“[H]istory is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that… one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”
– James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, p. 410
What does a film that centers around a white yeoman farmer in 1860s Mississippi illuminate in 2016? Liberal multiculturalism suggests that a film about the civil war, societies of runaway slaves and Reconstruction should not revolve so fixatedly around the story of a white man. Conservative cultural critics will see the film as designed to induce white guilt, an example of liberal Hollywood’s obsession with past racial inequalities which those critics would argue we have moved beyond. A modern abolitionist perspective might see this film as shining a spotlight on the tensions between race and class through a narrative focusing on American white subjectivity in a time where previous political relations of both race and class as social forces had been destroyed by the Civil War and the infrastructure, social relations and humanity of the South were all in a period of reconstruction. Free State of Jones conveys, not just through the character of Newt Knight but every individual in the film, how structures of family, political allyship, friendship, neighborhood, and religion can either push individuals towards racial solidarity or pull them towards exclusionary racial animosity as people weigh their self-interests in the context of the social forces and pressures surrounding them. While this film centers upon heroic acts of refusal and resistance, it ends, as did the period of Reconstruction which it illustrates clearly, as a tragedy. The period of Reconstruction offered hope as to what the new political structures of race and class would be. Those hopes were dashed after 1877 saw the occupation of the Ku Klux Klan take the place of the Union troops as they withdrew, ushering in decades of white terrorism. The film’s story is one of both tragedy and hope; portraying but one chapter of hopeful resistance in the ongoing tragedy that is the broad arch of race in the United States. It is a tragedy because of the century of formal Black second-class citizenship after Reconstruction, and the white vigilante and state violence that upheld it, was not inevitable. The film’s lack of fatalism around questions of race, class and power in U.S. society has much to offer its audience, not simply in terms of historical education on an oft-ignored and pivotal period in American history, but more so in relation to thinking through the deep divisions, betrayals and disavowals that continue to define American race relations today.
“Let’s Get Free:” Solidarity, Marronage, and Allyship
Early in the film, Newt Knight’s desertion from the Confederate Army was primarily motivated by class animosity towards a plantation elite which served to benefit from the pro-slavery war while shouldering none of the human or financial sacrifices of it. For Knight, the Civil War was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Upon returning home, he is forced to flee after helping to defend the property of other poor white farmers from confederate tax collectors. Newt finds refuge in a maroon outpost in the swamp and is accepted into this community of runaway slaves. The substantial wounds Knight had received from the teeth of a slave patrol dog suffered while escaping were tended to with an herbal remedy by the self-emancipated former slaves that make the secluded swamp outpost their home; the maroons jestingly commenting that to the slave patrol dog his flesh tastes just like theirs, a nod both to their shared enemy and an assertion of their equal humanity. In reciprocity for the medical assistance and shelter Moses and the other maroons had showed him, Newt offered to remove a massive iron slave collar which had been placed on Moses as punishment for numerous previous escape attempts – with full knowledge that the noise created by that process would surely lead the slave patrol and their dogs to their camp in the swamp prompting a violent exchange.
It is through that act – through the assuming of great risk as a result of solidarity with these self-emancipated men – that Knight becomes a maroon himself – a person who is free in and through fighting an enemy who will show him no quarter. It is through this act of human solidarity that Newt transcends the role of simple war deserter and finds himself at war with the Confederacy, no longer merely out of class hatred or resentment towards the planter class but out of love and connection with those former slaves with whom he has found a communal bond with, in shared, mutually-dependent desire to be independent and free. It is through this chain of events, and the decisions Newt makes in the contexts of not only the war but the war taxation at home, the police and army persecution that follows, and acceptance into a community of outlaws that Knight’s story becomes one of principled allyship and not merely the confluence of expedient self-interests.
Racial Abolitionism: Whiteness as a Social Construction & Individual Choice
“I’d like to say that when I say “white” I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.”
For better or worse, the film revolves largely around the character of Newt Knight, while the film would have been richer with greater development of both Moses and Rachel, especially Rachel’s having been enslaved by Newt’s grandfather. The film has been criticized as falling into a long line of clichéd white savior films, which generally tell a story of people of color (usually Black) overcoming adversity, but only through the paternalistic wisdom and guidance of a white hero, who ultimately is framed as being the primary agent of change in the story. In a moment when whiteness and white privilege has become a widespread discussion, the film offers a complex and useful lens for critically looking at white identity in the context of socially defined white actors seeking to abolish racial inequality. I posit that Newt Knight was an ally and an accomplice in struggle rather than a savior. There was no feel-good racial triumph to be spoken of.
While there are several examples of Newt using his privilege in the context of furthering anti-racist struggle, the film also offers several stories through which racial identity and the limits of individualized action should be explored. On a trip into town after Knight and many of his accomplices had moved to the outskirts of the county, after telling the shopkeeper where he is living, Newt is confronted by several white men who say they’ve heard that there’s “nothing but niggers up there” to which he calmly replies before exiting that there are no “niggers” up there. He is using his privilege to challenge the racial definitions of this collection of white racists and asserting his friends’ (and his own) humanity. However, his ability to do so, and to walk away unharmed are completely derived from the pigment of his skin. Newt’s racial and class privilege is repeatedly illustrated in relation to Moses: when Moses’ son is forced back on to the plantation after the war, Newt commits the act of taking him from the field, emphasizing that if he gets caught they’ll arrest him, where Moses would get shot on sight; after Newt is arrested he is able to buy Moses’ son from the plantation owner as the court proceedings are taking place; Newt would die of old age, leaving 70 acres of land to his wife, Rachel, a formally enslaved woman he would marry after the war, while Moses would be lynched for registering Black citizens to vote. As Newt and another white ally accompanied members of the Union League, twenty of their armed black freedman comrades, to the voting station singing “John Brown’s Body,” Newt’s threat of violence to the men seeking to stop them does not escalate into bloodshed. The men running the polling station later committed fraud, and only counted the two Republican votes the white men had cast. These contradictions of white identity, the striving of a white man to challenge the social privileges bestowed upon him in and through anti-racist actions, finding himself unable to escape a whiteness that is (ultimately, at the individual level) not a personal choice but a social choice, a hegemonic force. It is this white exceptionalism born of enduring material structures that the film highlights rather than glorifies that has much to offer contemporary discussions of white privilege. Newt’s efforts were ultimately a failure, as evidenced by the successful miscegenation case brought against his great grandson almost one hundred years after the film’s main narrative concludes. To film is a success to the extent that it prioritizes Newt’s failed efforts, not to recognize his whiteness, but to abolish it.
