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My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

Chapter One

Sun to Sun

I was nine years old when I met my father. His name was M. C.
Thomas, and my birth certificate describes him as a "laborer." My
mother divorced him in 1950 and he moved north to Philadelphia,
leaving his family behind in Pinpoint, the tiny Georgia community
where I was born. I saw him only twice when I was young. The first
time was when my mother called her parents, with whom my brother
Myers and I then lived, and told them that someone at her place
wanted to see us. They called a cab and sent us to her
housing-project apartment, where my father was waiting. "I am your
daddy," he told us in a firm, shameless voice that carried no hint
of remorse for his inexplicable absence from our lives. He said
nothing about loving or missing us, and we didn't say much in
return—it was as though we were meeting a total
stranger—but he treated us politely enough, and even promised
to send us a pair of Elgin watches with flexible bands, which were
popular at the time. Though we watched the mail every day, the
watches never came, and when a year or so had gone by, my
grandparents bought them for us instead. My father had broken the
only promise he ever made to us. After that we heard nothing more
from him, not even a Christmas or birthday card. For years my
brother and I would ask ourselves how a man could show no interest
in his own children. I still wonder.

I saw him for the second time after I graduated from high school.
He had come to see his own father in Montgomery, not far from
Pinpoint, and I went there to visit him. I felt I owed it to
him—he was, after all, my father, and he had let my
grandparents raise me without interference—but Myers would
have nothing to do with "C," as we called him, saying that the only
father we had was our grandfather. That may sound harsh, but it was
nothing more than the truth, for me as much as my brother. In every
way that counts, I am my grandfather's son. I even called him Daddy
because that was what my mother called him. (His friends called him
Mike.) He was dark, strong, proud, and determined to mold me in his
image. For a time I rejected what he taught me, but even then I
still yearned for his approval. He was the one hero in my life.
What I am is what he made me.

I am descended from the West African slaves who lived on the
barrier islands and in the low country of Georgia, South Carolina,
and coastal northern Florida. In Georgia my people were called
Geechees; in South Carolina, Gullahs. They were isolated from the
rest of the population, black and white alike, and so maintained
their distinctive dialect and culture well into the twentieth
century. What little remains of Geechee life is now celebrated by
scholars of black folklore, but when I was a boy, "Geechee" was a
derogatory term for Georgians who had profoundly Negroid features
and spoke with a foreign-sounding accent similar to the dialects
heard on certain Caribbean islands.

Much of my family tree is lost to me, its secrets having gone to
the grave with my grandparents, but I know that Daddy's people
worked on a three-thousand-acre rice plantation in Liberty County,
just south of Savannah, and after their manumission they stayed
nearby. The maternal side of my mother's family also came from
Liberty County, and probably worked on the same plantation, most of
which has remained intact. Not long ago I saw it for the first
time—during my youth blacks never went there unless they had
a good reason—and found that the old barn in which my
great-great-grandparents surely labored a century and a half ago is
now a bed-and-breakfast inn whose Web site calls it "a perfect
honeymoon hideaway." You'd never guess that slaves once worked

My mother, Leola, whom I called Pigeon, her family nickname, was
born out of wedlock in 1929 or 1930. Her mother died in childbirth,
and she saw little of Daddy as a child. At first she was raised by
her maternal grandmother, who died when she was eight or nine years
old. Then she went to live in Pinpoint with Annie Green, her
mother's sister. C and his family moved near there to work at
Bethesda Home for Boys, which is next to Pinpoint; that was where
he met Pigeon, all of whose children he sired. My sister, Emma Mae,
was born in 1946, with Myers Lee following three years later. I was
born between them in Sister Annie's house on June 23, 1948. I was
delivered by Lula Kemp, a midwife who came from the nearby
community of Sandfly. It was one of those sweltering Georgia nights
when the air is so wet that you can barely draw breath. To this day
my mother swears I was too stubborn to cry.

Pinpoint is a heavily wooded twenty-five-acre peninsula on Shipyard
Creek, a tidal salt creek ten miles southeast of Savannah. A shady,
quiet enclave full of pines, palms, live oaks, and low-hanging
Spanish moss, it feels cut off from the rest of the world, and it
was even more isolated in the fifties than it is today. Then as
now, Pinpoint was too small to be properly called a town. No more
than a hundred people lived there, most of whom were related to me
in one way or another. Their lives were a daily struggle for the
barest of essentials: food, clothing, and shelter. Doctors were few
and far between, so when you got sick, you stayed that way, and
often you died of it. The house in which I was born was a shanty
with no bathroom and no electricity except for . . .

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir
by by Clarence Thomas

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060565551
  • ISBN-13: 9780060565558