As soon as the announcement was made of the possible visit of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to the dedication of the Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse on May 18, lines were drawn in the sand.
The mere mention of the name of Clarence Thomas invokes the slur "Uncle Tom" in many people's minds. To some, Thomas is seen as a person who has issues of self-hatred. Although he has benefited from affirmative action, he is a staunch opponent of it.
HE MAINLY SHIES away from issues dealing with race, but when his confirmation hearings became testy, he did not hesitate to invoke images of lynchings. The notion that he is considered one of the most conservative Supreme Court judges who just happens to be married to a white woman does not help his image in many circles.
Not to mention the fact that the entertainment media, including comedy shows such as Mad TV and In Living Color, have painted a stereotypical caricature of Thomas as a kowtowing, boot-licking, sycophantic lap dog for the Republican party.
I have to admit that when it came to Justice Thomas, I too was influenced by the many comedy skits that questioned his blackness and integrity. But is Justice Thomas an Uncle Tom? And more importantly, should Justice Thomas have been invited to speak at the Ruffin courthouse dedication?
First, let's examine the misnomer of the slur "Uncle Tom" for people such as Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele, Herman Cain, Armstrong Williams and any other black person who is perceived to be self-hating or amnesic with regard to their roots.
While doing research for my first book, Plain Talk, I had to change my whole idea of the character Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom, from the classic 1851 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin , was a great man. In fact, he was a better man than the slave-owners who enslaved him. Although he was a slave, he placed God's law above the laws of man when the two conflicted.
UNCLE TOM WAS a powerful man who refused to beat slaves when prompted by the master. Uncle Tom refused to disclose the whereabouts of two female slaves. His honor and integrity cost him his life, but his character had the intended effect of showing readers that slavery was an evil institution. His character also showed the humanity of enslaved Africans.
So the next time you call someone an Uncle Tom, think about what you are really calling him.
Uncle Tom's image over the years was distorted by the minstrel shows, who depicted him as a feeble old man with a receding hairline, who was a passive and servile race traitor. Has Justice Thomas' image been hijacked like Uncle Tom's?
Clarence Thomas was born into abject poverty in Pin Point, Ga., on June 28, 1948. He grew up in better conditions in Savannah, but still experienced many episodes of racism. Did Justice Thomas put up with racism in his early days? Absolutely not!
When a disparaging remark was made after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a seminary that he was attending, he walked away from being a priest. When he felt discriminated against as a student at Holy Cross, he participated in a walkout until his rights and dignity were restored. He had a poster of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton on his wall in college. One of his favorite writers is Richard Wright.
But as Justice Thomas continued to rise in the ranks, he found that people attributed his achievements to his skin color. So at some point, he began to morph into his current ultra-conservative persona.
THE REASON MANY in the black community don't want Justice Thomas to speak at the dedication is the same reason that they didn't welcome his appointment as the second black Supreme Court Justice.
The man that Justice Thomas replaced, Thurgood Marshall, shared many of the same qualities as Judge Jack Ruffin. Both were tireless fighters for civil rights. Both men won landmark cases in the field of educational discrimination. Both men had the respect of both sides of the political aisle.
All of the previous traits that I mentioned for those two giants in the world of jurisprudence, are not attributed to Justice Thomas. Justice Thomas did not fight in high-profile court cases. He did not serve long as an actual judge. And his image and reputation have forever been sullied by the sexual harassment accusations of Anita Hill.
Let's not kid ourselves. Whenever a sitting Supreme Court justice makes an appearance anywhere , it is a major event. In fact, Justice Thomas is probably the most well-known of the Supreme Court justices. Since Justice Thomas doesn't make too many personal appearances, this will pop up on the national radar.
Augusta has a chance to entertain people who don't normally come here. Hopefully the best will be made of this situation. I for one would like for Justice Thomas to let his hair down and give us a taste of his first language -- Gullah. I for one would pay to see that!
(The writer is an author and a social studies teacher at John M. Tutt Middle School in Augusta.)