My Grandfather’s Son (book review)

Book review by The Movie Snob

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Clarence Thomas (Harper 2007). This autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas actually ends just as he begins his tenure on the Court over fifteen years ago. In direct, unadorned prose, he tells his story. He was born in rural Georgia in June 1948, and his father divorced his mother and left Georgia in 1950. For his first seven years, Thomas lived in extreme poverty, but then his mother sent him and his younger brother to live with her father and stepmother, whom Thomas grew up calling Daddy and Uncle Tina. He grew up in their modest home, excelling in his schoolwork and absorbing his grandfather’s creed of something like “rugged individualism.” Race issues were never far from his mind, then or later, and in his college and law school years he dabbled in black radicalism. After Yale Law School he fatefully took a job with Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. When Danforth became a senator, he took Thomas to Washington. There he soon joined the Department of Education and then became chairman of the EEOC, a post he held for several years. In the summer of 1989, President Bush nominated him for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and he joined the court in March 1990. In the summer of 1991, at age 42, President Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court, and after a series of memorable confirmation hearings, he was confirmed by a vote of 52–48. Thomas gives his perspective on all these remarkable events.

Of course his account of the Anita Hill hearings is interesting. Naturally he adheres to his testimony at the time, in which he categorically denied all of her accusations and insisted that he was unaware that he ever said or did anything to Hill that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment. (Even though I was in law school at the time, and the hearings were the subject of widespread debate, I watched none of them. I suppose I did not believe that there was any way the truth could be clearly established, short of one side or the other recanting.) What I remember thinking was much more remarkable at the time was his testimony that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade with anyone. He mentions this matter briefly in the book, and it had not occurred to me that Thomas himself was only a law student—halfway through law school—when Roe was decided. Moreover, he says that at that time he was “agnostic” on the matter, by which he apparently means mildly and instinctively pro-choice, and given his absorption with the rights of blacks (hardly surprising for a black man who had grown up in 1950s and 1960s Georgia) it is perhaps more conceivable that his testimony was true. My closest friends in law school and I probably argued about Roe (and our other favorite topic, affirmative action) ever other week, but I can’t say that I have had all that many discussions about them since. So I’m inclined to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Anyway, it’s an interesting book, and, at only 289 pages, a much less daunting read than Andrew Peyton Thomas’s 590-page biography of the justice from 2001. But don’t expect a lot of personal revelations about his family — he says little about his brother, and virtually nothing about his mother, father, and sister. He clearly values his, and their, privacy.

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