Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

"Somewhere along the line, she had been transformed into a conservative, devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee. In fact she was a left-winger who'd never expressed any religious sentiments whatsoever during the time I'd known her, and the only reason why she'd held a job in the Reagan administration was because I'd given it to her," Thomas wrote. "But the truth was no longer relevant: keeping me off the Supreme Court was all that mattered."

Thomas says he had told Virginia that some of his opponents "would try to kill me," and he had grasped how. It dawned on him that he was being treated no differently that those Southern blacks in his grandfather's time.

"We knew what their weapon of choice was to be: the age-old blunt instrument of accusing a black man of sexual misconduct," Thomas wrote. "And it did not matter that a black woman was being used to make the accusations."

Hill's allegations — that Thomas pressured her to date him and graphically discussed sex and pornography — seem less explosive today. But they would reshape the debate on sexual harassment and usher in the "year of the woman" in politics. Time Magazine, reflecting how much of the media would respond, labeled Hill a modern-day Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks.

But Thomas — who vehemently denies the allegations — always believed it was about race. To destroy his nomination, Thomas believes his opponents fell back on the vilest stereotypes of a black man as sexual predator, just as Southerners had done a generation before when blacks stepped out of line — and as African-American novelists had recounted so powerfully in literature.

For Thomas, the hearings represented a melding of two literary classics he'd read so often as a young man struggling to remain connected to his old black world while navigating a new white one: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel about an unnamed character who realizes he will forever be defined, by whites and blacks, as a collection of stereotypes — i.e., invisible and unseen as he really is. The second is Richard Wright's harrowing masterpiece Native Son, the story of a doomed and tragic young black man, Bigger Thomas, who is falsely accused of raping and murdering a white girl.

Thomas had read, and reread, both throughout his formative years as a young man. In a 1988 interview with Reason magazine, he said Wright had been the most influential writer in his life, and that the author's Native Son and Black Boy "captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress."

In Native Son, Wright tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an impoverished youth who takes a job as a driver for a wealthy liberal family on Chicago's South Side. When the free-spirited daughter passes out one night after drinking too much, Bigger — trying to help — accidentally suffocates her with a pillow. He panics and stuffs her body into the furnace — effectively destroying the proof that he was innocent of the charges that will mean a death sentence: rape and murder.

He flees, becomes the target of a 5,000-person manhunt and, while trying to evade his accusers, sees a newspaper headline: "Authorities Hint Sex Crime."

"Those words excluded him utterly from the world. To hint that he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce a death sentence," Wright wrote. "It meant a wiping out of his life even before he was captured; it meant death before death came, for the white men who read those words would at once kill him in their hearts."

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