Chris Tomlinson answers questions about Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families who Share the Tomlinson Name - One White, One Black
In July 2014, BookBrowse's Book Club discussed Tomlinson Hill. As part of this conversation, participants had the opportunity to ask questions of the author. Below are his answers. View the full discussion
Was it awkward or uncomfortable approaching the Black Tomlinson families for your interviews?
Yes, it was extremely awkward in the beginning. I honestly wasn't sure how to begin the conversation, because I felt like I was imposing on them to talk about something that they had every reason to be angry about. But after the first few meetings, I realized they were far more comfortable with our shared history than I was. After all, they lived everyday with the name of my ancestors who had held their ancestors in slavery. LaDainian and his brother LaVar were the last to agree to speak with me, largely because they didn't want to acknowledge their ancestors' suffering. But once they realized there was more to the story, they embraced the project.
Did the fact that your father was adopted affect your feeling toward your ancestors?
My father's adoption never gave me a sense of separation from my ancestors, and that's probably because of my grandfather's pride in having a grandson to continue the family name. My identity has always been tied to being a Texas Tomlinson, and when my home life was unhappy, my self-esteem came from the family myth. Perhaps others would argue that I'm not a real Tomlinson because I am not part of the bloodline, but I certainly feel like one and still do. I can't imagine what life would feel like to not feel that connection and have that identity.
How did this project come about? Were you approached about doing a documentary, or did the idea for the book come first?
I began working on the book as soon as I moved back to Texas, and one of my best friends from the University of Texas at Austin, Lisa Kaselak, had just finished her master's degree in radio, television and film. I told her about driving to Marlin to do interviews, and she thought it was something that might make a good film. After meeting LaDainian's mom, Loreane, Lisa thought there might be a film about Loreane completing a community improvement project and me researching the family history. But ultimately, it turned into the story of people struggling to improve their community, but blocked by lingering racial distrust. Thomas Dunne did not buy the book until I was halfway finished.
Thank you for shedding light on the system of slavery...I learned many things about discrimination before the Civil War and after. I think it is ironic that the man who pushed for civil rights for all, L.B. Johnson was from Texas. Are you working on another book? If so, can you give us a little teaser about it?
I am working on a couple of different proposals at the moment, but only one is set before I was born. One of the most productive archive searches I did was through the records from the Freedman's Bureau. The agents had to file weekly activity reports, and their attempts to protect the civil rights of the freed slaves from 1865-1872 read like adventure novels. They were so brave, and I think it's a crime that we still call them carpetbaggers.
Did writing Tomlinson Hill prove to be a satisfactory experience? What new information does it bring to the reader?
On a personal level, I found it satisfying to know the whole story about my family. When we are taught to idolize our ancestors, we miss out on the dilemmas and mistakes they made, and we don't get a chance to learn from them. For the reader, Tomlinson Hill is the only book that tells the parallel story of whites and blacks that are bound together by history and geography over such a long period of time. My goal was to show the contrasting experiences of these two families by describing the details of their lives and explaining the cultural and political context. My hope is to inform with storytelling rather than lecturing.
What did you learn about your family or about the history of Texas that surprised you?
Perhaps naively, I didn't understand how my ancestors looked upon their slaves primarily as instruments of production and financial assets. I guess I expected them to at least use a slave's name in a letter or two, but they never did. I knew nothing about Freedom Colonies, and the African American community's dedication to self-sufficiency and dignity in the face of such oppression. But the most disturbing thing of all, was that my ancestors knew about the debate over the morality of slavery and chose to hold slaves anyway, and even expand their operations. The descendants of my family's slaves often say to me, "Well, your ancestors didn't know any better." But based on the newspaper they read, the books they loved and the political debates they participated in, they heard the arguments against slavery. The most telling detail is that they always referred to African Americans as "Negroes" or "hands" in their letters and diaries, but never as "slaves," because even they were embarrassed by the term.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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