Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



My Grandfather's Son by Clarence Thomas








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While reading Clarence Thomas’ memoir, My Grandfather's Son, I kept wondering why he wrote this book. As with all memoirs, readers are receiving one point of view about a person’s life. What makes Thomas’ view so fascinating is how comfortable he seems to be in disclosing his sadness, anger, bitterness, drinking problem and financial ineptness. It was not as surprising to hear him disclose his strength, spirituality, and success in government service. In many respects, this memoir reads like a novel in many parts, and many readers will compulsively want to see what happens next. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 6, “A Question of Will,” pp. 148-150:

In February 1982, Pendleton James, President Reagan’s director of presidential personnel, asked me to come see him. The administration was looking for a new chairman to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The president's first nominee, William Bell, a black lawyer from Detroit, had been voted down by the Senate, largely because of strong opposition from civil rights groups. I said I felt sorry for Bell, but that under the circumstances, I couldn't think of anyone who would want the jobs, nor  would I advise any of my friends to take it. I said that I was having hard enough time at Education because of the public's perception of the Reagan administration's racial attitudes, and couldn't see any reason to jump from the frying pan into the fire. "Are there any circumstances under which you'd agree to run EEOC?" he asked. I replied that anyone who took the job would have to be given total independence: no pressure to hire unqualified political appointees, no pressure to pursue an ideological agenda, and no attempts to cut the agency budget indiscriminately. "But all this is purely hypothetical," I added. "I don't want the job. In fact, I'm thinking of leaving the administration." Pen ended our conversation by asking what my answer would be if the president himself asked me to take the job. I hesitated, then reluctantly admitted that I'd have to say yes.

In fact I knew a little something about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and I didn't like what I knew. Shortly after President Reagan was elected in 1980, Jay Parker had been put in charge of the EEOC transition team. He'd asked me to help out, and I was glad to oblige; I'd never been able to understand how an agency that had a mandate to assure equal employment opportunity for all citizens had gotten sidetracked into pushing race-conscious employment policies. So at Jay's request I paid a visit to the agency's Foggy Bottom headquarters, where I learned that it was a horrible place to work, a converted hotel that was filthy and poorly main­tained. I pitied the people who had to labor in such unpleasant con­ditions. Why on earth would I now want to join them?

Pen James called me again on February 12, Lincoln's birthday. This time he skipped the usual pleasantries. "I just got back from the Oval Office," he said brusquely. "The president wants you to go over to EEOC as chairman." I said nothing. "Will you still do it?" he asked. I took a very deep breath, then said yes. "The President wants EEOC off the front pages of the newspapers," he added. That was the only order I ever received from President Reagan, then or later. Pen told me that he'd issue a press release that after­noon announcing my appointment, thanked me for helping the ad­ministration, and hung up. I sat in silence for a moment, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Given my heterodox views and the Reagan administration's poor reputation on civil rights, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from civil rights leaders and the media: first skepticism, then open hostility. For a fleeting moment I couldn't help but feel the urge to run, to go back home to Georgia and the uncomplicated life I had left behind so long ago. Resigning myself to my fate, I called Diane into the office and told her what I'd done. Then I summoned the rest of my personal staff and an­nounced that I was going to EEOC. Anita Hill immediately said that she wanted to go with me. I said I'd think about it, reminding her that her position at Education was safe, thanks to a new collec­tive-bargaining agreement that had given career attorneys the same job protections as career civil servants. "You're a rising star," she re­plied. "I want to go with you." I brushed off her description and said once again that I'd think about it.

The dread didn't start to set in until after I got home that night. I was still mired in debt, and had never stopped brooding about the damage I had done to my family. Not only had I hurt Kathy and Jamal, but my decision to leave them had strained my already shaky relationship with Daddy. I'd been careful to warn Aunt Tina that I couldn't bear to hear him criticize me about so painful a subject. He never did, always skirting the subject gingerly—but I knew how he felt. He'd always liked Kathy, and it was all too easy for me to imag­ine what he must have thought of my decision to walk out on her, leaving his beloved great-grandson behind. "You'll probably end up like your no-good daddy or those other no-good Pinpoint Negroes," he had told me on the morning he threw me out of his house, and his terrible words still burned in my memory a decade and a half later. Had Daddy been right after all? I poured myself a large glass of Scotch and Drambuie over ice and downed it greedily, alone with my thoughts and afraid of what lay ahead.


My Grandfather’s Son beats the drum of the bitterness that can come from feeling like an outsider in almost every situation. Many readers will feel sad about Clarence Thomas’ life after reading this book. This is a memoir that describes a life very different from the one most readers have lived, and for that reason, reading it leads to greater understanding and empathy.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2007 issue of Executive Times


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