Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My Grandfather's Son

Clarence Thomas, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, released his autobiography last year of his life up to the day of his swearing in ceremony. I finally bought myself the paperback earlier this fall. It's a fascinating and inspiring story.

It was while I was a junior in high school that Thomas endured his infamous Senate confirmation hearings. I remember watching some of it on TV, and I remember that most of the people in my life considered Thomas to be innocent and a victim of wrongful slander. I was relieved to see that Thomas was selected to the Supreme Court, and by that action I kind of assumed that he was declared innocent. But it was never really clear to me how the sexual harassment accusations were settled. At least now I've read Thomas' version of what happened. The harsh NY Times review of Thomas' autobiography only seems to further the credibility of story.

Thomas' boyhood is a hard-scrabble life, his mother sends him and his brother to live with her father; she can't afford to raise them. Since their real father was not part of their life, Thomas called his grandfather Daddy. He was a hard man, a proud black man who worked for everything he had and turned down free handouts. His harsh rearing of Thomas back then would be totally unacceptable today, but it was what it was. It's clear, in retrospect, that Thomas now knows how much his Daddy loved him, of how wise his Daddy was, and for what his Daddy was trying to protect him from and prepare him for.

Being brilliant and a hard worker helped him get through school and into his attorney career. His faith, though, eroded as he stumbled forward in life, trying to find his place as a black man in a very racist nation. It wasn't always clear how Thomas should fit into white America or black America. What was becoming evident was Thomas' independent thinking about realistic solutions to the problems his people and fellow citizens were enduring.

The last couple chapters of the book unfold rapidly as he recounts the events leading up to his nomination and the terrible experiences of the confirmation process and hearings. It's an emotionally deep series of events. The raw honesty with which Thomas unveils part of his soul is a gift. The strength of character he digs deep to unveil, his reliance upon his wife and his God is beautiful.

A few parts of the story that impressed me:

* The quote from Bob Knight that Thomas used to motivate himself to get ready for the confirmation: Most people have a will to win, but few people have the will to prepare to win.
* The character of Missouri Senator John Danforth and his friendship with Thomas. Inspiring. It's what's best about United States Senators.
* The reemergence of Thomas' faith as he went through the difficult times leading up to the confirmation hearings: the ending of his first marriage, the attempts to still try to be an involved father, the strain of being a public servant while dealing with near-poverty and inner-turmoil.
* The strength, dignity, loyalty, and high expectations that characterized Thomas' Daddy; he is an inspiring man - a hard and harsh man, but a good man.

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