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Book Review: My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas

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When George Bush announced the appointment of Clarence Thomas to Justice Marshall's vacated Supreme Court seat he did not do it at midnight but in the clear light of day with Clarence standing by his side. Clarence knew that there would be hell to pay for this nomination. He did not want it, so he writes in his memoir.

If you are old enough to recall the story behind this story about one black man’s struggle to win confirmation to the highest court in the land, then you would be tempted, as I was, to start in the back of the book. I wanted to read the last chapter first. Yes, I had to know how he handled those now-infamous hearings. Thomas coined “high-tech lynching” to describe them. Anita M. Hill was not only a former employee of Thomas’ but she followed him from one job to another. But we are getting ahead of this story.

Clarence has written this memoir to clear the air of his soul. He says it is to pay tribute to the man who raised him selflessly. A man who never showed affection but loved Clarence and his brother as his own. But I think that he has written this book to clear his name and his place in history.

Clarence Thomas was born and raised in Pin Point, Georgia, an area where Gullah is still spoken. This area is an anthropological treasure trove because of African roots deeply buried in its soil and in the black people born and raised there. In a sense an area forgotten by time and a place that Thomas himself would rather forget. He is no doubt the son of former slaves and has a high percentage of African blood coursing through his veins.

Where an African American was born in this country largely determined his or her racial makeup. It also determines which European group contributed to his or her bloodline. Therefore one is tempted to believe, as I did before reading this memoir, that Thomas was a victim of his own self-pity at being born a very black man in a very white (surrounding) world. My suspicions that his black skin makes him self-conscious was confirmed by reading his memoir. The kids in elementary school tease him. His nickname “ABC” America’s blackest child, stings badly when it lands on Clarence’s young soul, he runs to the comfort of books and chores.

Clarence meets and marries a woman named Kathy immediately after graduating from Holy Cross College. They have one son together, Jamal. He writes that his son probably saves his life. Clarence writes candidly about his near-alcoholism. It destroys his marriage — a marriage he felt would destroy him if he did not leave. So he leaves his first wife, causing him much pain. After all, his dad walks out on his mother and two small children. He did not want to repeat that history. She had no recourse but to send Clarence and his brother to live with her father in Savannah, Georgia. A man that Clarence would come to call “Daddy”: Myers Anderson. 

He is an interesting man on many levels. He is a devout Catholic when most southern blacks are Baptists or some other persuasion. His Catholicism will change Clarence’s life. Why? Because Catholic nuns and priests educate him. But for a short time he falls victim to that fever many Catholics feel: taking seminary vows, aspiring to a nunnery or seminary. He too wants to become a priest, so he writes. But what changes his mind: the blatant racism he sees up close and personal by the priests who educate him.

Clarence Thomas reiterates something that we both know: many jobs in corporate America or seats in professional schools are slated for whites who network or whose parents attend the school in question. In other words, mediocrity an entitlement for whites, is totally unacceptable for blacks, always. This is what young Clarence learns from Daddy's tough love.

Thomas therefore feels that because of affirmative action he is painted with the brush of mediocrity when he is in fact quite brilliant. To ensure his success he works hard and studies even harder. What I found sad about this memoir is that despite eventually earning an Ivy League law degree, he and his family struggle with finances for years. This bothers him too. Admirably, he determines to keep Jamal, his only child, in his life. Clarence pays for the best education he cannot afford; even when it means barely putting food on the table.

Clarence writes that he realizes his Yale law degree means something different than the one white students receive who also attend Yale. Thus he never hangs up or displays his degree. His experience at a near all-white college and university is even more painful when affirmative action becomes law. It does not mean that every black or brown student comes to a selective school through the door of affirmative action, but that the whites around him or her believe that this is the route by which they were admitted.

By contrast, Clarence knew that he had earned his way into those prestigious places. But he was seen and sneered at openly and quietly as being an affirmative action baby. Understandably this leaves a bad taste in his mouth for affirmative action. It has also cost him much respect among blacks in America. They point the finger at his success and say that all his accomplishments a direct result of set asides and racial preference. This is the crux of his anger at affirmative action and his debates against it.

Education is clearly a forte of Clarence, the golden spike in his helmet. Here is a highly educated man, brilliant in fact. But with a Yale Law degree he could not get the job he wanted. No one in white corporate America came knocking on his door. Instead of working in corporate America, he was soon recognized by prominent GOP members. He was appointed chairman of the EEOC. There he cleans house and the great backlog of cases, twice appointed and serves for eight years. According to his memoirs he also balances its budget.  

The office of the EEOC was ironically the place where a woman named Anita M. Hill worked under him. He hired her at the urging of his Yale roommate Gilbert Hardy, who died unfortunately, in a diving accident, just before Clarence was to endure the confirmation hearings. According to Thomas, Hill's work is mediocre then and now. She is no stellar student or a meticulous lawyer. He hires her as a favor, period.  It is clear that he kicks himself more than once for this “mistake.”  In his memoirs he writes that he was also responsible for helping Condolezza Rice and Colin Powell to find a place in politics and the White House.

His tenure at EEOC leads to the appointment to Washington D.C. Court of Appeals by Bush ’41, considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

The last two chapters or so concern his thoughts and trial by fire at the actions taken by Anita Hill. I believed Thomas’ shock and pain at Miss Hill’s claims. Doubt did creep into my thoughts: he was a single man during this time period or at least long-separated from his first wife. Did he never consider dating Miss Hill? He asks the reader to believe that there was absolutely no physical or emotional attraction between the two who had worked together for years, and were both single people.

This stretches my belief in his story. I was objective enough to suspend any disbelief in his recollection. After all, this is not an autobiography, but a memoir. Therefore, it is not filled with minute detail. But there is enough detail for the reader to respect this man’s recall. He candidly writes about how he came to call the hearings “a high-tech lynching.”

What turns the tide in his favor comes when he is asked by a reporter what he thinks of the latest televised testimony by Hill. He admits that he had no reason to watch TV and review what she said of him. The reporter is shocked. Clarence realizes that not watching so that he could defend himself is a big mistake, which he quickly rectifies. He puts pen to paper and writes a scathing “opinion” as to what Anita Hill's charge is all about: taking down an uppity black man. He reads that paper to a stunned media and immediately thereafter gets confirmation and takes the oath of Supreme Court judge filling the vacated seat of Justice Thurgood Marshall.

This book will not end the arguments for or against affirmative action or set-asides based on racial minority status. One can be certain that Thomas does not wink or blink when he stands firm on his opposition to it. The question of  the moral or social value that Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court has contributed or detracted from the perceived liberalism (or voting Democratic) that blacks value will also not be resolved by reading his memoirs. But one thing can be resolved: That he is a black man who has earned his stripes and his place in the pinnacle of society that he currently enjoys with his family.  

I read this book with rapt attention cover to cover. It left me wondering and looking for even deeper soul searching by this black man so questioned by his peers and his countrymen. And with the real possibility that an African American could become the Democratic party’s nominee for president means that this question of affirmative action for blacks, browns and the disadvantaged won’t go away. And correctly should not go away.      

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  • ostrova

    Oh, please. There are plenty of women who came forward with the same complaints as Prof. Hill. The trouble was, at the time that sort of sexism wasn’t legally actionable. The idea that Thomas is a legal figure fit to replace Thurgood Marshall is laughable. Here’s a dude who benefited from affirmative action but either pretends he didn’t or wants to see to it that no one else has to be sooo oppressed by its benefits ever again. He seems to be a really confused guy and I wish he’d get off the highest court in the land and go to intensive therapy and do some serious navel-gazing and quit taking it out on the rest of us.