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The ideas that held him upright helped him mask his terrible anger. But even to the power of these ideas to sustain him there were limits -- limits to what he could or would tolerate.
Limits? The concept never entered the heads of the senators who recognized no limits on themselves. A black who sets limits? That did not conform to the stereotyped creature they had created. Blinded by "caring" hypocrisy, no one thought to investigate what those limits might be, or to consider that they were precariously close to those limits.
And then there was the second major source of self-blinding, which reinforced the first -- the senators’ counterfeit interest in Thomas’ intellectual history. It kept them from discovering that right under the senatorial noses, there was clear-cut information about the limits to what Clarence Thomas could and would tolerate.
Throughout the hearing the Democrats in particular pretended that they were deeply interested in, indeed determined to discover, the nature of Thomas’ ideas. The Republicans were not in the idea business; they had left that up to the Democrats. But the Democrats had compiled all the papers and speeches Thomas had written and the interviews he had given. They knew, they said, the books he had read, the authors who had influenced him. All, they said, they had carefully examined and thought about. But they hadn’t.
They had simply been searching for fragments of sentences
with which to indict Thomas as politically extreme or politically unreliable or politically unrespectable. Had they been authentically interested in Thomas’ ideas, they would have read, and read carefully, one of the first documents brandished by Sen. Joseph Biden on the air, complete with references. It was an interview given by Thomas to REASON four years ago. One passage in that interview should have sounded a red alert to the men who professed to be interested in Thomas’ ideas. It went as follows:
"REASON: Are there any writers who were really influential to you when you were young, and still are?
"Thomas: Richard Wright. I would have to put him number one, numero uno. Both Native Son and Black Boy really woke me up. He captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress."
Richard Wright, "number one, numero uno" -- until this very day? Richard Wright, one of the most powerful black writers ever to have appeared in America? How could that have been overlooked by men who were trying, as his interrogators claimed to be trying, to understand this particular man? How could they have overlooked the observation that Wright "captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress." How could they have missed the switch to the present tense?
But his interrogators missed this. Had they not missed it, it is conceivable, just barely conceivable, that the hearings might have run a different course.
Wanting very much to understand this man who had been stereotyped out of existence and who was controlling a violent anger at what was happening to him, I reread Native Son. It had been published in 1940, and I had not read it for 50 years. One finds many things relevant to Thomas and to his roots and his lifelong concerns in this book. But in this particular context, one finds one crucial thing -- his limits. The one thing Thomas would not, could not, permit, whatever else might be at stake, the one stereotype that it would be downright dangerous to paste on him, leaps out from those pages.
Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a defiant, terrified, sensitive black tough, a chronic delinquent trapped for life in a white world where he dreams of experiencing connectedness to others but cannot. He gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family. Entirely by accident -- there is nothing equivocal about this -- he suffocates their daughter with a pillow when she is dead drunk. In terror that he will be charged with murdering her, he burns her body in a furnace. It does not occur to him that he will automatically be charged with raping her and that he has burned the evidence that he did not. One lie leads to another, one crime to another, and eventually the young Bigger Thomas becomes the object of a 5,000-man police hunt that combs every inch of the segregated slum in which he is trapped. Eventually he is caught; he is defended by two white communists; their efforts fail; and Bigger is found guilty -- guilty, above all, of the two crimes he has not committed, the rape and the murder of the white girl.
Here are four passages from the book: