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To Cite a 'Mockingbird'

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"After a lifetime of struggle and achievement," Thomas writes, "I'd been thrust back into Bigger Thomas's world, a dark, cramped hell devoid of hope."

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Bigger Thomas is a recurring figure in Thomas's own narrative of his life. Back when he was saying very little about his confirmation ordeal -- stewing privately, according to some friends -- he read an article that he later recommended as the most dead-on critique ever written about him.

Titled "Native Son: Why a Black Supreme Court Justice Has No Rights a White Man Need Respect," it was written by the late Edith Efron and published by Reason magazine in February 1992, a few months after Thomas joined the court. The article had not left Thomas's consciousness nearly a decade later when he ran into Efron's editor, Virginia Postrel, after a speech in Washington. No one else, he told Postrel, had been able to see so clearly into his mind.

Though plenty of black organizations and politicians opposed his nomination -- including the NAACP and the National Bar Association -- Thomas has chosen to frame his fight for a seat on the court in racial terms. Repeatedly in his memoir, summoning powerful images of bigotry from the Jim Crow era, he positions himself as a besieged member of his race, and not the estranged, despised figure he is among many African Americans today.

Thomas's autobiography comes as the high court begins its new term, a court sharply divided ideologically and still forging its identity under Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices never want their institution embroiled in political controversy, but by dredging up a fight he long ago won, Thomas's memoir may serve as a reminder of the fierce political battles that are at the heart of who becomes a justice. While "My Grandfather's Son" doesn't delve into the workings of the Supreme Court, it is a highly unusual memoir for a sitting justice. It takes aim at senators and others who operate in political Washington, and has a partisan edge that most contemporary books by Supreme Court justices do not. Thomas was paid a reported $1.5 million for his book, far more than any other justice in history.

Attempts to reach Anita Hill for comment yesterday were unsuccessful, but Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who served as her lead attorney during the Thomas confirmation hearings, said that he found Thomas's depiction of himself as a persecuted black man remarkable, given his "persistent jurisprudence that strikes a colorblind tone. And yet he talks in racial terms to define his own plight."

However the public assesses "My Grandfather's Son," for Thomas it was "a catharsis," according to commentator Armstrong Williams, a former Thomas aide who is throwing a book party for the justice this week. "He's definitely free, I can tell you that. You have to feel free to write something like that."

Kevin Merida, along with Michael A. Fletcher, is the co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."


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