I rarely stay up till wee-hours in the morning reading a book, but I did so last night. At 1:30 a.m., I finished reading the final words in Clarence Thomas’ My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir. This is a must-read for those of us who remember the Anita Hill Hearings and the national trial of 1991 when a conservative black man was appointed to the Supreme Court. Those of you who remember the portrayal of the He-said/She-said dispute by the media will find the behind-the-scenes final chapters irresistible page-turners.
There were a number of things that struck me about the life of Clarence Thomas that I hadn’t known. First, as the title points out, he was raised by his grandfather (his mother’s father) as his relationship with his biological father “ended at conception.” Before going to live with his grandfather, his life was as “southern black” as you can get, and his book recalls his daily chore of hauling the bucket of human waste out of the outhouse for the rest of the family. His childhood was extremely impoverished, his lifelong belongings fitting into a paper bag when he moved to his grandparent’s home. It was under his grandfather’s teaching (he and his brother called their grandfather “Daddy”) that Clarence learned the strong work ethic that made him the conservative he is today.
Clarence Thomas was truly raised in “extreme poverty.” I posted a few weeks ago of our family’s financial situation, one that is labeled as “extremely impoverished.” Our family is quite well off compared to that of Thomas’ childhood. In fact, Wendy and I respond with scoff to the government’s labeling our “poverty.” And this is how Thomas’ grandfather saw finances, and he, likewise, refused to go on welfare or government assistance. He was a self-employed man who taught Thomas that “anything was possible with a little bit of elbow grease.” Thomas grew up with a sense that no opportunity was out of his reach, and that attitude led him through rigorous Catholic education, Yale Law School, political confirmations and eventually through one of the toughest character assassination attempts in the history of American politics. I completely resonate with Thomas’ refusal to allow others to judge his opinions, his motives, and his character.
This was the second thing that struck me of Thomas’ life: his fight against The Man. Those who read this book will find it surprising that Thomas was not always a conservative. His lifetime passion was with the civil rights movement, a genuine desire to help other disadvantaged blacks. He even explains his “radical” youth where he dressed in army fatigues and resembled the Black Panthers, never considering that his views resembled Republicans more than Democrats. Yet it became undeniable that his world view, so distinctly defined by his grandfather, came to realize that blacks were held to social slavery by the legal experimentation of liberal ideologies. In his quest to grant blacks freedom, he grew to embrace conservative principles of hard work, expanded opportunity for all, and limited government.
But The Man expected this Negro to be a liberal democrat, and for his denial of liberal ideologies that Thomas believed to be harmful to his people, he suffered incredible hostility. The Senate confirmation hearings was actually Thomas’ fifth confirmation process, so he was used to a fair amount of politics. Thomas goes to great pains explaining how vicious his enemies were. Here was Thomas, a southern black man who rose from poverty and racism to fulfill the American dream, only to be vilified and lectured by a panel of white men who claimed Thomas knew little of discrimination. Such judgmentalism was hypocritical to the n’th degree. Thomas explains how the final days of his confirmation were atrocious:
What they didn’t understand was that my opponents didn’t care who I was. Even if they had wanted to know the truth about me, it would have made no sense to them, since I refused to stay in my place and play by their rules and was too complicated to fit into their simple-minded, stereotypical pigeonholes. In any case, I couldn’t be defeated without first being caricatured and dehumanized. They couldn’t deny that I had a loyal and loving family, so they found ways to use it against me; they couldn’t deny that I’d been born into rural poverty, so they cast doubt on everything I’d done since leaving home, twisting and belittling my escape from the poverty and ignorance of my young years. Above all they couldn’t allow my life to be seen as the story of an ordinary person who, like most people, had worked out his problems step by unsure step. That would have been too honest–and too human.
The third profundity of this book is the reality I had to come to grips with: I was swayed by a dominant media machine that stamped me with an opinion of a fellow human being, someone I knew nothing about. Anita Hill came forth with testimony, and two others from Thomas’ work backed up her allegations. Thomas explains how Anita’s testimony contradicted itself and phone records and calendar history exonerated him of guilt. The testimony of the two who backed up Anita also failed the test of the most reasonable scrutiny. Besides, hundreds of former employees (there were a history of 800 who served under Thomas’ management) lined up to testify on behalf of Thomas’ character and against Anita’s. Thomas does an outstanding job telling it the way he recalls.
A few days before I finished Thomas’ book, I was talking with a dear friend of mine about the Anita Hill hearings. When I recalled the hearings’ injustice, he reminded me, “Yeah, but Anita Hill had witnesses to back her up…Something must have happened.” I sort of agreed. The insinuation was that the accusation of guilt was enough. Thomas addresses this attitude as a cultural plague the Black Man has carried in his history. This wasn’t a “cry racism” response to his confirmation hearing. Quite the contrary. He reminds his readers that “hypersensitive civil-rights leaders who saw racism around every corner fell silent when my liberal enemies sneered that I was unqualified to sit on the Court.” The reality was that if I had doubts about Clarence Thomas, it was very likely because of the media’s portrayal of him and, perhaps, because of real prejudgment deep down inside.
Finally, Thomas accurately labeled the entire ordeal in a most poetic and succinct way. I remember the final words of the hearings. Thomas doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that C-Span provided live coverage rather than allowing the media monopoly cut and edit his strongest verbiage. Thomas’ final words alone vindicated himself, for it turned the tables on what his enemies’ attempt to sink his nomination to the Supreme Court:
“This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
I highly recommend My Grandfather’s Son by Justice Clarence Thomas. The book is packed full of timeless lessons. Buy it here.