Book review: My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas

GrandfathersSonby Timothy Lane   2/4/14
With Black History Month in progress and a femocratic mockumentary puffing Anita Hill coming out soon, this was an appropriate time to read and review Clarence Thomas’s memoir of his life up to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Indeed, a third of the booj covers his judicial nominations (first for the DC Court of Appeals, then for SCOTUS). But as the title indicates, My Grandfather’s Son also explains Thomas’s upbringing, and how it led to the man he became.

Like so many families of that era, Thomas came from a broken home, abandoned by his father. His mother lacked the resources to bring up her children, so they were raised primarily by her parents, whom Clarence came to call Daddy and Aunt Tina. It was a hard life in rural Georgia (and part of the time in Savannah, which was little better for blacks at the time). Jim Crow was an ever-present reality, and opportunities were few. But somehow they managed to get by, and Daddy taught them not to bother with complaining. (Some might think of Phil Robertson’s comments on race at this point. Poor people never have much time to feel sorry for themselves if they want to be independent – which most still did in that era, particularly those with a rural background.) One reason for this, possibly, was religion. Stonewall Jackson, a century earlier, had accepted slavery not because of racism but because, as a Calvinist, he simply saw that as the lot of the black people. We all have our problems; that was theirs. And so it was a century later – which doesn’t mean they liked it, merely that they endured it as a fact of life.

That hard-working, self-reliant upbringing would certainly serve Clarence Thomas well in his future life, and so would the religious devotion of his childhood (he actually went to a Catholic seminary before deciding he didn’t really have a vocation – to the great disappointment of Daddy, who ended up throwing him out of the house). But as he went to college in the northeast (including eventually Yale Law) he picked up some bad habits. It was easy for him to imbibe the radicalism of his fellow blacks in these colleges, though eventually his observations made him skeptical of the sort of affirmative action mindset that resulted from such radicalism. He was especially unhappy when he sought work as a Yale graduate – and came to realize that people automatically downgraded his Yale degree, assuming he picked up as a result of quotas rather than merit.

Thomas finally got a job as a lawyer working for Missouri Attorney, General John Danforth, a lawyer and also an Episcopal minister as well as a Republican. He first had to pass the Missouri bar exam, which naturally worried him, and as soon as he was able to start doing the actual work he learned that Danforth was a believer in the “sink or swim” theory. Fortunately, Thomas managed to swim – and also to learn a crucial lesson. He had been concerned that, working on appeals, he would be trying to put black men – brothers – in jail. Then he encountered the actual cases, and discovered why these black thugs (and no doubt some white ones as well) deserved to be there. He also appreciated the fact that Danforth and his subordinates all treated Thomas the same way they treated each other.

Working for a Republican didn’t automatically make Thomas a Republican himself, though he did soon register as Independent. When (after a brief, unsatisfactory – but somewhat lucrative – stint at Monsanto) he joined Danforth’s Senate office staff, he found that most black staffers of Republicans were still Democrats. But he increasingly wasn’t, and in 1980 he decided to support Reagan – and became a Republican as a result. This led to work in the Reagan administration, first as a civil rights expert in the Department of Education, and then for most of a decade running the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (which had been devastatingly run down by Carter appointee Eleanor Holmes Norton, but which Thomas finally managed to get into good enough shape that even some liberals noticed.

Service in the Reagan administration also led to his meeting a mediocre but ambitious female lawyer named Anita Hill, who never left her typically liberal hatred of Reagan prevent her from working in his administration. As with any memoir, one can always wonder how accurate the author’s memory is, and his portrayal of Hill would probably attract a lot of skepticism if the likeliest skeptics were ever inclined to read this book. Given the dubious nature of her accusations (which were supported by almost no one else who had been there) and especially her odd history of following someone who supposedly made her feel uncomfortable from one office to another, accepting a favorable reference from him when she went off to teach law in Oklahoma, calling him back occasionally afterward, and describing him favorably right up until it became politically very convenient to change her tune, it’s reasonable to suspect that his portrayal of Hill is far more accurate than her portrayal of him.

Thomas’s personal life had the usual problems. He ended up divorcing his first wife, though he never abandoned their son (Jamal), who eventually came to live primarily with father rather than mother even after Thomas remarried – to a white woman, which a few decades earlier might have qualified him to be guest of honor at a necktie party (something I noted when I wrote an article on the Thomas nomination and hearings for FOSFAX in late 1991, and as Thomas points out himself). He remained on bad terms with Daddy (eventually concluding that they were too much alike) until they reconciled not long before Daddy joined (and Aunt Tina not long afterward).

Finally, George Bush the elder named Clarence Thomas to the second-most influential court in the nation. This proved to be a modest hurdle – but Judiciary chairman Joe Biden hinted that the story would be different if he were offered a promotion. So it proved a year later, after Thurgood Marshall died. Bush had in fact wanted to appoint Thomas to replace William Brennan, but the latter died too soon after Thomas became a judge, so he waited for the next opportunity. But It hardly mattered; in the end the liberal activists (concerned about possible damage to their most sacred rite, abortion) were determined to block him, and do whatever it would take. Ironically, Thomas at the time didn’t see himself as pro-life and had never discussed Roe v. Wade (which came up in the hearing, to the probably understandable skepticism of his interrogators). Only later would he read the decision and realize how wretched a pretense of constitutional scholarship it was.

Thomas would become notorious for his use of “high-tech lynching” to describe the efforts to use Anita Hill’s claims to destroy him, but he explains the background (including most especially the history of sexual accusations that were historically used against black men) that led him to say that. He may no longer have been in danger of actual lynching, and already held a lifetime appointment as a judge, but being smeared by the Democrats and the synoptic media working in tandem was still no picnic. In the end, his religious faith (he quotes from Christ’s prayers at Gethsemane), and the legacy of determination and self-reliance left him by his grandfather, enabled him to stand up to those who sought to destroy him, and ultimately triumph – barely. (It helped that he’d never been all that eager to be a judge to begin with.) And so, finally, he was sworn in as an Associate Justice, and there the memoir ends. • (1396 views)

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2 Responses to Book review: My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    What an excellent book review. Timothy. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  2. Faba Calculo says:

    I’ll say this one thing for as long as I live: the Thomas – Hill hearings did, for a time, leave me with substantial respect for Biden. The issue of third party affidavits came up several times in the hearings. The first time I recall, a Democrat had wanted to read one hostile to Thomas, and Biden firmly reminded him that the rules he had laid down as chairman had forbade such affidavits.

    Then, like two minutes later, a Republican tried to do the exact same thing. With a bit more of a growl in his voice, he reminded this senator of what he had just said. But the Republican pursued it once more, leaving Biden to snarl that he would allow him to read one and then he would “shut you right down”.

    Why he allowed the Republican to read his affidavit while having forbade the Democrat, snarl or no, seemed, then and now, to indicate that he was trying to run a fair hearing. The respect I gained for him that day was more than a little dulled years later with the incidence of his telling a crowd (perhaps more than one), that his sister had been killed by a drunk driver, when it appears to clearly have been the case that the driver who ran the stop sign and killed his sister had had his breaks fail. But give the Devil his due.

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