I updated and reposted this September 2016 review. Considering current events and the surrounding din, a redirection towards the life and memoir of such an accomplished man as Justice Thomas seems appropriate.
My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.
Bootstrapping is an unpopular concept today, and My Grandfather’s Son is certainly an engaging, bootstrapping book. However, it is worth reading because in reality, Clarence Thomas understands that his success is as much a testament to his grandfather’s dedicated investment in him as it is to his own hard work and intellect. From that perspective, it is less a story of pulling oneself up by his bootstraps and more about appreciating and capitalizing upon the opportunities that come our way.
While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his life’s story than that brief, unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing-up years was so interesting that I almost forgot about the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.
The book’s titular reference is to Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she knew they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas clarifies that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. It was he who taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and rising above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.
I always found it odd to see Clarence Thomas painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected from and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite being a very young, idealistic, card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even at 20 years old, because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a man born and raised in Georgia in the 1950s be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?
I later learned, and his memoir confirmed, that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That wasn’t a popular position to take and still isn’t. It’s even less tolerable coming from a black person, as Thomas found out the hard way.
He was still quite a young man when he noticed the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and agree in response to every demand made by black leaders, even if the demands were illogical and damaging over the long-term. Also, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad, if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.
The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community choked the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated.
If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought which gained its foothold during his coming of age years. That he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that raising their son and ushering him to manhood was best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book. Like Thomas’ mother understood, they understood that men learn manhood from men.
He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understood the challenges facing the young men, and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike many of his liberal detractors.
By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. His version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, until he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal wore on him and his wife.
As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. When I watched them, I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views. At least I thought I was, as this was before I started thinking through the issues. Even then, I remember having a hard time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful, Thomas claims he didn’t care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and for no other reason.
One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a particularly hostile senator. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” He had no judicial paper trail, so the senators tried to gauge his positions through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:
Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.
That was a superb response, and one of the things I most enjoyed about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him, rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.
It’s a quick and engaging read and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.
*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.