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Thomas Sowell is most well known for his writings and research on economics, race, culture, and the history of ideas. Over a long career his books profoundly influenced the ideas of political and cultural figures ranging from future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the 1970s, to a rising talk radio talent named Rush Limbaugh in the 1980s, to just recently the conservative convert and playwright David Mamet. The scope of his achievements has perhaps obscured one of the most underrated qualities of Sowell’s work: his unique sense of humor. It’s this quiet, confident wit that makes Sowell’s memoir, A Personal Odyssey, such an engaging read, offsetting the tension of the challenges the author had to overcome on his journey to becoming one of America’s most important public intellectuals.
The book has numerous laugh-out-loud moments, as Sowell uses his intellect to triumph in often hostile environments. From a damaging home life that he had to flee during his teen years, to a young adulthood struggling with unemployment, through years as a Marine during the Korean War, and on to the tough climb into the academic world, Sowell continually relied on his wits and gifted analytical mind to overcome obstacles.
As Sowell progressed through his adolescence his relationship with his mother (actually biologically his aunt) deteriorated to the point that he hoped to leave home as soon as he was legally able to do so. His mother would regularly make up stories about his supposed bad behavior and get the police involved. Here’s one example with Sowell’s witty response:
One day I received a summons, ordering me to appear in court down on the lower east side of Manhattan, to answer charges of disorderly conduct. I could not imagine what story she had concocted to get this summons issued, but I did know that the burden of proof was on the prosecution.
To me, the court was a place where I might put an end to these farcical attempts at intimidation, and where I might find out whether Mom had any legal right to stop me from leaving. I was in sufficiently upbeat mood to get into a long conversation with a receptionist at the court. When I was finally called into the magistrate’s chambers, however, I found that Mom had completely won him over to her side, and that he saw his job as being to lean on me to bring me back into line.
“This is a very serious charge, young man,” he said grimly.
“Yes, I know,” I said, “and I’ll be very interested to see how anybody can prove it.”
No one could prove the charge, so it was downgraded to Sowell being a “wayward minor” and the magistrate backed his mother’s refusal to let him leave the house. So Sowell declared that he would play their power game. He asserted that from now on he would do nothing that he was not legally required to do – including driving his aunt back to their apartment in Harlem from the hearing. It was not long before his mother relented and allowed Sowell to leave home and get a full-time job.
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