"He and I looked into each other's eyes and recognized that we were just alike. And that was a source of so much conflict between us," Thomas explains. "In so many ways, I am a modern-day version of him… I am what (he) made me, to be independent, to make up your own mind, to always be willing to work."
And then, he again summons his grandfather's words: "It's very, very hard to deal with, but you deal with it. And you play the hand you're dealt."
The summer of 1983, after his grandfather died and, months later, his Aunt Tina, passed away, seems to be the lowest part of Thomas's life. Even though he now is heading a federal agency, his financial problems are almost overwhelming. He explains in an interview that he was maintaining two households, paying private school tuition, paying off student loans — and had no safety net, no one who could bail him out or offer assistance.
"I sometimes wonder how I got through the summer of 1983 without falling apart," he wrote. "I was lower than a snake's belly… and the mad thought of taking my own life fleetingly crossed my mind. Of course I didn't take it seriously if only because I knew I couldn't abandon Jamal as I had been abandoned by C."
That September, his son Jamal came to live with him. The two moved to cheap apartment in Maryland, and Thomas went further into debt to buy furniture.
Thomas in the next few years became more publicly conservative and more open to attack. When Hodding Carter, the white former aide to President Carter, published an article in Playboy in 1986 titled "Reagan and the Revival of Racism," Thomas wrote a critical letter in response. Carter shot back in the magazine: "Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those chicken-eating preachers who gladly parroted the segregationist's line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man's table. He's one of the few left in captivity."
"Not a single civil rights leader objected to this nakedly racist language," Thomas wrote. "For daring to reject the ideological orthodoxy that was prescribed for blacks by liberal whites, I was branded a traitor to my race… if I refused to be another invisible man, then I wasn't really black. I was an Uncle Tom doing Massa's bidding. That wasn't politics, it was hate."
It was at EEOC that Thomas says he began to distrust the media and believe its coverage was inherently biased. Ironically enough, Thomas had once considered being a journalist — in the South, he had seen courageous reporters be a force for change and justice during the civil rights movement. When he decided to leave the seminary, he was accepted by the University of Missouri, and he thought he'd study journalism. When he went instead to Holy Cross, he worked on the Crusader, the school newspaper.
Thomas says it's become impossible to discuss race honestly, as he began to realize when he was at the EEOC and, as the target of countless critical newspaper stories, became an object of derision.
"You can't talk about certain things, you don't say certain things. We tiptoe around all these things, while the whole issue and some of the destruction intra-racially continues," he says. "Can you talk about intra-racial crime? Can you talk about black-on-black crime honestly? Can you talk about the honest damage of the out-of-wedlock birth rate, as opposed to just rolling everything into race?