That time NPR made me think about ancestry


When I got off work last Monday, two things were on my mind: Racine and NPR's latest Fresh Air program. 

Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, had interviewed journalist Chris Tomlinson, author of Tomlinson Hill. Tomlinson had spent more than ten years reporting for the Associated Press, and had covered conflicts in Rwanda, Sudan, and Somalia. He's now a columnist for The Houston Chronicle. And he's also the great-great-grandson of Texas slaveholders. 

"It became kind of my specialty to understand why people hated each other and what the struggle was really about," Tomlinson said. "That's when it began to occur to me that, while we talk about race a lot in America, we don't talk about the history of race and why we feel the way we do and what actually happened fifty years ago. I thought writing about my family would be a personal journey to look into that." 

Tomlinson's research turned into Tomlinson Hill, which was released last week. The book examines the history of two families—one black, one white—who share the Tomlinson name. The introduction to the book was written by LaDainian Tomlinson, a former NFL running back and descendant of a Tomlinson Hill slave. Though LaDainian did not appear on Fresh Air, his brother, Lavar Tomlinson, did. 

“I think it’s very important for ... any person to know where they come from," Lavar said, "because that’s what makes you who you are.”

I agreed. In fact, I agreed so much that, when it came time to leave the office and bike home, I had already been dwelling on Lavar’s words for a few hours. My ride home was not easy that day. It was hot and the streets were crowded. I pushed against the wind, my tires spinning as quickly as my mind. Family history is what shapes you.

I thought of another quote, one I had seen in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: “Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.”

Okay, so my ancestors had had sex. That much I knew. But I had never given much thought to how my ancestors’ occupations or places of residence had affected their descendants (me). But it was true, not just for me, but for everyone. Tomlinson’s ancestors—slaveholders and plantation owners—had made him. Lavar’s ancestors—former slaves and sharecroppers—had made him. Which meant that my ancestors—who I’d never met, who I knew nothing about, and who forever rested in Racine—had made me.

It’s daunting, really, to know that any children I create will carry the genes of a few individuals long-buried in a Wisconsin cemetery. There are the genes of my great-great-great grandparents, the Van Dykes, who were born in Holland in the mid-1800s. And then there are my great-great grandparents, whose last name—Hoogerhuis—clearly displays the fact that they, too, were born in Holland. My great-grandfather, however, was born in Wisconsin. He lived there for most of his life, but he did spend his last few years in Iowa. We used to visit him in the nursing home, but my memories of that time are vague, as I was young, very young. In fact, when my great-grandfather died in 1991, I was just three. It wasn’t until I was ten that we were able to travel to Racine to bury his ashes, which had been sitting in a ice cream can atop my grandmother’s piano. 

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

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