Sunday, October 7, 2007

Reviewed: Thomas, My Grandfather's Son

My Grandfather's Son, by Clarence Thomas, is reviewed by Jabari Asim in today's Washington Post. Asim begins:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas frames the initial pages of his candid, often anguished memoir with an extended portrait of his grandfather. In doing so, the nation's most intensely scrutinized jurist has made what can only be called a judicious decision.

Myers Anderson, who raised Thomas and his brother, was a fearless, hardworking man. He built his own house, acquired rental property, operated a fuel-oil delivery service, plowed his own crops on his own land, and shot or slaughtered meat for his table. In Thomas's convincing portrait, his barely literate grandfather was as whip-smart and witty as Benjamin Franklin -- if Franklin had been born poor and black in the Deep South. Among Myers's aphorisms on the benefits of hard work: "Old Man Can't is Dead -- I helped bury him" and my personal favorite: "You worth less than a carload of dead men." The book's charm decreases considerably when the author turns his attention to other lives and other matters, such as post-Jim Crow black professionals who worry that they may never measure up to their white counterparts. For some of us, a greater question is whether we will ever equal the black men who raised us after surviving far more harrowing circumstances. This question clearly haunts Thomas as well....

If Anderson ever felt vulnerable, he no doubt kept it to himself and probably had little tolerance for such a notion. "Despite the hardships he had faced, there was no bitterness or self-pity in his heart," Thomas writes. Ironically, both those qualities are abundantly displayed in My Grandfather's Son. Thomas seems unable to resist doing what conservatives have often accused African American leaders of doing: casting himself as a victim.

No tormentor goes unremembered here, from cruel African American high-schoolers who teased him about his dark complexion to an arrogant white seminary classmate who assured him, "One day you will be as good as us."...His use of the past tense belies the ire that rises like steam from so many of these pages. Yale Law School soon rekindled his anger at paternalistic liberals, "ostensibly unprejudiced whites who pretended to side with black people while using them to further their own political and social ends."

In this and other comments, Thomas often implies that most blacks are witless simpletons at the mercy of white liberal duplicity. He is right to warn against African Americans' over-reliance on Democrats and other putative liberals, but his descriptions of his own internecine battles with Reagan-administration stonewallers hardly point to a viable alternative. Those clashes convinced him that "the disease of blind dogma afflicted both parties." Left unsaid is any suggestion of how African Americans should best address such predicaments....

[In recounting Thomas' bitterness over accusations of sexual harrassment by Anita Hill during his Supreme Court nomination battle, Thomas'] evocation of a high-tech lynching, while clearly heartfelt, seemed inappropriate then and does so now. He writes that he must have been inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel in which a black man goes on trial for raping a white woman. But Anita Hill's blackness complicates his discussions of racist myths about African American men being untrustworthy around white women. He suggests that his upbringing taught him to never forget "what it felt like to live in fear of the power of a mob," but what white mob ever formed to avenge the alleged assault or harassment of a black woman? It's telling and dismaying that Thomas's consideration of the history of injustices against black men doesn't consider the denigration of black women that so often accompanied it.

My Grandfather's Son ends triumphantly as Thomas prepares for his first conference as a member of the Supreme Court. This memoir will not sway those who oppose his fierce, unapologetic conservatism, but it does provide a fascinating glimpse into a tortured, complex and often perplexing personality. Near the end of the book he discusses a desire to allow his life "to be seen as the story of an ordinary person who, like most people, had worked out his problems step by unsure step." In that he has succeeded.

The full review is here.