Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

Morrison's "Friday on the Potomac" (1992. From 'Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power'): Overview

The following overview is by Daniel Rosler.

"Friday on the Potomac," from Race-Ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)

In “Friday on the Potomac,” an introduction Morrison penned for a collection of essays featuring contributions from novelists, activists, and cultural, political, and social theorists in 1992, Morrison cites three quotations as an epigraph: one from Clarence Thomas claiming victimhood juxtaposed with Anita Hill admitting that silence would “have been more comfortable,” but, “she could not keep silent”; and a passage from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which the narrator describes his interactions with the character Friday, whom had “made all the signs…of subjugation, servitude, and submission imaginable” (vii). Morrison continues by depicting the national tension surrounding the hearings that eventually confirmed Clarence Thomas as a United States Supreme Court Justice despite Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual misconduct. As Morrison describes it, “a black male nominee to the Supreme Court was confirmed amid a controversy that raised and buried issues of profound social significance” (x). Indeed, this raising and burying of issues with significant social reverberance generated an opaque cluster of new uncertainties: “what happened, how it happened, why it happened; what implications may be drawn, what consequences may follow” (x).

As Morrison explains, the “urgent” need to “evaluate” and “analyze” the uncertainties left in the wake of Thomas’s nomination necessitated this collection. Indeed, “the consequences of not gathering the thoughts, the insights, the analyses of academics in a variety of disciplines would be too dire” (x). Morrison emphasizes our obligation to inspect “perspective, not attitudes; context, not anecdotes; analyses, not postures” when trying to elucidate the “complicated and complicating events” that transpired—and to do so substantively. In other words, Morrison reminds us that we must dig our heels in, because the brief summations in mainstream visual media and print (“in sixteen minutes or five hundred words or less”—which has only gotten shorter and more truncated in our present moment) fail to answer, understand, or adequately explain; as Morrison writes, “to know what took place summary is enough. To learn what happened requires multiple points of address and analysis” (xi, xii). Morrison proceeds to unravel the “metonym[s] for racial accommodation” functioning within the hearing process and the media, including “laughter, the chuckle, that invites and precedes any discussion of association with a black person” (xiii). She cites a New York Times piece that focused on Thomas’s physique, a commentary on “a black person’s body,” which, Morrison explains, is “de rigueur in white discourse”—including the way biographers and journalists alike have “voluptuously” (no doubt a purposeful adverb) “dwelled upon” black bodies, both male and female (xiii). Such commentary, Morrison observes, falls short of any meaningful “apprais[al]” of Thomas’s “mind” (xiv).

It is here where Morrison comments on the erasure of black individuality. As Morrison writes,

In a society with a history of trying to accommodate both slavery and freedom, and a present that wishes both to exploit and deny the pervasiveness of racism, black people are rarely individualized. Even when his supporters were extolling the fierce independence and the ‘his own man’ line about Clarence Thomas, their block and blocked thinking of racial stereotype prevailed. Without individuation, without nonracial perception, black people, as a group, are used to signify the polar opposites of love and repulsion (xv). 

This lack of individuation constructs a dichotomous perception of black people; they either signify “benevolence, harmless and servile guardianship, and endless love” or “insanity, illicit sexuality, and chaos,” and, as a result, these racial templates “can be mixed and matched to suit any racial palette” (xv). For example, Morrison alludes to Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which the character Captain Delano “can jump from the view of the slave, Babo, as ‘naturally docile, made for servitude’ to ‘savage cannibal’ without any gesture toward what may lie in between the two conclusions” as a means of illustrating the way in which the white hegemony can, and will, utilize the Black body to further their own interests, satiate their own needs—a perception which allows for such contradictory attitudes to flourish unnoticed by the white perceiver (xv). These hearings, as Morrison points out, “had two black persons to use to nourish these fictions,” positioning Thomas as the progenitor of “limitless love” (“remember the laugh” Morrison reminds us), and Anita Hill as his foil, falling into the camp of “madness, anarchic sexuality, and explosive verbal violence” (xv-xvi). As a black woman, Morrison explains, Anita Hill “was contradiction itself, irrationality in the flesh,” which is why no one saw the contradiction between her portrayal as both a “lesbian who hated men and a vamp who could be ensnared and painfully rejected by them” (xvi). Indeed, Anita Hill’s depictions of “Thomas’s behavior…did not ignite a careful search for the truth” but instead engendered “an exchange of racial tropes” (xvi).

