I’m in my fourth semester of Liberal Arts, and this essay is from a poetry class I took in my second semester. While it’s been 30 years since Anita Hill’s trial, her struggles are still very much relevant. I hope Hill’s strength and the poem analyzed in this essay resonate with some of you. Next semester, I plan on studying Political Science at McGill University, and I am looking forward to learning and writing about other powerful women such as Hill.
The Struggles of Women: An Analysis of Evie Shockley’s “the ballad of anita hill”
By Adela Pirillo
Evie Shockley’s “the ballad of anita hill” explores racism and sexism, but most importantly expands on the theme of black women’s oppression in America. Just as ,traditionally, a sonnet is addressed to a poet’s beloved, this three-sonnet sequence is addressed to Anita Hill herself. When law professor Anita Hill appeared before the United States Senate in 1991 to accuse Clarence Thomas—Supreme Court nominee and her superior at the United States Department of Education—of sexual harassment, she became a national figure, leaving herself vulnerable to the public’s judgmental eyes. Evie Shockley injects her poem with cultural significance by developing Anita Hill’s story. Through a thorough analysis of the poem’s structure, form, and semantic registers, it can be argued that the ballad is a critique of the racist and sexist biases present in Western society that exacerbate the struggles faced by women like Hill and allow for the assumption of feminine inferiority.
Shockley’s poem is a three-sonnet sequence, grouped as a ballad. The sonnets are thematically connected to create one long work, but unlike regular stanzas, each sonnet in the poem can stand on its own. Each of the sonnets in “the ballad of anita hill” represents a different way to see Hill. The first talks about Hill before she testifies before the judiciary committee in Congress, and her metaphorical transformation. The speaker uses the metaphor of “the quiet field [that] become[s] a trembling of squirrels and small birds” (l.4-6) to symbolize Hill, who was “quiet” (l.4) about her verbal sexual harassment for years. By coming forward, she became enthralling, like a spider, telling her truth, or “spinning out silken sinews fraught deep within [her]” (l. 8-9). The second sonnet talks about the way Hill is expected to act while giving testimony in order to be respected. She must “make sure [her family] dress[es] middle-class” (l. 19- 20), showing how she is burdened with a responsibility to dispel the stereotypical preconceptions black families face. She does not want herself or her loved ones to be typecast like so many people of her race have been. The speaker also elucidates the pressure felt by women when they are expected to please others, as seen in the line “sit up straight. smile. don’t smile” (l.15), which is an example of the contradictory advice a lawyer, or friend, may have given her. The endless expectations attached to the idealized version of a woman are strict, and often unclear, as is shown by her hesitant facial expressions. The specific ways Hill must present herself in order to be believed underscore the themes of sexism already present in this poem. This overt sexism is shown when she is expected to “be strong […] in a womanly way”(l. 21-22). The speaker asserts that Hill does not have the option to “be smug” (l.22) in a male-dominated courtroom. She must not be so strong as to surpass the righteousness of others, and she must be mindful of her place as a woman in the 1990’s. The second sonnet represents Hill as someone who must conform to societal expectations. Moreover, the third sonnet speaks of the public’s opinions of Hill’s testimony. Stereotypical racism and sexism are confirmed in the line “they judge you on the size of your lips,/ their colour, whether they trembled or turned down” (l. 35,36). Society refuses to look past the external shell of a black woman and chooses to fixate on her appearance. The last stanza in particular relates to a certain breed of sexism where talent is ignored in lieu of one thing: sex appeal. Society turns her into a one-dimensional stereotype instead of considering her many sides. Hill’s sexist audience becomes even more evident when it is learned that the public “considered [Anita’s] talents – writing, teaching law- yet ranked [her] highest for [her] undemonstrated but patent skill at giving head (we saw through your disguise)” (l.37-40). The all-male judiciary committee saw that she was a talented teacher, lawyer, and writer, but they set all that aside in favour of seeing her as a “whore” (l.41). On another note, the iambic pentameter of a Shakespearean sonnet is used by Shockley to relate the restriction of ten syllables per line to the confinement of a woman’s limited platform when speaking up. However, Shockley does not always follow iambic pentameter, which is significant, indicating that Anita Hill is a woman who refuses to be restricted to only ten syllables. Shockley’s use of only lower-case letters expands on this same idea. Just as Hill breaches the ancient rule that women must be “quiet” (l. 4), she decides to come forward with her truths; the poet rejects the rules of grammar by not using capital letters. When Shockley strays from the typographical convention of capitalization, she is showing Anita’s refusal to be restrained by the system she was born into. Even though Hill’s testimony ends unpleasantly, she nevertheless demanded that her story be heard, which makes her worthy of a ballad in Shockley’s eyes. Overall, the use of three sonnets allows Shockley to display three different views of Hill, highlighting women’s struggles to be seen as whole and equal to men, despite being identified as victims, public figures, or accusers.
