“I wept beyond tears, slipping into the barren, rhythmic heaves of a body seeking something more.”
The poetic words of inconsolable grief were penned by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his newly released memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. In this moving passage, he describes his agony in the days following the death of the man that came to be “Daddy”. The book is filled with magnificent prose in which one of the most powerful men in America repeatedly dares to bare his soul – dares to make himself vulnerable to the cold, hard world of cynics in which we live.
In a pin-striped town where pretending and pretentiousness are the status quo, it is startling to hear a man at the highest positions of power be so honest about his heartaches, fears, and painful memories. The result? My Grandfather’s Son has the potential to be the most life-changing book of our era.
Justice Thomas could have written the typical “rags to riches” story, with all the big publishing houses lined up to roll out the pontifications designed to impress and awe the Washington elite. But he didn’t do that. Instead, Clarence Thomas chose to speak from his heart, describing in a somber tone the truth about his own shortcomings, regrets and oppression. He tells the compelling story of his early life struggles with racism, abandonment, poverty and unrelenting work. He takes us through his journey all the way to a nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court, only to again be subjected to racism, the abandonment of truth, and a poverty of justice – this time at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One “moral of the story” of My Grandfather’s Son is, in some ways, predictable (yet, still inspiring) – namely, that in America it is possible, through self-reliance and hard work, to triumph over even the worst of circumstances. But what makes this book remarkable is that Justice Thomas does not revel in the victory of having reached the pinnacles of power through the sheer strength of his own will and hard work. He does not stand up and shout, “Look at me! Look how I have overcome!” Instead of gloating in sweet victory over his tormentors when he was narrowly confirmed after a bloody perversion of the process, Justice Thomas is mournful over how such an austere institution as the United States Senate could become so corrupt.
For the thoughtful reader, what comes through loud and clear is Justice Thomas’ love of freedom and human dignity.
He describes the misery of growing up poor and black in the segregated South. Justice Thomas speaks eloquently and respectfully of the man who rescued him from the life of waste that so often claimed the souls of the young, black male in the 1950’s. His grandfather was the steel, emotionally distant “Daddy,” that taught the young Thomas how hard work, character, and loyalty could overcome even the worst of circumstances. A man who would not take “no” for an answer (from his grandson or society), Thomas recalls one of his grandfather’s favorite sayings: “Old Man Can’t is dead – I helped bury him.” Even the greatest critic has to admit that Clarence Thomas took that declaration to heart.
An early report about the book in The Washington Post describes the tone of My Grandfather’s Son as angry. “Justice Thomas Lashes Out in Memoir” the headline screamed; the first sentence says he “settles scores”.
Nothing could be a bigger lie.
Yes, Clarence Thomas’ writings show a bold, righteous indignation toward anything less than absolute justice and truth. He voices a clear disdain for bigotry – especially when it attempts to masquerade as intelligence – and the abuse of position and power. As a tragic victim of such abuse, his story is one which will, no doubt, cause some to squirm in discomfort at the shameful manner in which he was treated throughout his confirmation process. But to characterize the book and Justice Thomas with the shallow all-sweeping term of “angry” in an attempt to cheapen the value of the message and the man is to willfully ignore the foundational and numerous messages of hope, faith and beauty that are the soul of My Grandfather’s Son. This book is not about revenge – it is about the inoculating protection that hard work, faith and tenacity offer against the natural desire for revenge. If one man had justification for bitterness, it would be Clarence Thomas. Yet, he is not bitter for himself. He is heartbroken over a system that can destroy a man, his family and his reputation for the sake of politics.
Written for the common man, My Grandfather’s Son is anything but common. It should be required reading for every law student, every historian, every single person that truly seeks to be color blind, impart justice, or explore solutions to the inane policies and problems that threaten to strangle equal opportunity. Justice Thomas reveals how the ugliness of bigotry and racism still rob men and women of their dignity and the opportunity to thrive by the virtue of merit. Justice Clarence Thomas’ “rags to riches” story is unique in that it can enrich the soul and heart of anyone willing to take the journey with him.