My Grandfather's Son by Clarence Thomas
by Clarence Thomas
Harper. 304 pp. $26.95
“I’d always been one to close my shutters to the world,” writes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his moving new memoir. This admission arrives two-thirds of the way through the book, by which time no reader will be surprised.
How readers will react to this recurring tone of anguish will no doubt depend, like everything else these days, on their politics. Thomas’s liberal and left-wing adversaries—including those members of the mainstream press who have troubled to write about the book, in tones alternately condescending and huffy—have already tried to scare off potential readers with warnings about his “rage,” “anger,” and “self-pity.” Those who admire him—who have been impressed by his disciplined and well-wrought judicial opinions and moved by the dignity with which he has conducted his public life—will point out that Clarence Thomas has had a great deal to be angry about. He may be a “glass-half-empty” sort, but it is easy to see why. Somebody has always been trying to drain the glass—and the process did not start with Anita Hill.
The outlines of Thomas’s life may be well known, but his story has never been laid down in such finely etched detail. He was born in 1948 in rural Georgia, to a troubled young woman and a no-account drifter who before too long abandoned the family. When Clarence was seven, he and his younger brother Myers were taken to Savannah to be raised by their maternal grandfather and his wife.
The boys called their grandfather “Daddy.” Industrious and fiercely independent, he owned his own business, hauling wood, oil, coal, and ice. He spurned “relief,” teaching the boys that dependence on government would “rob them of their freedom.” And he paid for his grandchildren to go to an all-black Catholic school, where they wore uniforms and were disciplined by the Franciscan nuns. “Our first task was to get a good education,” Thomas writes, “so that we could hold down a ‘coat-and-tie job.’”
Daddy was a hard man—harder, on the evidence, than even Thomas wants to admit. “Our encounters with his belt or a switch were far from infrequent,” he writes with excessive delicacy. “He meant to control every aspect of our lives. . . . In his presence there was no play, no fun, and little laughter.” Daddy refused to let the boys join the Cub Scouts or play sports. When Myers and Clarence grew old enough to be enticed by the distractions of their rough neighborhood, Daddy bought a farm and sent them to tend the fields, where every summer they labored without let-up until the evening before school resumed in the fall. “Our small, soft hands blistered quickly at the start of each summer,” Thomas recalls, “but Daddy never let us wear work gloves, which he considered a sign of weakness.”
Thus sealed off from the larger world, both black and white, Clarence avoided the trouble that beckoned from every neighborhood street corner. His self-discipline and industry matched his grandfather’s, earning him excellent grades in school and, eventually, admission to Immaculate Conception, a seminary in Missouri where he hoped to become a priest. Even then he had an inkling of how remarkable his upbringing had been, and how remarkable the man who had brought him up.
But an estrangement between the two was probably inevitable. It came when Clarence, doubting his religion and fed up with racial slights from his white classmates, dropped out of the seminary, finishing his undergraduate studies at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts before turning toward secular pursuits—at, as it happened, Yale Law School. Later he would learn from his brother that Daddy, who had never shown weakness or any emotion but anger, had wept most of the night after Clarence announced he was abandoning his hopes of the priesthood.
Still later, after a partial reconciliation, he would be astonished at the indulgence with which Daddy treated Clarence’s own son Jamal, playing with the boy, showering him with sweets, and granting his every dizzy request. Clarence asked his grandfather to account for this difference. “Jamal,” Daddy replied without hesitation, “is not my responsibility.”
This material is the stuff of what may endure as a classic American memoir, just as the figure of Daddy—“the greatest man I have ever known”—amounts to an astonishing literary creation, as impressive on the page as he must have been in life. If My Grandfather’s Son falls just short of classic status, it is because, paradoxically enough, Daddy achieved his goal: Thomas won his “coat-and-tie job,” and office work, alas, makes for unmemorable story-telling.
Having earned a law degree, he took a job with a large corporation, grew bored, and found his calling in government, first in Missouri as an assistant attorney general and later in Washington, D.C. with the Reagan administration. There, over the course of a decade, he rose from a minor bureaucratic post at the Department of Education to the chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to, finally, a seat on the Supreme Court.
In these chapters, after Daddy drops from the story, the book’s main interest consists in the unfolding of Thomas’s intellectual and political education. Having had only glancing exposure to the white world when growing up, Thomas took his first large dose of white racial attitudes in elite academic institutions, where racism most often came (and still comes) in the guise of liberal condescension. His grandfather-bred sense of independence was offended by the general expectation that his race required him to subscribe to the shifting enthusiasms of Great Society liberalism. His response was first to lunge beyond liberalism into radicalism, and then, after intermittent stops at libertarianism and natural-law theory, to settle into Reagan conservatism.
How odd this trajectory seems will depend yet again on one’s politics. For Thomas, the arrival at conservatism was a return to his roots, an affirmation of the way he had been raised: the political expression of his grandfather’s belief in self-sufficiency, freedom, and individual dignity. He also knew that a black man espousing such views was bound to draw attention, for both good and ill. He is, as I have mentioned, naturally disposed to dwell on the ill; the good gets less attention than it deserves. Republicans grasped him like a talisman, and singled him out for advancement. Democrats took note of him, too.
A third of this book is devoted to Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in 1991 and Anita Hill’s eleventh-hour accusations of sexual harassment that nearly did him in. For those who watched the hearings—and perhaps for those who did not—it makes harrowing reading, almost unbelievable in hindsight. At the time, hyperventilating commentators liked to compare the Hill-Thomas hearings to a Baby Boomer version of the confrontation between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. There is some truth in this, if you discount for the triviality that has always characterized the Boomers’ encounter with history: Chambers and Hiss embodied a twilight ideological struggle over the fundamental requirements of human nature, whereas the Hill-Thomas hearings turned on whether one government bureaucrat had mentioned to another the possibility that there was a pubic hair on his can of Coca-Cola. Each generation gets the scandals it deserves.
At least My Grandfather’s Son ends Thomas’s own longstanding silence on Anita Hill’s accusations, and provides some context from his point of view. Most important of all, it makes clear that his often-cited charge of a “high-tech lynching” on the part of liberals and Democrats was not a momentary outburst but a considered summation of a lifetime of painful experience. He believed then, and presumably still does, that any independent-minded black American could expect nothing less from the clerics of a dying status quo.
At considerable cost, he won in the end. His suffering, both here and earlier, was not pointless after all but rather redemptive, for himself if not yet for his country. At the close of the book, he is preparing to take his seat at his first conference of the Supreme Court. Fortified by the love of a remarkable wife, by pride in his own flourishing son, and by the memory of the man who made him, he seems to be on the cusp of happiness. It is as satisfying an ending as this brooding, courageous figure—one of the great public men of our time—can offer, at least so far, and no one who reads this singular memoir with sympathy and care can fail to be grateful for it.