Clarence Thomas: A Biography

By Andrew Peyton Thomas | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Two Plantations in Georgia

"To understand," Frederick Douglass said, "a man must stand under." Only by considering all the hardships a man has overcome in life, Douglass believed, can the rest of us judge him fairly. So it must be with Clarence Thomas. To understand how Thomas became one of the great intellectual and political rebels in American history, one must recall, in the context of his life, the unique evils that he and his fellow black Americans surmounted with such great struggle.

Thomas himself would eschew such an approach, but not for lack of respect for Frederick Douglass. Thomas often quotes Douglass, and a black-and-white portrait of the grizzled great man today peers over his shoulder from behind his desk in his Supreme Court chambers. Rather, Thomas, proudly independent to the point of vice, simply brooks no assessment of his life based on anything other than his own achievements. This policy is unduly modest, both toward himself and toward others of his race. Thomas's story cannot be fully comprehended, or his accomplishments given their full measure, without consideration of the broader history of racial injustice that forms the backdrop of his life and work.

"We Afro-Americans are like hunters on the trail of truth," Thomas once observed. "The prey we stalk is: Who we are, What we have been, What we will become as individuals and as a people." The dearth of recorded black family history is a large impediment to this historical quest. One of the great enduring offenses of American slave owners was their policy of forbidding slaves to chronicle their lineage—even while they and other white Southerners became famously obsessed with documenting every last twig of their own family trees. This crime against history robbed black Americans of the firm ancestral ties crucial for a

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