Trump’s White Victimhood and Clinton’s Condescension in Historical Context
“But were the whites to be bound to the black laborer by economic condition and destiny, or rather to the white planter by community of blood? …[T]he poor white clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of a war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, and not unity of poor against rich, or worker against exploiter.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 130
Amidst a vibrant national movement for racial justice which has persisted and expanded in the past two years coinciding with the success of one of the most overtly racist major presidential candidates in almost a half century, contemporary divisions of race and class are palpable, as prospects for racial or class justice seem far off. In the U.S. today, two out of every three white Americans and four out of every five Trump supporters adhere to a worldview of aggrieved whiteness, a white racial resentment that argues that whites in the US are discriminated against as much or more than other racial groups. We sit within a peculiar period of U.S. history defined by historic levels of racialized class inequality and a dominant racial ideology of colorblindness, used to attempt to relegate racial inequality as a historical artifact with no bearing on current forms of stratification, arguing further that efforts to redress racial inequality constitute anti-white discrimination. This white racial ideology, that promotes racial inequality while feloniously appropriating the mantle of victimhood, is a fundamental explanation for the surge in support for Trump’s candidacy, ironically produced, in part, by the bipartisan neoliberal common sense of an expansive warfare state and a shrinking social state which Hillary Clinton epitomizes.
In terms of official political opposition to persistent structural racism, there is and has been little effort to advance racial justice efforts. The juxtaposition of the political campaigning promoting racial justice directed at whites during Reconstruction to the Democratic talking points today are striking:
“Be a man! Let the slave-holding aristocracy no longer rule you. Vote for a constitution which educates your children free of charge; relieves the poor debtor from his rich creditor; allows a liberal homestead for you and your families; and more and more than all, places you on a level with those that used to boast that for every slave they were entitled to three-fifths of a vote in congressional representation. Ponder this well before you vote.” Quoted in W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 500
Hillary Clinton’s arrogant dismissal of Ashley Williams, a Black Lives Matter protester who verbally disrupted a Clinton fundraiser being held in the home of some wealthy benefactor by asking her to address her mid-90s “superpredator” comments, highlights the complicity and arrogant intransience within the Democratic Party to fight for racial justice. Clinton arrogantly dismissed Williams before demonstrably segwaying with “back to the issues…” When asked on the campaign trail about how she would pursue racial justice policies, Clinton dismissed another young activist, literally shooing her with her arm while dismissively saying, “then why don’t you go run for something.” Closer to the subject matter discussed in the film, Hillary Clinton was able to invoke an age-old racist canard, that Reconstruction had been a divisive and retributive process that produced Jim Crow, on the campaign trail while smirking her way to the nomination.
Then, as now white voters and whites as political actors generally, chose white racial solidarity over class solidarity. While there is momentary outrage at persistent episodic anti-Black violence, such as Dylann Roof’s attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last year, there is little constructive public discussion about, or political action against, the broader and far more generalized racist muck from which this violence has consistently emerged. The politics of nativist, racist reaction are persistent and ascendant in this moment in the international arena as well. Trump-style politics just won a major victory in the British exit from the European union, driven by white working and middle classes that has been excluded from the benefits of Third Way free trade neoliberalism, and who have been steadily drifting towards a politics of nativist isolationism which places the blame for their economic precarity on immigrants, Muslims and people of color. White racial identity in the U.S. is defined today increasingly through a similar disingenuous and dangerous mantle of white victimhood – while, on one side, this current presidential election offers a choice between a rich egomaniac and his deliberately vulgar platform of wall building and racial bigotry, and on the other a Wall St. candidate seeking to continue decades long trends of burgeoning inequality and mass incarceration domestically and endless war abroad.
A useful analogy can be drawn between Trump supporters and the poor whites in the film who sided with their racial interests in a cross-class alliance rather than their class interests in a cross-racial alliance. In a current moment where most responsible commentators will be arguing that the best we can do is to vote for the lesser of two racist evils there are too few white zealots on the side of racial justice. The story of the Free State of Jones suggests that the path to a free society has less to do with choosing a side among powerful rivals and more to do with creating your own side and not compromising for the sake of expediency. While the cross-racial coalition between poor white defectors and former slaves failed to constitute a strong enough political force for the Free State of Jones to become a lasting reality, Knight himself is personally transformed into what political scientist Joel Olson would likely (sympathetically) call a zealot, practicing an extremist brand of politics in a pursuit for justice:
“Rather than a conflict of competing interests, the ideal outcome of which is compromise, extremism is a clash of conflicting values, the ideal outcome of which is the triumph of one set of values and the destruction of another. Rather than an irrational, violent intrusion on politics, it is a different way of engaging in politics… it is the extraordinary political mobilization of the refusal to compromise.”