Archive for the ‘Book’ Category

“LaDainian Tomlinson: A Football Life” by NFL Films

NFL Films will be premiering their documentary, “LaDainian Tomlinson: A Football Life” on Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. Central on the NFL Channel. I am proud to say that I make several appearances helping LaDainian understand the history of Tomlinson Hill.

LaDainian’s parents divorced when he was young and his father, Oliver Terry Tomlinson, never told his son about the family history. O.T., as he was best known, was dealing with personal demons and died in a car accident in 2007. NFL Films director James Weiner asked if I could share with LT what I know about both of our family’s histories during a visit to the Hill.

You can read James’ back story and see a trailer for the film here.

All I’d like to add is that LaDainian was very gracious that cold and rainy day, and he was equally kind in agreeing to an extensive interview for the book and writing the Foreword. He didn’t have to do either. He wants to make sure the family history is accurately passed on to the next generation, including to his son Daylon.

Part of that history is the leadership his grandfather Vincent showed in the Hill’s African American community. I talk about this in the film, but his role as a high-ranking Mason and deacon in Gravel Hill Baptist Church led many to believe that the Hill was named after him. In many ways the Hill belongs to LT’s family as much as mine, since the plantation is long gone, but Vincent’s village remains.

Residents of Marlin continue to ask me, what does this have to do with the present day? Why should we account for our ancestor’s sins? Why does Chris Tomlinson care about a place his grandfather left in 1920?

Watch the film and look into LaDainian’s eyes at the end. Listen to him explain how his love of football came from his father? That his mother made his career possible? Our ancestors played major roles in defining who we become? My grandfather could not have gone to Texas A&M if he were born poor or black. I would have never dreamed of going to Africa if my parents hadn’t raised me free of racial bigotry.

Americans like to believe we are all self-made, and none of us are wealthy and that class doesn’t exist. I know people don’t like to have these myths challenged, but the journalist in me demands that I make an honest assessment. That’s what Tomlinson Hill is all about, painstakingly laying out the facts about how my ancestors made my possible. And knowing the truth, as I am sure LaDainian agrees, is empowering.

50th Anniversary of “I Have a Dream” speech

I can remember the moment in 1974 when I first heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I was in 4th grade at Lake Highlands Elementary, and Mrs. McKee was teaching us about the civil rights movement. What made her task more challenging was that Dallas was undergoing court-ordered busing intended to solve the district’s long history of foot-dragging on desegregating the city’s schools. The civil right movement still had work to do, and it was focused on us.

Unlike my many of my white peers, I was already aware of what was going on. My parents supported civil rights, and I’d watched the riots in Boston over school busing on the evening news. I’d even spent time visiting South Dallas to pick up and drop off an African American teen that my father was mentoring. My father had also told me about our ancestor’s slave plantation, and the African American family that took the name Tomlinson after emancipation. But it was King’s speech that drove it home for me when he said:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I felt that King was talking directly to me, the great grandson of slave owners. His dream was that one day I would sit down at the table of brotherhood with descendants of my family’s former slaves, maybe not on the red hills of Georgia, but perhaps on Tomlinson Hill. From that moment on, I felt a responsibility to fight bigotry and prejudice wherever I found it.

In school I always stood against bigots, in the Army I wrote community plays about race relations. At university, I joined the Multicultural Club at the Student Union to promote awareness and understanding. As a journalist, I spent years overseas not to highlight our different cultures, but to show our common humanity. But it wasn’t until I returned to Texas that I tried to actually live out King’s dream on the sandy hills of Texas.

Last September, Charles Tomlinson returned to Falls County from Kansas to join me on Tomlinson Hill. Now 84, Charles and I walked the former slave plantation, visiting the places where he lived and grew up. We walked down rows of cotton, where he showed me the difference between pulling and picking. He was remarkably patient with me, a city boy, trying to understand life in the country; with me as a white man trying to comprehend life as a black sharecropper. The only thing I could do in return was to listen to his stories and acknowledge the truth about the injustices my family committed against his. I couldn’t rectify the wrongs of the past, and no apology could make up for the opportunities he missed solely because of the color of his skin. But I could promise to tell his family’s story and give an honest accounting of the lives of the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveholders from Tomlinson Hill.

I had learned the importance of this in South Africa. After Apartheid ended, the government appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed people with blood on their hands to earn amnesty by speaking the truth about the past. They did this because everyone knew that acknowledging the truth was a prerequisite for reconciliation.

