“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?” the sweaty, African American man said as he handed back the glass Mom had given him.
“Whut,”? I asked.
“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?”
“Momma, I cain’t unnerstan this man. Whuts he wont?”
“He wants more water, honey. It’s awfully hot outside. Here, give me the glass.” She refilled it and handed it back to the man who walked into our backyard every week, dumped our garbage cans into his large metal one, slung it on his shoulder, and hauled it back to the county truck at our curb.
I was about eight years old, and the only black men I met were the ones that collected the trash or trimmed the hedge across the street from my grandma’s house. I had no idea of the life these men led or of the events swirling through our country in 1968. But the Civil Rights movement was about to make itself known in powerfully negative terms in my small southern world. By the time I reached eighth grade in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, racial gang fights were regular events. And dodging them was an art form for this pudgy 13-year-old.
I did not understand the roots of the anger in my black classmates. All I knew was I felt like I was paying for something I hadn’t done and over which I had no control, and I was angry. Little did I know that they felt the same way. And as a people, they’d had enough of it.
About the same time that I was waking up to racism, future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was coming to terms with his anger about the injustice. In the new documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, we learn how this coastal Georgia, Gullah-Geechee speaking boy, grew up from poverty to become one of the youngest men ever appointed to the bench. And how the once-radical leftist became a bastion of conservative jurisprudence.
Schooled by his grandfather’s fierce work-ethic—“Old man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him,”—and Irish Catholic nuns sympathetic to racial oppression, Thomas was bound for the priesthood. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a white seminary classmate’s comment, “I hope he’s dead,” unleashed a fury in Thomas that drove him from the ministry and into the arms of campus Marxist revolutionaries in Boston. “I’m angry with my grandfather. 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. I’m angry. I’m sort of flying, lashing out at every single thing. Nothing is right.”
But a night of violence with campus radicals shook him to his core and drove him back to the Church where he asked God, “If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. Anger and hate,” he says, “are just other forms of slavery. Other people are controlling you.”
He would need that resolve when leftist ideologues tried to torpedo his nomination with bogus sexual assault charges during confirmation hearings. “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed,” he says in the film. Thomas’s humanity, faith, and courage are reminiscent of Jacky Robinson’s in the movie 42 as he withstands without rancor the vicious assault on his character that he termed “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Watching his story unfold helped me better understand mine and strengthened me for the cultural battles we face today.
Black history month has come and gone, and the film is no longer playing in theaters. But it will be air on PBS in May, and no doubt be available soon on DVD and streaming services. In these culturally confusing, racially tense times, it goes down like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.