Friday, November 09, 2007

Book Review: My Grandfather's Son

I, like most Americans, know very little about the current Supreme Court Justices. While I try to follow their decisions, I don’t really know a lot about the people who make up the highest court in our nation. When My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir by Justice Clarence Thomas was released, I thought I might change that. After I heard an interview by Rush Limbaugh with Justice Thomas, I decided I had to read his book. If you aren’t familiar with Rush’s show, he rarely interviews people for his program. However, he aired a one and a half hour interview with Justice Thomas on his show (a record length for an interview on the Rush Limbaugh Show). After hearing the first part of the interview, I thought Justice Thomas sounded like a fascinating person, and his book reinforced that position.

My Grandfather’s Son is an autobiography of Justice Thomas that follows his life from birth in 1950’s Georgia to his confirmation on the Supreme Court during the senior George Bush’s administration. Clarence Thomas wouldn’t meet his biological dad until he was nine years old, and would only see him twice in his youth. His mother did the best she could to raise him, but by the time he was seven, she realized she couldn’t do it on her own. She sent him and his brother to live with their grandparents. They lived a few blocks down from his grandparents and Clarence Thomas describes walking down the street to move in with them. Both he and his brother carried a grocery sack that contained all of their possessions.

From that point on, Justice Thomas would always think of his Grandfather as his “Daddy”. His grandmother was called Aunt Tina (pronounced “Teenie”). These two would be the parents Justice Thomas would know the rest of his life. His Daddy was hard on him. He wouldn’t allow the two boys to join after school activities, and moved them to a family farm during the summer every year to work. He tried to instill in the boys a strong work ethic. Even though the college age Clarence Thomas would rebel against his Daddy, those lessons his Grandfather instilled in him stuck. Years later, when Clarence Thomas’s life was at its lowest point, he promised to dedicate the rest of it to his grandparents.

I was unaware how much race and racism factored into Clarence Thomas’ life. Through hard work, and his Daddy’s lessons, he was able to go to Holy Cross and then Yale Law School. However, upon graduating, the future Supreme Court Justice found out the true worth of his Yale Law degree. Employers assumed that he only got into Yale, and only graduated, because of race quotas. Because of that, no one wanted to hire him. Justice Thomas recounts taking a 15 cent price tag off a box of cigars and putting it on his diploma to remind him exactly how much the diploma was worth to him.

There has been a lot of discussion in interviews with the Justice regarding the brutal honesty he puts in his book. Even knowing that, I was surprised how much of the misfortune in his life he lays squarely at his own feet. His troubled adult relationship with “the only real father he ever knew”, a failed marriage, heavy drinking, and radical years in college he all blames on himself. Some of his failures could have probably been omitted from the book. However, Justice Thomas believes that he had to be honest so that others reading this book can see how low he sunk and perhaps give that reader hope. His discussion of the “Anita Hill scandal” is heartbreaking. I could feel his pain, and the pain his family and friends went through in the pages of this book.

My Grandfather’s Son is a page turning autobiography. The racism Justice Thomas faced (from southerners and liberals alike) is very much alive in the pages of this book. After reading this book, I found myself revolted by some figures that are still in D.C., and respecting others I hadn’t cared for before. I am old enough to just vaguely remember the conformation process Justice Thomas went through. Reading his recount of how it affected him and his family left me with tremendous respect for Justice Thomas. I recommend this book to anyone who is slightly interested in politics, or who likes a good biography. I can only hope there is a future Justice who reads this book and takes some lessons away from it.

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