The speaker uses imagery in order to express the pain of sexual harassment, racism, and sexism for black women in America. For example, Hill is “prickly with bloodless truths” (l. 12), which is representative of how Hill is overcome with anger about her unfortunate situation. Even though she stood her ground, the outcome was a disappointment. Furthermore, the fact that her truths were “bloodless” (l.12) confirms that coming forward did not stop ClarenceThomas from bring appointed to the Supreme Court . The poem then states that Hill confesses “that he said ‘pussy’ or ‘penis’ on the job” (l.24). The imagery that she must “push [these] words out, as if they were defying gravity” (l. 24-25) is extremely important because it mirrors Anita Hill’s opening statement of her testimony in which she declares that “It was only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and a great number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my closest friends” (C-SPAN 3:51). It certainly was hard for Hill to come to terms with her harassment and share it with the public, which explains why she must have had to “push” (l.24) her words out. Lastly, the poem ends with a very strong image. Hill is portrayed as a “queen- bitch – jezebel- matriarch- whore, destroyer of black manhood, and so much more” (l. 41-42). The primitive anatomy of this line lacks any form of logical composition, and instead reads more as individual slurs that could have been shouted at Hill. Each insult degrades her character in a different way, and these words create the perfect recipe of a woman who destroyed black manhood by ruining Thomas’ chances of representing the black community in the Supreme Court. Furthermore, Shockley’s use of imagery not only allows the readers to better understand Hill’s discomforting situation, but also voices the feeling of inequality placed upon thousands of women.
Shockley frequently chooses particular words of the same connotation to further hint at the theme of sexism in each verse. For example, the use of the metaphor “winter fell” (l. 12,13) creates the image of Hill being hit by the cold, harsh reality of societal injustice. Through the eyes of the jury at the time, a man will always be “innocent” (l. 14). To them, Hill is caught in a storm of her own making, since she only spoke against Thomas ten years after he verbally sexually harassed her, making her timing thoroughly “out of season” (l. 13). Moreover, the word “snow” (l.14) could have also been used by Shockley to symbolize “the man” and his power. The line “as if snow needs a reason” (l. 14) is specifically used because, just as snow does not need a reason to come down on you as hard as it can, men apparently do not need a reason for winning: it is in their nature. Shockley uses many opposites throughout the poem to elucidate the contradictory advice women are given in order to be seen as a perfect woman. For example, the line “exude celibacy – heterosexual style” (l. 27) is one of the many oxymorons used to highlight the female struggle of appealing to the male gender. Men expect women to be innocent, pure, and celibate, but at the same time they must emanate feminine sexuality. Furthermore, the poem shows that it is impossible to achieve this perfect balance between two polar opposites, a theme which is also evident in the repeated paradox “sit up straight. smile. don’t smile” (l. 15-28). The repetition of this line is important as it mimics the imagined nervous repetition of Hills’s thoughts before her testimony. Lastly, in the first sonnet, the ‘a’ rhymes are perfect while the ‘b’ rhymes are imperfect. The “abab” rhyme structure connects to the exchange between both opposing sides of the same story. For example, the feminine slant rhyme of “center” and “winter” (l. 10,12) symbolizes the accuser, who is seen as flawed and second-rate in the eyes of the Judiciary Committee. In turn, the masculine true rhyme between “fear” and “clear” (l. 9,11) represents Clarence Thomas as he is perceived as perfect, and his version of events is believed by the public. Moreover, Shockley’s specific word choice highlights the power of men over women and its contribution to the struggles women face.
Shockley’s “the ballad of anita hill” is a testament to exactly how powerful men feel no shame in taking advantage of women’s intelligence, trust, ambitions, and hope for their personal benefit. The use of Shockley’s metaphors, imagery, and poetic form voice the battles that vulnerable women, such as Anita Hill, endure everyday. It is thanks to the courage of victims that the public’s reactions to sexual harassment accusations have rotated from skepticism towards more of an inclination to believe. For example, the shockingly similar case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh may have caused Ford a significant amount of backlash, but she is yet another brave woman who showed the world how powerful standing up for yourself can truly be.
C-SPAN. “October 11, 1991: Anita Hill Full Opening Statement (C-SPAN).” YouTube , C-SPAN, 21 Sept. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QbVKSvm274 .
Shockley, Evie. “the ballad of anita hill.” Callaloo, Vol. 22, No 4, 1999.