Monday, January 14, 2008

Reading My Grandfather’s Son

[Originally published in the Blackstone Fellowship Review, January 2008]

To those of you who will only skim the first paragraph of this review, I offer Bill Kristol's headline admonition, "Read this book." To the rest of you, read this book. You'll meet the Clarence Thomas you never knew.

If you polled a group of today's conservative law students on their favorite Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas would likely be overlooked. This fact shouldn't surprise us. We were involved in the legal culture when Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were appointed. We watched their confirmation hearings and learned all kinds of information about their personal lives, careers, and lower court opinions. Chief Justice Rehnquist defined the direction of the Court for a number of years, and thus receives attention in most Constitutional law courses. And, of course, Justice Scalia is nothing less than a celebrity. His witty opinions and dissents alike drive liberal law professors crazy, providing conservative law students moments of elation in an otherwise dismal classroom.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, is a retiring personality and, as a writer, famously concise or even silent. Recall his terse dissent in Lawrence, or his unusual habit of not asking questions during oral arguments. And very few of this century's law students have any real recollection of his confirmation. I have a grainy memory of my parents watching a public broadcast of Thomas' famous speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee rebutting Anita Hill's claims, but I did not know who Anita Hill was and did not care to know. My first significant memory of Justice Thomas was hearing one of my college professor's describe him as an "Oreo" during an argument in the elevator as to whether a black person could ever be politically conservative.

In one way, the memoir reflects this laconic Clarence Thomas. The volume is slim and non-pretentious. Unlike the biographies of many public figures, the text is sparse on important names and dates. But, like Thomas' legal opinions, the book bowls you over with its stunning facts recounted in his characteristic tight, careful style.

And the facts are stunning.

A descendant of West African slaves, Thomas was born in a shanty sans bathroom and lit by a sole light bulb in rural Georgia. He did not meet his father until age nine, and did not see him again until after high school. In other words, Thomas should have been a statistic. But after one winter without regular meals, his mother turned him over to the exclusive care of his grandfather—a severe, strict man with a third-grade education.

His grandfather, who Thomas called, “Daddy,” made the difference in his life. Daddy sent him to parochial schools, pushed him academically, took him to work the family farm in the summer in order to keep him out of trouble in Savanna, and taught him the importance of hard, honest work. Thomas tells of one incident on the farm where he complained at the rigorous sun-up-to-sun-down work regime, which Daddy said was man’s lot in life because of the Fall. Thomas quipped that slavery was over. Daddy responded, “Not in my house.”

For being such an important figure in Thomas’ formation, Daddy was not a picture of affectionate paternalism. He never hugged Thomas nor offered him an encouraging word. Furthermore, the two men were estranged to some degree for a quarter of a century because of Thomas decision to leave seminary and his foray into Black Power politics. Yet it is to this man that Thomas most attributes his professional success. Indeed, Thomas confesses that he later came to understand that, “I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known.”

The other main theme in Thomas story is race. Racial slurs and slights peppered his childhood at parochial school and later in seminary and college. Reading them provokes one to indignation and helps the reader understand his slide, as young man, toward bitterness at white culture and hatred of America. Daddy’s voice persisted even in that season, however, reminding Thomas that to change the world, he needed to change himself; and, though justified in his outrage over the lives of many blacks in America, Thomas’ rage was paralyzing rather than permitting him to face the opportunities he had been given.

Thomas came to understand his grandfather’s wisdom, and that insight gives the remainder of his story it’s extraordinary depth. Although racism continued to impact his time at law school, his post-law school job hunt, and even his confirmation hearings, which he famously described as nothing more than a “high-tech lynching,” he resisted the temptation toward anger and, instead, grew increasingly interested in discovering real policy solutions to the plight of black Americans.

Only in the last third of the book does Thomas sketch his journey to the bench. It is a fascinating read. He parades plenty of familiar faces (including a young Mike Luttig) and insider information on the confirmation process to keep the legal history junkies happy as well as catch up those of us who have little memory of that point in history. Plus, he tells the Anita Hill incident from his perspective, which you certainly will not find anywhere else.

But most striking to me was the role of prayer and faith in carrying him through the process. Moments before his famous speech to the Senate, he prayed with his wife and Senator Danforth, who had shepherded his nomination process through the Senate. Then, as he faced the committee, he prayed again, “Let the Holy Ghost speak through me.” That moment, more than any other, illustrates Justice Thomas’ great reverence for words.

Indeed, Clarence Thomas' signal greatness is his respect for the power of the word. It is upon this principle that he has built his Supreme Court legacy of clearly articulating the law. And by this precept he crafted not only a fine autobiography, but, perhaps, a great book.


Hayler said...

Clay just got this book for Christmas. He is thoroughly enjoying it.

Chris said...

Were you the author of that fine review?

Mrs. Miller said...

Yep, I wrote it with some VERY helpful suggestions and revisions by my husband.

Jessie said...

This has been on my reading list for sometime after hearing several radio interviews with Justice Thomas. I have always been a fan of his and can not wait to dive into the book. (Once the reserve comes in from the library!)

Your review is amazing and poignant. I can't believe that I almost started crying during the review. I'm sure I'll be moved again during the book. Thanks again.