Clarence Thomas: His Grandfather's Son

Posted: Oct 01, 2007 1:56 PM
Clarence Thomas: His Grandfather's Son

If only Clarence Thomas weren't a black conservative, his new memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," would be hailed as a kind of classic, a powerful, moving tale of a black man's ascent from bone-crushing poverty to the pinnacle of the American system of government.

But Thomas has a unique lot in life. On top of the discrimination, insults and condescension he has experienced simply as a black man have come the outrage, insults and condescension he has experienced as a black man who broke with liberal orthodoxy. In his view, all this culminated in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when liberal interest groups revived the old smear of the sexually rapacious black man in the guise of Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment.

The final section of the book dealing with the hearings is getting the most attention, and Thomas is being portrayed as the aggressor. He "lashes out," according to a headline in The Washington Post. Those pages do indeed pulse with anger, but how could it be otherwise when Thomas contends -- persuasively -- that he did Hill a favor by hiring her to work for him in the federal government, he had never mistreated her, and her accusations were a brutal instance of the politics of personal destruction?

Thomas survived, of course, and if his opponents had been able to read this book they would have known he would. "My Grandfather's Son" is a tale of pride, determination and independence -- from the constraints of discrimination and the deadening influence of group-think.

Thomas was abandoned by his father and didn't even meet him until he was 9 years old. He was raised in segregated Savannah, Ga., by his grandmother and his grandfather, a steely disciplinarian determined to keep Thomas and his brother out of trouble through sheer hard work.

"Old Man Can't is dead -- I helped bury him," his barely literate grandfather used to say. He sent Thomas and his brother to a Catholic school where the nuns were nearly as strict as his grandfather. Missing school wasn't an option. His grandfather warned us, Thomas writes, "that if we died, he'd take our bodies to school for three days to make sure we weren't faking."

Thomas remembers, years later, watching his grandfather dote on Thomas' own son and wondering why he hadn't been so tender with him when he was growing up. "Because you were my responsibility," his grandfather replied. Thomas' upbringing was a triumph of mind over matter, of will and discipline over social injustice and economic deprivation.

Thomas says he came to realize, "I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known." His book is so moving because it is partly an unrequited love story between the two men, whose stubbornness and insecurities kept them from ever truly reconciling after various blowups and sleights.

Thomas' pride was a key to his slow turn from radicalism to the right. His accomplishments and his reputation were paramount to him. When he graduated from Yale Law School, he realized that when he went on job interviews people assumed he wasn't as talented as his peers because of affirmative action. White liberals had cheapened what he had worked so hard for; he took a 15-cent sticker from a cigar and stuck it to his Yale diploma to symbolize its true worth.

Thomas is painfully honest about his struggles in this book: the drinking, the broken marriage, the debt, the despair that had him contemplating suicide even as he ascended in Washington. He constantly worried that he had exposed himself too much by being frank about his conservative views, and when the first President Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court, he was filled with dread. He feared his political enemies would stop at nothing.

He was right. But the ordeal drove him to the Christian faith of his grandparents, making him more than ever his grandfather's son. This is a great American story, written by an extraordinary man.