The Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema is part of the massive ArtsQuest complex which was once the Bethlehem Steel company. The steel stacks themselves, icons of Bethlehem, stand tall over the scene, lit up green and blue so they draw the eye at night as powerfully as during the day. They’re an emblem of a community with dynamism, a community that faces the realities of a changing world by reflecting, adapting, and preserving histories rather than tearing them down. The steel stacks center has become a different kind of hub for Bethlehem, one that is cultural instead of economic.
On the evening of January 21st, community members filled the cinema in Southside Bethlehem to watch Anita, Freida Mock’s 2014 documentary. The documentary explores Anita Hill’s famous 1991 public testimony regarding past sexually inappropriate behavior by her once-boss, then-nominee for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Hill’s subsequent transformation from public victim to author and speaker for women’s rights. The film was shown as part of the Communities Film Series hosted by ArtsQuest at SteelStacks, in partnership with Lehigh University South Side Initiative and Film & Documentary Studies Program, in anticipation of Hill’s upcoming visit to Lehigh’s campus on February 7.
The talkback panel consisted of four powerful Bethlehem women: Esther Lee, President of the Bethlehem NAACP; Suzanne Edwards, director of Lehigh University’s Humanities Center and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh; Olga Negrón, Bethlehem city council member; and Susan Wild, recently elected congresswoman to the U.S. House of Representatives. Deborah Sacarakis, the Artistic Director of Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University, facilitated the talkback.
The panel grappled with questions like: how has the reception of trauma victims’ narratives changed since this trial, which was largely responsible for bringing the issue of sexual harassment to the national stage? What has been the impact of Hill’s testimony over the last 28 years? How did race play into the testimony and corresponding news coverage? How has the way race figures into the national conversations of today changed?
Last year, the coverage of Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony regarding the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, which brought the Hill testimony to mind for many, told us something about our larger American community. It told us that women and other survivors of sexual harassment and violence are still routinely disbelieved despite the nearly three decades between the two spectacles. It told us that some voices matter more than others. This was, again, a disappointment on a national scale.
Large structural change, in the way of policy and law, can impact this. Yet the ugliest truths exposed by the Ford and Hill testimonies, those on the scale of culture and education, can only be reckoned with within our smaller communities.
Bethlehem can’t fix a widespread climate of victim blaming and disbelief, but it can work to build a community that teaches young men to respect women, and teaches young women that they don’t have to accept any kind of treatment they don’t want to. Sacarakis encouraged young women in the audience to see the panelists as role models, or to even reach out to them with ideas.
The panelists brought an impressive amount of diverse perspectives to these topics. They discussed their own experiences with sexual harassment, framing their own stories in terms of the wider conversation. The community, too, responded eagerly, asking questions big and small. We did not reach a consensus that evening about what needs to be done to fix the problem of sexual harassment, gender violence, and victim blaming. The problem runs too deep to be solved in one move. But the conversation itself modeled, I believe, a small step towards change.
What the steel stacks have become for Bethlehem is proof that this is a place where people care about their community. The nearly full movie theater at the Anita documentary is more proof of this. Walking out of the cinema after the documentary, I couldn’t help but think about the fittingness of hosting this film and talkback in this setting.
When Hill testified, the steel stacks were still running. They have drastically changed since then, a counterpoint to how responses to allegations of harassment have not.
In coming together to discuss issues like sexual harassment, Bethlehem shows itself to be a community that cares about social change, reflecting the same dynamism and creativity in the way the steel stacks were adapted to suit a 21st century Bethlehem.
Anita Hill is coming to speak at Lehigh University in Baker Hall at the Zoellner Arts Center on February 7th at 7:30 PM. The talk is titled “From Social Movement to Social Impact: Putting an End to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” and is sponsored by Lehigh University’s MLK Celebrations Committee. The event is free, unticketed, and open to everyone.