He’s an Amer­i­can hero

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

Nearly every­one has an im­pres­sion of him — and most are mis­taken. For, if they knew Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas bet­ter, they’d most likely be cel­e­brat­ing and nam­ing streets after him.

Thomas is an Amer­i­can hero. Born to noth­ing, he grew up know­ing only hard la­bor and un­yield­ing dis­ci­pline, episodes of deep faith, years of sear­ing anger and stints as a sem­i­nar­ian and a col­lege rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Ul­ti­mately, he grad­u­ated from Yale Law School and earned a seat on the high­est court in the land.

And, yet, be­cause he’s a con­ser­va­tive, a sin es­pe­cially grave to some be­cause he is black, and be­cause he op­poses Roe v. Wade, he is re­viled by the many who, were he ide­o­log­i­cally oth­er­wise, would her­ald him as a tri­umph of in­di­vid­ual will and grace over seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able odds.

This is the takeaway from a new doc­u­men­tary about Thomas, who granted di­rec­tor Michael Pack full ac­cess. The twohour film, “Cre­ated Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” is a dis­til­la­tion of 30 hours of in­ter­views in which Thomas tells his story, up close and per­sonal, as if sit­ting across a ta­ble.

It is a marvel of film-mak­ing that two hours pass so quickly. At the end of a screen­ing I re­cently at­tended, there weren’t many dry eyes in the room.

While most Amer­i­cans know Thomas either from his Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings in 1991, when Anita Hill ac­cused him of in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments at work — or as the jus­tice who al­most never asks ques­tions dur­ing oral ar­gu­ments — he is cer­tainly much more than what those two dusty nar­ra­tives por­tray.

Some will have read his me­moir, “My Grand­fa­ther’s Son,” and be fa­mil­iar with the facts of his story: Born in Pin Point, Ga., the de­scen­dant of West African slaves, he lived with his mother and two si­b­lings in a shack with­out plumb­ing. But hear­ing him talk about that dis­tant life and the hard­ships that formed him is an in­ti­mate, of­ten heart-tug­ging ex­pe­ri­ence.

You meet a man who was al­ways dif­fer­ent, al­ways ques­tion­ing and de­ter­mined to suc­ceed no mat­ter what, and who suf­fered greatly with­out com­plaint. His mother once told him that as a baby, he was “too stub­born to cry.” At 71, Thomas seems at ease ex­press­ing feel­ings long hid­den from pub­lic view and casts a wry eye on some of his for­ma­tive years, such as when he joined a group of black rad­i­cals at the Col­lege of the Holy Cross in Mas­sachusetts.

“We’re sup­posed to be rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies,” he says. “So, you go to the lo­cal Army-Navy store in Worces­ter, and you get Army fa­tigues, and boots. Why that was the dress is be­yond me, but that’s the way we dressed,” he says, laugh­ing.

His at­trac­tion to rad­i­cal­ism was fore­shad­owed when, while ear­lier at­tend­ing a Catholic sem­i­nary, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. A fel­low sem­i­nar­ian said, “That’s good. I hope the son of a bitch dies.”

“And that was pretty much the end of me. That was it,” Thomas says in the doc­u­men­tary. He aban­doned the sem­i­nary.

When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated a few months later, Thomas says he sud­denly saw ev­ery­thing in terms of race and racism. Anger swiftly fol­lowed: “I’m an­gry with the church. If it’s a warm day, I’m an­gry. If it’s a cold day, I’m an­gry. I’m just an­gry.”

After leav­ing the sem­i­nary, Thomas re­turned home to his grand­par­ents, with whom he and his brother had lived since Thomas was seven. His grand­fa­ther had im­posed high stan­dards on the two grand­sons. Days were filled with la­bor “from sun to sun.” When the boys first ar­rived in 1955, their grand­fa­ther told them that the door on his house swung two ways. It swung in­ward for them on that day, but if they mis­be­haved, it would swing out­ward — and he would ask them to leave.

Upon Thomas’s re­turn from the sem­i­nary, the door swung out­ward — and his grand­fa­ther told him to leave. Quit­ting sem­i­nary wasn’t merely dis­ap­point­ing. To his grand­fa­ther, it was quit­ting, plain and sim­ple. Thomas would have to find his own way from there.

And, you, dear reader, will have to wait for the rest of the story un­til May, when PBS plans to air the doc­u­men­tary.

Au­di­ences will learn why Thomas rarely asks ques­tions and why he never gives up. A clue can be found in­scribed on a bust Thomas keeps of his grand­fa­ther, who of­ten said to the young Clarence: “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.”

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