Doing Thomas Justice
On the many virtues of Clarence Thomas.
In 1987, when I was newly wed and back for one more round in D.C., I interviewed Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for Reason magazine. I liked him immediately and unreservedly.
I had read Juan Williams’s trenchant profile of Thomas in The Atlantic and was pleased to find he was solidly within the broad agrarian and working-class African American tradition encompassing Booker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The hallmarks of these related lineages were mutual aid, community cooperation, allegiance to ordinary people instead of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth,” and an aversion to kissing the asses of patronizing white liberals.
Two years earlier I’d spent half a day interviewing Eldridge Cleaver, ex-Minister of Information for the Black Panthers and author of the revolutionary polemic Soul on Ice. The Panthers, Cleaver included, committed their share of serious sins, but beyond their empty Marxist-Leninist verbiage one discerned an admirable emphasis on self-help, as well as a firm commitment to the right to keep and bear arms.
As right-wing Republican-turned-New Leftist Karl Hess told his friend Barry Goldwater, “Senator, if you had been born black and poor, you would now be a Panther or I seriously misjudge the strength of your character and convictions.”
Eldridge Cleaver’s 1967 pox upon "the class of social workers who have developed a vested interest in the existence of poverty" found echoes in Clarence Thomas’s lament that “quotas are for the black middle class. But look at what’s happening to the masses. Those are my people. They are just where they were before any of these policies.”
Our Reason interview caused Thomas a spot of trouble in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Senator Ted Kennedy was agitated, or at least feigned mild concern, over Thomas’s speculation that the lesser Cabinet departments such as Labor and Commerce had no justification for being. Anarchist!
His cherry-picking critics ignored such Thomas remarks as “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” probably because they did not know what to make of an independent-minded man who had been so powerfully formed by a place (Pin Point, Georgia) and a strong grandfather (Myers Anderson) that he might be a black conservative or a black nationalist, a Randian libertarian or a class-conscious revolutionary, depending upon your angle of vision. (His deviations from the stagnant mainstream soon were overshadowed by the startling accusations that Thomas had engaged in locker-room banter in the office and asked an underling out on a date.)
I corresponded with Thomas for a bit after our interview, but I had no desire to pester a man whose correspondence is doubtless dominated by the pestiferous. I did, however, exchange notes with him a few years back when I read in his memoir My Grandfather’s Son (2007) of his fondness for an obscure 1961 football novel for boys, Joe Archibald’s Crazy Legs McBain—a book that I, too, had loved.
I pictured young Clarence Thomas reading the book in the segregated Carnegie library in Savannah. Crazy Legs McBain is not without cringe-inducing stereotypes. One of the Buell Bobcats is the "big colored fullback, Enos Johnson." Johnson's white teeth gleam, he has a musical voice, and he falls asleep at halftime, but he is also a full member of the squad who hangs out in his teammates' rooms, blocks and carries for tough yards up the middle, and shares in the team’s sorrows and triumphs. Like Zora Neale Hurston, he is irrepressible. And unlike real-life black college fullbacks in 1961 Georgia, the fictive Enos Johnson played side by side with whites.
Clarence Thomas struck me as that rare D.C. archon who knows the names of the janitors and lunch ladies, asks about their kids, and—Cowboys fan that he is—chaffs them about the Redskins (or whatever the hell they’re called now). Justice Sotomayor confirmed that impression recently when she called her friend Thomas a “man who cares deeply about the court as an institution—and about the people who work here.”
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Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court by George H.W. doesn’t make up for the two catastrophic Middle Eastern wars the family launched, but it certainly was one of the precious and few contributions a Bush has ever made to the public weal.
These days I avoid the news as best I can, but I understand that of late, Justice Thomas has angered those who hold in contempt the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among other pillars of the Bill of Rights. Good for him.
Okay, click off the news. Let the Empire die so the Republic might once again live. Football is in the air. It’s time I reread Crazy Legs McBain.