Huck Finn on the High Court

Posted: Oct 11, 2007 12:01 AM
Huck Finn on the High Court

Clarence Thomas tells what it feels like growing up, and his experience wasn't mine. My childhood was pampered. His was hard knocks. I was a Jewish princess. He was an invisible man to someone like me. He suffered the slings and arrows of racism, and I never had a conversation with a black person who wasn't a maid or a janitor until I went off to college. In trendy academic criticism, we would have been each other's "Other."

But there was something in our backgrounds, something in the haze of memory suggested by his memoir "My Grandfather's Son," that led us both to think as cultural conservatives with a desire to restore the path to the American dream.

The path to growing up is toughest when you suddenly discover that what you believe is not necessarily shared by the people you know best. This memoir of Justice Thomas is an astonishing document -- one that's not so much about politics as it is a personal story of maturing with an eye for reflection, a realistic look at the cast of characters and the events that shaped his thinking and behavior. It's about what he takes with him and what he leaves behind. If this were a novel, Clarence Thomas would be cast as Huckleberry Finn.

You wouldn't get this from most of the reviews; the mainstream media want to dismiss it as something polarizing. (Unlike, of course, many of the media themselves.) "My Grandfather's Son" has its share of villains, but they're almost archetypal as part of the larger theme: As Huck himself eloquently put it, "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another."

The Thomas confirmation hearings where Anita Hill emerges to point her finger at the judge reads more like satire than reality, although his account did in fact happen as he describes it. You had to be there -- and I was -- to believe that United States senators actually asked a grown man, nominated to the highest court of the land, whether he, as a callow college student, had ever watched or talked about pornographic movies. "These were the days when 'Deep Throat' was one of the most talked about movies in America," he writes, "so much so that it became the code name of the then-unknown informant who helped break the Watergate story." The inquisitors and their supporting claque were usually the same people who complained bitterly about the government entering a person's bedroom to violate his privacy.

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.