NOW, as America's mighty marketing machines are being oiled and checked to begin selling and celebrating Christopher Columbus' feat of 1492, some people are examining with amazement and alarm another achievement that took place in Europe two decades later.
In the early 1500s Niccolo Machiavelli, exiled and out of favor in Italy, wrote a slim manual on power: how to gain it, how to wield it and how to keep it. He named the handbook "The Prince" and dedicated it to Lorenzo de' Medici. The ideas therein so captured how to use what was base, weak and ignoble in the human psyche that for hundreds of years hence when a person, event or action was deemed devilish or satanically manipulative, it has been called Machiavellian. The advice Machiavelli offered, which has been used so successfully against the powerless and which interests me today, can be paraphrased this way: Divide the masses that you may conquer them, separate them and you can rule them.
The recent vocal opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the reams of media coverage the nomination has generated have sent me again to "The Prince." I wag my head in soreful disbelief over the present-day relevance and use of ideas summarized nearly 500 years ago for the sole purpose of instructing the mighty on the management of the powerless.
Today, the African-American community whirls in eddies of debate, demolition, disagreement, accusation and calumny over the matter of whether an African-American man with a lamentable reputation and impressive credentials should be seated on the highest court in the land.
Thomas has demonstrated that he is as conservative as the president and the administration, else he would not have been selected. The African- American savants know that, and we know as well that if efforts to scuttle his appointment are successful, another conservative possibly more harmful, and one who has neither our history nor culture in common with us, will be seated firmly on the bench till death rules otherwise.
Judge Thomas has given his adversaries every reason to oppose and distrust him. Many of his audacious actions as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were anti-affirmative action, anti-busing and anti-other opportunities to redress inequality in our country.
In a federal court case, as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, he reportedly testified that he had deliberately disobeyed a court order requiring his department to conduct speedy reviews of discrimination complaints. That admission along with his behavior of indifference to African-American issues has given even his most ardent supporters pause.
Thomas, a poor black from Pinpoint, Ga., has reached proximity to America's highest court because of the very laws his ancestors fought to have written and enforced, and which he has treated so cavalierly.
It follows, then, that many blacks ask: How can we advance if one we have sent forth in the vanguard ignores our concerns?
In these bloody days and frightful nights when an urban warrior can find no face more despicable than his own, no ammunition more deadly than self-hate and no target more deserving of his true aim than his brother, we must wonder how we came so late and lonely to this place.
In this terrifying and murderous season, when young women achieve adulthood before puberty, and become mothers before learning how to be daughters, we must stop the rhetoric and high-sounding phrases, stop the posing and preening and look to our own welfare.
We need to haunt the halls of history and listen anew to the ancestors' wisdom. We must ask questions and find answers that will help us to avoid falling into the merciless maw of history. How were our forebears able to support their weakest when they themselves were at their weakest? How were they able to surround the errant leader and prevent him from being co-opted by forces that would destroy him and them? How were they, lonely, bought separately, sold apart, able to conceive of the deep, ponderous wisdom found in "walk together, children . . . don't you get weary."
The black youngsters of today must ask black leaders: If you can't make an effort to reach, reconstruct and save a black man who has graduated from Yale, how can you reach down here in this drug-filled, hate-filled cesspool where I live and save us?
I am supporting Clarence Thomas' nomination, and I am neither naive enough nor hopeful enough to imagine that in publicly supporting him I will give the younger generation a pretty picture of unity, but rather I can show them that I and they come from a people who had the courage to be when being was dangerous, who had the courage to dare when daring was dangerous -- and most important, had the courage to hope.
Because Clarence Thomas has been poor, has been nearly suffocated by the acrid odor of racial discrimination, is intelligent, well-trained, black and young enough to be won over again, I support him.
The prophet in "Lamentations" cried, "Although he put his mouth in the dust . . . there is still hope."
Maya Angelou is a poet and professor of American studies at Wake Forest University.