My book and film about Tomlinson Hill and its descendants is my attempt to speak the truth about my family’s history and attempt to set the stage for greater reconciliation and reconciliation is the only way we can join together at the table of brotherhood.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, I am not alone in my willingness to deal with our society’s history of bigotry. Perhaps it’s because we have an African American president, or possibly it’s part of recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but I am excited about the growing number of books and films that are telling the truth about the past. If more people are willing to accept the truth, then we can take the next step toward reconciliation and then, maybe, obtain brotherhood.

We’ve come a long way since King’s speech on Aug. 28, 1963. I feel confident that we can finish the journey to realizing not only his dream, but America’s founding principles as well.

Juneteenth, KLRU broadcast at 9 p.m.

Tonight my hometown PBS station, KLRU, will broadcast “Tomlinson Hill” for Juneteenth, the Texas holiday marking the day in 1865 when a Union general ordered the emancipation of Texas slaves. One reason for airing the film on this day is a section of the film where we visit the Marlin Juneteenth parade in 2009.

Our filming that day taught me how little I know about rural, African American life. The community organized a meager, but enthusiastic parade that began at one of the oldest churches on Commerce Street, turned west on Live Oak, the main thoroughfare, and looped in front of the theater and returned to the church. Black men rode horses and motorcycles, women dressed in 19th century dresses and a trailer carried a float depicting a cotton field and a shanty. On the back, a poster read “From the Out House to the White House, Obama!”

Afterward, I attended Juneteenth services and heard amazing sermons about how far African Americans have come since 1865, but more importantly, how the community must work harder to overcome the problems from within, including drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and the high school drop-out rate.

As part of our filming, we stopped and interviewed people on Marlin’s downtown sidewalks about what Juneteenth meant to them. African Americans called it their Fourth of July, the day their ancestors became free. White citizens, though, said the holiday had nothing to do with them; that it was a “black” celebration and it meant nothing to them.

Lisa Kaselak, the director, and I walked down to Friendly Corner, a remnant of Wood Street, a legendary stretch of African American juke joints and cafes razed in the 1990s. Friendly Corner is where a group of black men talk, drink and play dominoes most everyday. I got into a discussion with a man who said that white society still didn’t recognize the historic significance of emancipation. I replied something to the effect of, “You have a holiday for it,” and he immediately called me out.

“It’s not my holiday, or my people’s holiday,” he said. “The problem is people like you don’t see that it should be a holiday for all of us.”

As soon as he said it, I felt ashamed that I, someone who prides himself on cultural awareness, would make such a profound mistake. Juneteenth not only marks the day that the last of the Confederate state slaves gained their freedom, but it was the day that America took a profound step toward living up to its founding principles. Juneteenth marks the moment America reversed its original sin of declaring that white man could own a black man, who counted as only three-fifths of a human. This was a day that I should celebrate as an important step in my nation fulfilling its potential.

Many, many television stations are broadcasting “Tomlinson Hill” tonight, including KLRU here in Austin. I hope that viewers across the country who do not know about Juneteenth will learn more about it, and recognize it not as just a “black holiday” but an important step in our journey to form a more perfect union.

Chris Tomlinson

LaDainian Finished the Foreword

We’re putting the final touches on the book as we enter the final round of editing, and LaDainian has turned in the Foreword!

I don’t want to give too much away, but he takes a look back at the years when he was growing up on Tomlinson Hill, playing with his cousins in front of his grandmother’s house and enjoying the carefree country living. He also talks about the importance of knowing one’s history to know where you’re going in this world.

We recently walked the Hill together for an NFL Films documentary, tentatively scheduled to come out in December. David Tinsley was nice enough to let me bring LaDainian and the crew onto his land, where the original plantation house stood until the 1980s. LaDainian was impressed by the pre-Civil War corn cribs that still stand there and was excited to see the old cotton fields in river bottom. This was a part of the Hill he’d never seen before.

During that visit, LaDainian told me he’s looking for a ranch in Falls County. He wants his children to know what it’s like to live in the country and share his heritage with them. He’s holding out for just the right property. There’s something about the land of our ancestors that keeps pulling us both there.

Right now I’m trying to make sure I have all the photos I can find of our families, and then we should have everything ready to begin layout. Feels good to see the end in sight.