Slaves In A Family's Past Haunt The Present

Chris Tomlinson’s Texas forebears were slave owners, but not until he saw the realities of apartheid in South Africa did he begin to truly process the pain of his own past.

08.28.14 9:45 AM ET

After first reading Tomlinson Hill, I found myself intrigued by Chris Tomlinson’s Conradian quest into the heart of his own darkness but frustrated by the book’s flawed structure and lack of authorial warmth. But in the following days, as I digested the horrible events in Ferguson, Missouri, I found the eerie forebears he unearths in his tale lingering with me.

I concluded that this is a decent and humane volume that has much to offer a country still tangled in the skein of slavery’s legacy. Even though we have an African-American president, the topic of race is fraught with triggers, as Ferguson shows. We are all seeking guidance, or at least insight, which this earnest book has to offer in droves.

Here’s the premise: a white reporter who grew up in Texas, proudly descended from a slaveholding family, goes to South Africa to report for the Associated Press. There, he becomes acquainted with the realities of race.  Meanwhile, Ladainian Tomlinson, an African-American man descended from the slaves the reporter’s family held, became a nationally famous professional football player. The reporter comes home from abroad and plunges deep into the story of Tomlinson Hill, where both branches of the family—white and black—grew up.

With that structure, you can imagine his book proposal had it all. The hill becomes heuristic for national identity (a haunted City on a Hill). The reporter, like Ulysses, travels the globe and returns to his people. It’s a Faulknerian journey into Texas’s Gothic past. And hey! There’s a famous football player thrown in! Great for book sales!

The real problem is, none of this is executed well. Chris Tomlinson has clearly poured his heart and soul into a labor of love, performing exhaustive (and exhausting) amount of research on the granular details of almost everything surrounding life on, near, and around Tomlinson Hill. The book has multiple gears that he tries to make turn in synchrony: there is his family—complex and dysfunctional (his grandfather was a racist real estate tycoon and alcoholic; his father a progressive but failed bowling-supply dealer). There are the small black-and-white communities of Tomlinson Hill. And then there’s Texas. Tomlinson tackles all of these, and more, and tries to make them all mesh in his tale.

But none of them follow logically from the other. It’s never clear whether the subject of the book is Tomlinson himself, Tomlinson Hill, Ladainian Tomlinson (who wrote the forward to the book), Chris Tomlinson’s slave-holding family, or Texas itself.

In the end, the book ends up being about all and therefore none of these things. You have the feeling that’s a choice he was forced to make, because no single one merited a full commercial book.

And, while I’m getting all this off my chest: the writing is wooden. Too many of the characters do not jump off the page. He’s thrown way too many kitchen sinks into the narrative, like the arrival of Massachusetts troops in New Orleans during the Civil War, the story of Jack “the Galveston Giant” Johnson, a prizefighter, and the musical odyssey of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. One more word about the mineral water industry in Marlin, Texas, and I was about to scream. These stories add nothing to the central drama of Tomlinson’s original quest for the truths at the heart of the interfamilial nexus.

But that said, here’s what’s good and valuable: Looking back at an early slaveholder’s declaration that slaves must “fear you and like you both,” Tomlinson observes that slaves’ response of “passive resistance” was a form of civil disobedience, whites instead labeling “all blacks as lazy and deceitful, a stereotype that persisted for generations.” His stories of the Tomlinson owners freeing the Tomlinson slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation, before the sharecropping system took hold, are fascinating.

In the Reconstruction era, Tomlinson writes how “buzzards” would operate stores providing cash advances and credit to poor African-Americans at “outrageous interest rates,” with the payments deducted from a worker’s pay—anticipating today’s fraudulent and discriminatory lending practices.

The Ku Klux Klan engaged in rampant voter intimidation, and voters, by a 2-to-1 vote margin gave Texas counties the right to impose poll taxes in the early 20th century—foreshadowing modern voter suppression efforts.

The most affecting story in the book is when the sharecropper Hezekiah Tomlinson rejects an exploitative arrangement with a racist sharecropping master who wanted him to buy all his groceries and goods from a local store without paying him. When he rejects that arrangement by saying, “Well then, I’m not gonna work for you,” the white landowners blacklist him “because he’s smart.”

When it comes to his own role in the story, Tomlinson is surprisingly reticent. It’s like a Sunday sermon read in a monotone. He’s intriguingly unkind to his father, Bob Tomlinson, but insufficiently expansive. When we first meet Bob, Tomlinson treats us to a description of the hovel in which he lives. “The house had not been properly cleaned in years.” In his interview with his father, his father says, “Klu Klux Klan”—and the author, for some reason, rather than just correcting “Klu” to “Ku,” writes “[sic].” Why?


‘Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families who Share the Tomlinson Name - One White, One Black’ by Chris Tomlinson. 448 p. Thomas Dunne Books. $18.78

In the book’s last sentence, Tomlinson alludes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and describes his own book as a similar “unflinching account of the past and its impact on the present.” “Perhaps if we all were to do the same,” he concludes, “we could start the painful but necessary conversation about America’s original sin and create a more perfect nation.”

The “perhaps” is a problem, for there are plenty of flinches in the book. Torn between so many different impulses, Tomlinson Hill ends up as tentative as our country itself. It’s hard to fault Chris Tomlinson, though. That he ends up not lighting a lamp but tangled in the cobwebs is one of the truths of this valuable book. Tomlinson Hill vividly reflects one man’s impossible quest to answer problems that elude most of us. If only for that reason alone, it’s well worth reading.