Let Me Be the Judge

A Supreme Court justice recounts a difficult ascent.

Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page BW02


By Clarence Thomas

Thomas, here at graduation, said about his time at Yale Law School that he was
Thomas, here at graduation, said about his time at Yale Law School that he was "among the elite, and I knew that no amount of striving would make me one of them." (From The Book)

Harper. 289 pp. $26.95

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.

Anderson kept his young charges out of trouble and hard at work, from sunup to sundown, from classroom to farmyard. Physical labor was performed without work gloves, which Anderson disdained as a sign of weakness. "After a few weeks of constant work, the bloody blisters gave way to hard-earned calluses that protected us from pain," Thomas recalls. "Long after the fact, it occurred to me that this was a metaphor for life -- blisters come before calluses, vulnerability before maturity." Little about Justice Thomas suggests that he is immature, yet his vulnerability remains painfully apparent.

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." It brings to mind what Thomas once said about civil-rights leaders: "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine." He goes on to trace his path from youthful admirer of the Black Power movement to card-carrying Republican. After leaving Immaculate Conception seminary and suffering a painful break with his grandfather, Thomas flirted with radicalism at Holy Cross. "The fog of confusion lifted," he writes. "I knew what was wrong, who to blame for it, and what to do about it. I was an angry black man." 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.

By the time he landed a job with John Danforth, then attorney general of Missouri, Thomas had grown "more wary of unsupported generalizations and conspiracy theories," but not so much that he could resist a generalization of his own: By 1975 he was beginning to "feel that every discussion of race in America was fundamentally dishonest." But in the chapters that follow, Thomas will go on to describe a scenario in which nearly every liberal group in America sets out to get him -- a conspiracy theory, yes?

To his credit, Thomas's call for honesty includes unflattering accounts of his personal struggles, including his failed first marriage, a drinking problem that he overcame, and a brief consideration of suicide. Despite his painful home life, Thomas continued to excel as an undersecretary at the Department of Education and chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush nominated him to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals. His brief tenure there set the stage for the sordid drama to which Thomas is inescapably tied. In 1991, his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court led to shocking testimony from Anita Hill, in which she accused her former boss of sexual harassment.

Thomas's memorable denial was furious and eloquent, an instance in which his frustration, whether you believed him or not, seemed entirely conceivable -- and his anger doesn't seem to have lessened much since. However, his 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. *

Jabari Asim is editor-in-chief of the Crisis magazine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company