Earlier this week I listened to an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Texas journalist Chris Tomlinson.
He is now a business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, but Tomlinson spent the early part of his career covering the end of apartheid in South Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, and conflicts in other parts of Africa as well as Asia.
In the middle of the interview, Tomlinson paraphrased a statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Tutu had been a prominent voice in the fight against apartheid.
When the brutal system of enforcing the subjugation of blacks was ended, Tutu was appointed to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The wisdom voiced by Tutu and quoted by Tomlinson was this:
In order to have reconciliation, we must first agree on the facts. We must agree on our own history.
That simple but profound insight brought to my mind a 2-1 ruling only days earlier by a federal appellate panel.
It said that Texas must produce, at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, license plates that feature a Confederate battle flag.
When it comes to our own apartheid, the issue that has torn our nation since it was enshrined in our Constitution, we do not share a common history.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the sponsor of their license plate request, wrote in an editorial supporting the court’s decision that the license plate “is intended to honor soldiers who served with pride and dignity in defense of Texas. That’s all.”
But the soldiers weren’t fighting just in defense of Texas.
I have quoted before the state’s official 1861 proclamation titled, “A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.”
The document’s 24 paragraphs focus on only one grievance: the North’s assault on slavery.
It accuses the North of offenses ranging from “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color” to sending “hired emissaries among us to burn our towns and distribute arms and poison to our slaves.”
It argues that slavery “is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”
If we had a truth and reconciliation commission, we might agree that slavery was an abomination, instead of the myth currently promoted in some quarters that blacks were better off as slaves.
We might agree that the Civil War was indeed about states’ rights – the right to have slaves.
We might agree that the myth of good slaveholders is untenable.
Tomlinson conducted his own truth and reconciliation commission.
He returned to Texas from Africa and investigated his family’s history as slaveholders.
The result is his new book, “Tomlinson Hill.”
What he discovered, he told me, is that, “It is impossible to be good slaveholders.
You have to use violence to hold people in bondage.
You can be better slaveholders, but not good slaveholders.”
The reason was laid out in a letter from Churchill Jones, his great-great grandfather, to his son James, whom he sent to Texas with 100 slaves to set up a plantation.
The father instructed his son that he must instill fear into his slaves.
Having them like you isn’t enough.
“That is the nature of negroes,” he wrote, later adding that, “if the whip is needed give it to them in full.”
I asked Tomlinson how he reacted to the license plate issue.
“You might as well put a burning cross on a license plate,” he said.
“They want to keep half the history. They are denying African Americans their very painful experience they had under that flag.”
Tomlinson’s book tells the whole history, up close and personal.
I wish it were made a textbook.