But more important than the politics of this memoir is the revelation of the love and affection the grown-up man holds for his grandfather, who was a tough, even cruel, taskmaster but who gave the boy the fortitude and self-reliance to survive, to reach excellence. The old man spoke with folk wisdom, distilling his hardscrabble life into idiomatic can-do aphorisms: "Old Man Can't is Dead -- I helped bury him."
There's no raft to float Clarence Thomas down the Mississippi to freedom, but education enables him to translate personal experience into poetic insight -- to let him, like Huck, "light out for the Territory." The first time he takes a plane ride at the age of 19, he recalls the familiar poem describing flight as ascending into the "sanctity of space" where a man could put out his hand to "touch the face of God."
This is not a book about black and white. It's too human a story for that. But it shows how a young man who moves from left to right -- through anti-war protests to opposing affirmative action -- and matures and learns to think for himself. He learned, like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man," that he had to stop either acting out a stereotype or responding to one. He had to be his own man. "How could blacks hope to solve their problems if they weren't willing to tell the truth about what they thought, no matter how unpopular it might be?"
No matter what brutal experiences Clarence Thomas endured at the hands of white men or other black men, he doesn't react by playing it safe. As a schoolboy, he won an award for doing well in a Latin bee. The prize was a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. He suspected that it meant that some people thought his effort to learn Latin was hopeless. But he was proud of the statue. When a malicious classmate broke off the head, he glued it back. When the classmate broke it off again, he glued it back again. This time, it stayed glued, and he carried it with him wherever he went, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. No hopeless cause there.