Clarence Thomas Takes a Chance on Memoir Essayist John McWhorter reviews Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' new book, My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir.
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Clarence Thomas Takes a Chance on Memoir

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Clarence Thomas Takes a Chance on Memoir

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Book Reviews

Clarence Thomas Takes a Chance on Memoir

Clarence Thomas Takes a Chance on Memoir

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Essayist John McWhorter reviews Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' new book, My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is in the news recently and not just for as work on the High Court, he has written a new book. It's called, "My Grandfather's Son."

Commentator John McWhorter has this review.

JOHN McWHORTER: We all know Clarence Thomas - elevated to the Supreme Court as a token, yet, has the nerve to disapprove of affirmative action for anyone else, and then accused of sexual harassment plays the race cart. He's the evil, black conservative America loves to hate. In his long-awaited autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son", he finally gets his say. The most interesting revelation does not concern any Anita Hill. It turns out that the reason a man who grew up poor in Jim Crow, Georgia has politics falling rightward of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is a sense of unfinished business with his grandfather.

His grandfather was an implacable tyrant, and Thomas alienated him by dropping out of seminary and then going through a militant phase, all about Angela Davis and Marvin Gaye. Thomas admits he never got over falling short of his grandfather's expectations and he openly declares that his politics are an homage to the man he'll always wish he had won the approval of.

Many of course do think the black politics must be liberal once out of the sense that racism is a barrier to success for all but a few. But Thomas' grandfather disagree, and he looms over the text as a stern reminder to Thomas to not screw up again.

There's a great deal of sadness and endurance in "My Grandfather's Son." In the preface, Thomas says that writing the book, man, he had to suffer old hurts, endure old pains and revisit old doubts - a pretty glum way to feel about your life story. And Thomas goes in for his share of score settling - however, plenty of people do when writing autobiographies. And the Thomas that emerges from the book is not the black man who hates his own people that we're often given.

For example, he writes that in a fair society, people dealt a bad handshake at breaks. He just thinks the breaks should be given according to class not race. Condemning him for rejecting racial preferences after benefiting from them doesn't hold up either. What made him come to the conclusion was personal experience.

Few could be unmoved by his description of watching so many black students brought to his undergraduate school unprepared for college and then crashing and burning after a year. Yet, it'd be hard to say that Thomas comes off as a hero throughout the book. There are places where he patches over unpleasant realities to smooth out the narrative of his life. He's a little modeled on the role of affirmative action played in his Supreme Court nomination. He'd spend about five minutes on the D.C. Court of Appeals after 10 years in government. He simply wasn't, as the first President Bush put it, the best-qualified person for the job.

And as to Anita Hill, Thomas' case makes it hard to believe her. However, Hill's book makes it equally hard to believe him. I've met both and I find it hard to imagine either of them doing what the other has charged - the debate will continue. Overall, the book could be witty. The prose often sounds more like the life story of a politician than of a legal practitioner sitting on a highest court of the land.

Thomas also holds up with a certain distance on things like his first marriage, he's other romantic relationships and his friends, who he tends to list and salute instead of describing his comfort and intimacy with them. Other sources reveal, for example, that far from being the scowling figure we often see in photos, he's actually a jocular person with a big laugh.

You would never know that from reading this book. Given what he went through with his confirmation hearings, it's understandable that Thomas would be weary of sharing of too much of himself. This means that to truly get the measure of the man, reading "My Grandfather's Son" can only take us so far. However, does Thomas succeed in trying to revise the accepted vision of him for the better? Pretty much.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: John McWhorter is the author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage" and "Black America" and "Authentically Black."

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