Unfortunately, Morrison’s next claim, that an accusation of sexual misconduct against a white candidate “would probably disqualify[y]” them, proved to be untrue when, in 2018, congress appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite the substantial accusations of sexual assault from Dr. Blasey Ford. However, this doesn’t necessarily negate Morrison’s analysis—if anything, it illustrates the degree to which white people are publicly and unabashedly afforded a privilege denied to individuals of other racial makeup. Further, Morrison rightfully identifies that, due to both Thomas’s and Hill’s race, no other opportunities were entertained except for the “unprecedented opportunity to hover over and to cluck at, to meditate and ponder the limits and excesses of black bodies” (xvii). With this type of “voyeuristic desire” being energized by “mythologies that render blacks” as “known, serviceable, expendable,” Morrison explains, “extraordinary behavior of the state could take place” (xvii-xviii).

In a brilliant but painful analysis, Morrison further illustrates why Kavanaugh’s proceedings don’t nullify her analysis of the contradictory perception of Black people, and how these paradoxical views in fact shape reality. As Morrison explains, when Blackness is perceived as a stain, it requires a “bleaching”:

With a black candidate, already stained by the figurations of blackness as sexual aggressiveness or rapaciousness or impotence, the stain need only be proved reasonably doubted, which is to say, if he is black, how can you tell if that really is a stain? Which is also to say, blackness is itself a stain, and therefore unstainable. Which is also to say, if he is black and about to ascend to the Supreme Court bench, if the bench is to become stain-free, this newest judge must be bleaches, race-free, as his speeches and opinions illustrated. (xviii)


The allegations, Morrison argues, “re-raced” him—but, being beyond himself, that is, not self-inflicted re-racing, these accusations, these new “stains” must, then, have an exterior source, which is where Anita Hill enters: “the search for the racial stain turned on Anita Hill. Her character. Her motives. Not his” (xix). With a nomination process in which data and knowledge “had no place...the deliberations became a contest and the point was to win” (xix). The nomination process also illuminated the way that class functions in conjunction with race, or “race as class,” by equating black with poor, and demonstrated the “rac[ial] transcendence” of becoming race-less that resulted from Thomas’s marriage to a white woman (xxi). This weaponized Thomas with the ludicrous claim that, because of his marriage, Anita Hill had conjured up charges due to “harbor[ing] reactionary, race-bound opinions about interracial love” (xxi). 

In short, Morrison analyzes the intersections of race, class, and gender as they influenced the nomination process. She continues her analysis by zeroing in on one specific day during the process, a Friday, when “both Anita Hill’s testimony and Clarence Thomas’s response to that testimony were aired,” when Hill couldn’t “remain silent” and Thomas proclaimed himself victim: “silence and victimization. Broken silence and built victimization. Speech and bondage. Disobedient speech and the chosen association of bondage” (xxii-iii). Morrison informs the reader that it was also a Friday when an event that would later serve as the influence for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe occurred. In the novel, the “almost drowned Indian” that Alexander Selkirk found on an island shore in 1709 is transfigured as a “savage cannibal,” who, in being “civilized and Christianized” is “taught, in other words, to be like a white one” (xxiii). “Friday,” as the “savage” is named by Crusoe, is permitted to speak only “master,” “no,” and “yes,” for months, Morrison explains, as she wonders if Friday had forgotten “completely the language he dreamed in” (xxiv-v). Moreover, she speculates that, through his subservience to Crusoe, he not only “moves from speaking with” Crusoe to “thinking as Crusoe”—or, as Morrison continues, the “problem of the rescued”: because of a perceived debt they must pay, they “internalize the master’s tongue” (xxv).

Morrison continues this analogy by drawing a comparison to the experience of debt that Clarence Thomas “owe[d] the culture that fought for and protected him before he arrived out of a turbulent social sea onto the shore of political patronage” (xviii). Without one’s own culture, own metaphor, own linguistic roots, Morrison argues,

One is obliged to cooperate in the misuse of figurative language, in the reinforcement of cliché, the erasure of difference, the jargon of justice, the evasion of logic, the denial of history, the crowning of patriarchy, the inscription of hegemony; to be complicit in the vandalizing, sentimentalizing, and trivialization of the torture black people have suffered. (xxviii-ix) 


In lieu of “one’s own idiom,” these “rhetorical strategies become necessary” because “there is no other language to speak” (xxix). In other words, the erasure of black individuality through “rescue” by hegemony produces a “debt” that mutes the individual, silences them from “utter[ing] one single sentence understood to be beneficial to their original culture” (xxix).

However, Morrison does see a positive in the wake of the confirmation hearings, namely that conversations around race and gender can now take place “without the barriers, the silences, the embarrassing gaps in discourse” (xxx). Returning again to an earlier point in her piece where she emphasizes the necessity of careful, nuanced conversations, Morrison concludes by introducing the following collection of essays as a “beginning” of “new conversations in which issues and arguments are taken as seriously as they are,” as the confirmation process proved (xxx). For Morrison contends that “only through thoughtful, incisive, and far-ranging dialogue will all of us be able to appraise and benefit from Friday’s dilemma” (xxx). 


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