“Yes, I Would Testify Again”: Anita Hill Toasts to Free Expression
Before Anita Hill delivered a speech at turns fiery and reflective to accept the Courage Award at the PEN America Literary Gala Tuesday, she held her hand up in a peace sign. It was a quick and cheeky gesture that cut through some of the tension in the room. A standing ovation greeted her at the stage, and the crowd—which included Gay Talese, Preet Bharara, and Alec Baldwin—was clearly moved by a video montage of her legendary 1991 testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She began by mentioning the power of education in her childhood (calling herself a “Brown v. Board of Education baby”) and her memories of her mother writing letters when she was young. “What might she have written if she felt truly free?” Hill wondered. When she turned to that testimony about five minutes into her acceptance speech, her voice betrayed just a hint of emotion. She thanked the media—specifically Glamour magazine, whose former editor-in-chief Cindi Leive was in the crowd—for being a bulwark against the pain of the criticism she received at the time. Despite that, her stance on the experience was firm: “Yes, I would testify again.”
PEN, a literary and free-expression nonprofit, devotes itself to protecting speech in America and abroad, and uses its annual fundraising gala as an opportunity to recognize public figures who live up to that mission. Months after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony reignited public debate over Supreme Court appointments, Hill was a natural fit for this year’s honor. Lupita Nyong’o introduced Hill’s speech, and after reminiscing about her own experience speaking out against sexual harassment, she referred to Hill as “one woman calling ‘time’s up’ before anyone else was ready to hear it.” (Hill, on the other hand, thanked Nyong’o for the “generous and warm introduction, and for just being Lupita.”)
Despite the somber topics at hand, there was cause for celebration. Every year, the gala awards the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award a person from around the world who faces imprisonment or persecution for their reporting. The honorees from last year’s gala, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were recently released from their imprisonment in Myanmar. Before the ceremony, PEN America’s C.E.O., Suzanne Nossel, said, “We were overjoyed to hear just about two weeks ago,” before going on to mention the trip she made to Myanmar and thank some members of the organization for the work they did to support the PEN chapter in the country. This year’s Barbey Award went to Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan, who are facing trial for their advocacy for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul’s brother and sister accepted the award on their behalf, expressing some sadness that their sister was now “a voice who was oncethe voice of the voiceless.”
The event took place in the American Museum of Natural History’s main hall, under the room’s iconic blue whale. Host John Oliver delivered an opening monologue that would have been right at home on his HBO series, Last Week Tonight, comparing Trump unfavorably to a dildo and reflecting on how much he misses the age in America when we had nothing better to do than be mad at Anne Hathaway and the Lost finale. (About anger over Game of Thrones’ finale? “I think they’re really phoning it in at this point.”) In homage to the gala’s setting, Oliver made a quip about the stress of doing comedy around taxidermied animals. “If you ask a comedian what a nightmare [performance] would be, it’s a walrus staring on in contempt.”
The crowd also included comedians Hari Kondabolu and Phoebe Robinson, along with novelists Min Jin Lee, Rumaan Alam, Zadie Smith, and Mona Simpson, and journalists and writers Robert Costa, Carl Bernstein, Andrew Solomon, and Masha Gessen.
To the crowd, the ur-celebrity was the C.E.O. of Scholastic, Richard Robinson, who was being presented with the Publishing Honoree Award. According to Robinson, Hill spoke to him about reading Scholastic books when she was a kid, and onstage, both Nossel and PEN America president and novelist Jennifer Egan mentioned that they did the same. Alec Baldwin—who noted that he is both Robinson’s friend and neighbor—presented the award, and in his speech he included a message from Scholastic’s most famous author, J.K. Rowling.
One of the more touching moments came when Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Robert Caro presented the Literary Service award to journalist Bob Woodward with a speech that honored the intricacy of Woodward and Bernstein’s process of reporting All the President’s Men. Woodward’s speech was slightly profane and aimed at the state of American politics. But he also dropped in a piece of advice he got that sums up the PEN approach to the world. He said, “Ben Bradlee, the editor at The [Washington] Post, used to tell us how you deal with the stress of reporting a story when it’s hard: nose down, ass up, moving slowly forward to the truth.”