My Grandfather's Son LPA Memoir
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Clarence Thomas
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061374739
Sun to Sun
I was nine years old when I met my father. His name was M. C. Thomas, and my birth certificate describes him as a "laborer." My mother divorced him in 1950 and he moved north to Philadelphia, leaving his family behind in Pinpoint, the tiny Georgia community where I was born. I saw him only twice when I was young. The first time was when my mother called her parents, with whom my brother Myers and I then lived, and told them that someone at her place wanted to see us. They called a cab and sent us to her housing-project apartment, where my father was waiting. "I am your daddy," he told us in a firm, shameless voice that carried no hint of remorse for his inexplicable absence from our lives. He said nothing about loving or missing us, and we didn't say much in return—it was as though we were meeting a total stranger—but he treated us politely enough, and even promised to send us a pair of Elgin watches with flexible bands, which were popular at the time. Though we watched the mail every day, the watches never came, and when a year or so had gone by, my grandparents bought them for us instead. My father had broken the only promise he ever made to us. After that we heard nothing more from him, not even a Christmas or birthday card. For years my brother and I would ask ourselves how a man could show no interest in his own children. I still wonder.
I saw him for the second time after I graduated from high school. He had come to see his own father in Montgomery, not far from Pinpoint, and I went there to visit him. I felt I owed it to him—he was, after all, my father, and he had let my grandparents raise me without interference—but Myers would have nothing to do with "C," as we called him, saying that the only father we had was our grandfather. That may sound harsh, but it was nothing more than the truth, for me as much as my brother. In every way that counts, I am my grandfather's son. I even called him Daddy because that was what my mother called him. (His friends called him Mike.) He was dark, strong, proud, and determined to mold me in his image. For a time I rejected what he taught me, but even then I still yearned for his approval. He was the one hero in my life. What I am is what he made me.
I am descended from the West African slaves who lived on the barrier islands and in the low country of Georgia, South Carolina, and coastal northern Florida. In Georgia my people were called Geechees; in South Carolina, Gullahs. They were isolated from the rest of the population, black and white alike, and so maintained their distinctive dialect and culture well into the twentieth century. What little remains of Geechee life is now celebrated by scholars of black folklore, but when I was a boy, "Geechee" was a derogatory term for Georgians who had profoundly Negroid features and spoke with a foreign-sounding accent similar to the dialects heard on certain Caribbean islands.
Much of my family tree is lost to me, its secrets having gone to the grave with my grandparents, but I know that Daddy's people worked on a three-thousand-acre rice plantation in Liberty County, just south of Savannah, and after their manumission they stayed nearby. The maternal side of my mother's family also came from Liberty County, and probably worked on the same plantation, most of which has remained intact. Not long ago I saw it for the first time—during my youth blacks never went there unless they had a good reason—and found that the old barn in which my great-great-grandparents surely labored a century and a half ago is now a bed-and-breakfast inn whose Web site calls it "a perfect honeymoon hideaway." You'd never guess that slaves once worked there.
My mother, Leola, whom I called Pigeon, her family nickname, was born out of wedlock in 1929 or 1930.Her mother died in childbirth, and she saw little of Daddy as a child. At first she was raised by her maternal grandmother, who died when she was eight or nine years old. Then she went to live in Pinpoint with Annie Green, her mother's sister. C and his family moved near there to work at Bethesda Home for Boys, which is next to Pinpoint; that was where he met Pigeon, all of whose children he sired. My sister, Emma Mae, was born in 1946, with Myers Lee following three years later. I was born between them in Sister Annie's house on June 23, 1948. I was delivered by Lula Kemp, a midwife who came from the nearby community of Sandfly. It was one of those sweltering Georgia nights when the air is so wet that you can barely draw breath. To this day my mother swears I was too stubborn to cry.
Pinpoint is a heavily wooded twenty-five-acre peninsula on Shipyard Creek, a tidal salt creek ten miles southeast of Savannah. A shady, quiet enclave full of pines, palms, live oaks, and low-hanging Spanish moss, it feels cut off from the rest of the world, and it was even more isolated in the fifties than it is today. Then as now, Pinpoint was too small to be properly called a town. No more than a hundred people lived there, most of whom were related to me in one way or another. Their lives were a daily struggle for the barest of essentials: food, clothing, and shelter. Doctors were few and far between, so when you got sick, you stayed that way, and often you died of it. The house in which I was born was a shanty with no bathroom and no electricity except for . . .