from the Introduction: Friday on the Potomac
Clusters of black people pray in front of the White House for the Lord not to abandon them, to intervene and crush the forces that would prevent a black nominee to the Supreme Court from assuming the seat felt by them to be reserved for a member of the race. Other groups of blacks stare at the television set, revolted by the president’s nomination of the one candidate they believe to be obviously unfit to adjudicate legal and policy matters concerning them. Everyone interested in the outcome of this nomination, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or profession, turns to as many forms of media as are available. They read the Washington Post
for verification of their dread of their hope, read the New York Times
as though it were Pravda,
searching between the lines of the official story for one that most nearly approximates what might really be happening. They read local papers to see if the reaction among their neighbors is similar to their own, or they try to figure out on what information their own response should be based. They have listened to newscasters and anchor people for the bits and bites that pointed to, or deflected attention from, the machinery of campaigns to reject or accept the nominee. They have watched television screens that seem to watch back, that dismiss viewers of call upon them for flavor, reinforcement, or routine dissent. Polls assure and shock, gratify and discredit those who took them into serious account.
But most of all, people talked to one another. There are passionate, sometimes acrimonious discussions between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, siblings, friends, acquaintances, colleagues with who, now, there is reason to embrace or to expel from their close circle. Sophisticated legal debates merge with locker-room guffaws; poised exchanges about the ethics and moral responsibilities of governance are debased by cold indifference to individual claims and private vulnerabilities. Organizations and individuals call senators and urge friends to do the same—providing opinions and information, threatening, cajoling, explaining positions, or simply saying, Confirm! Reject! Vote yes. Vote no.
These were some of the scenes stirred up by the debates leading to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, the revelations and evasions within the testimony, and by the irrevocable mark placed on those hearings by Anita Hill’s accusations against the nominee. The points of the vector were all the plateaus of power and powerlessness: white men, black men, black women, white women, interracial couples; those with a traditionally conservative agenda, and those representing neoconservative conversions; citizens with radical and progressive programs; the full specter of the “pro” antagonists (“choice” and “life”); there were the publicly elected, the self-elected, the racial supremacists, the racial egalitarians, and nationalists of every stripe.
The intensity as well as the volume of these responses to the hearings were caused by more than the volatile content of the proceedings. The emptiness, the unforthcoming truths that lay at the center of the state’s performance contributed much to the frenzy as people grappled for meaning, for substance unavailable through ordinary channels. Michael Rustin has described race as “both an empty category and one of the most destructive and powerful forms of social categorization.” This paradox of a powerfully destructive emptiness can be used to illustrate the source of the confusion, the murk, the sense of helpless rage that accompanied the confirmation process.
It became clear, finally, what took place: a black male nominee to the Supreme Court was confirmed amid a controversy that raised and buried issues of profound social significance.
What is less clear is what happened, how it happened, why it happened; what implications may be drawn, what consequences may follow. For what was at stake during these hearings was history. In addition to what was taking place, something was happening. And as is almost always the case, the site of the exorcism of critical national issues was situated in the miasma of black life and inscribed on the bodies of black people. [ . . . ]
Copyright © 1992 by Toni Morrison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.