moynihan drove me to read the full text of his paper, The Negro Family: the Case for National Action. In it he is quite clear that there is “no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement.” But, he says, since the patriarchal model is the one embraced by the dominant culture, minorities reject it at their peril.
Hill may be right that Moynihan was no feminist, but the facts at his disposal—from the high-school dropout rate to the incarceration rate to the homicide rate—pointed undeniably to an urgent need for action on behalf of the African American male. His critique of “three centuries of almost unimaginable mistreatment” toward the race and his call for government intervention just shy of reparations might elicit approving nods today if they had been offered by a black scholar such as Cornel West or Randall Kennedy.
Hill’s somewhat desultory observations anneal with power when she turns to the current mortgage and foreclosure crisis. For Hill, the crisis is part of a long continuum of bias against women and people of color—a series of barriers that have kept them from achieving the supposed American Dream. This is the important and distinctive offering of Reimagining Equality. Few people have stopped to consider the gender-race dimension of the ongoing housing crisis; fewer still realize that just before the 2007 crash, twenty percent of the nation’s homes were being purchased by single women. It’s especially heartbreaking that the housing bubble burst just as historically marginalized groups were finally getting their chance.
Like the good lawyer she is, Hill lays out a convincing case that women—especially elderly and African American women—have been disproportionately victimized by the banking industry. She cites a Chicago investigation by the state attorney general into the mortgage practices of two compromised lenders, Countrywide and Wells Fargo. The Chicago Reporter, an investigative magazine, had found that in 2003, blacks, “even those with six figure salaries,” were up to three times as likely to get subprime mortgages—with higher interest rates and more onerous terms—than whites or Asian Americans.
She busts the myth that subprime borrowers were irresponsible, showing that most loans were for refinancing or home improvements, and quite modest. The crisis was not caused by the credit-crazed buying sprees many pundits depicted. Instead, Hill concludes, “Old-fashioned bias was a contributing factor to who got fleeced.”
As a result of these discriminatory practices, Hill writes, “Millions were displaced not simply from their houses, but from their belief in an America where they could establish themselves and their families for generations to come.” This is true even at a time when a black family is currently residing in “America’s house” in Washington, DC. (Of course, they are only renting.)
Hill correctly chides both liberals and conservatives for buying into the myth of homeownership as the apotheosis of the American Dream. But I would have liked a deeper look at the motivations behind George Bush’s promotion of the “ownership society” or Barney Frank’s staunch support for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
In the end, even Attorney Hill admits that the law can go only so far. Legislative fixes and legal protections are needed, but changes in the culture are more enduring. A truly inclusive democracy, she says, would not just write more laws to protect poor women from “getting fleeced” but would also address the lack of choices—social, economic, educational—that drive them into corners where bad decisions are made.
Thankfully, it isn’t until the very end of the book that Hill brings up her role in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings two decades ago—the event that pushed her to a prominence she may not have sought and can rarely escape. I cringed for her, reading a recent New York Times Magazine interview, timed to the publication of this book, in which 6½ of the seven questions she was asked were about the Thomas hearings or their fallout. As she proves in these pages, she has much more to offer than a twenty-year-old lesson about sexual harassment.
Part memoir, part history, part lesson in current events, Reimagining Equality is an indictment of a system that continues to stifle human potential. And yet it is hopeful, too, that Americans together can write a different ending to Hill’s “stories” of finding home. “Americans are in need of a 21st Century vision of our country—not a vision of movement but of place; not one of tolerance but one of belonging; not just of rights, but also of community—a community of equals,” she writes.
In other words, I still believe Anita.
Renée Loth is a columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe.