Multiracial Families/Communities

Yvonne Bivins critiques THE STATE OF JONES, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

Earlier today, Yvonne Bivins sent the following comment to Renegade South. Given her extensive research and her personal connections to the Jones County Knights, I have, with her permission, converted her comment to a post. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

A Critique of The State of Jones

As a librarian and someone knowledgeable about my family history after researching for more than ten years, I found it took me almost two weeks to actually read the Jenkins/Stauffer book. I finally came to the same conclusion about this book as I did Echo of the Black Horn [by Ethel Knight]; it is fiction, historical fiction. I cannot believe and am quite disappointed that a Harvard Professor would produce such a poorly documented work. It sickens me. I stopped to tag all the pages that had words like “apparently” and phrases like “it is possible that” to describe incidents. The authors lead readers to believe that Newt was the only white man with such families of mixed race children living near their white families and that he was the only one to deed land to his mixed-race offspring. When I began my research, I stopped to read many books on the subject of slavery, miscegenation, slave mistresses and their relationship to slave concubines, etc. in order to gain a better understanding of the character of their relationships. I am tempted to write Doubleday to complain about this book.

Yvonne Bivins

20 replies »

  1. Yvonne,

    I appreciate your taking the time to post your views of the new book, State of Jones.

    Others of you who have read the book should feel free to comment, whether you agree or disagree with the critical assessments that have thus far appeared on this forum.

    Vikki

  2. Though being aware that there are historical problems with the “lost cause” perspective and the “monolethic south” view, there is a lot of historical detail I am not familiar with. What bothers me about this discussion of accuracy and sources is the thought that in seeking to find out more information on this “forgotten” history I would spend time and money on an inaccurate and even misleading account of things. Even using critical common sense I would not always be aware that what is being said is inaccurate. I have not read the book so can not critique it. My concern is that of one who, coming new to this area of study, is looking for an accurate historical account.

    Regards…

  3. Thank you Vikki for posting Yvonne’s views, and thank you Yvonne for presenting them. Once again information is offered that confirms what so many of us in the south already know–both black and white southerners: the color line was much more fluid than is widely believed and the separation of the races was not absolute. I have begun to understand my own history in the mountains of Virginia, and the generational interaction of my family and other families with the black community in our area, through the history of Jones County, Mississippi that you so have exhaustively researched, Vikki. I would call that scholarship at its best. Sherree

  4. Vikki, While I have no knowledge of this history, I admire your art of dialogue and discourse, rather than attack, in these recent “episodes.” As one who has grew up in the north, the Pacific Northwest, we are taught very little of the insider knowledge so many of you share and research. I lament that, for I believe it is the rich history, secrets, and mysteries of the south that have determined so much of the direction of the north.

  5. Bill, you’re absolutely right: readers seeking to learn about a southern past shrouded by Lost Cause history and popular notions of a monolithic south are poorly served by works of history that play fast and loose with the evidence. If writers are going to mix fact and fiction to build a more exciting story, they need to make that clear to their readers. If what Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer wrote were to be transferred to a TV special, for example, it would have to be termed a “docudrama” to avoid charges of poor research and incorrect suppositions.

    Sherree, your point reinforces the frustration with STATE OF JONES that I share with Yvonne Bivins. Stauffer and Jenkins present Newt Knight as almost the only southern white man who ever had a relationship with a woman of African ancestry that was not brutal and kept secret. Newt Knight’s open acknowledgment of his multiracial family was certainly unusual during its time, but there were many white men who similarly maintained long-term relationships with enslaved or free women of African/Indian ancestry and recognized the children of those unions with property and even affection. These were community “open secrets,” and Yvonne discusses several of them in the Jones County region in her unpublished essays. Such relationships should not be romanticized; some were caring, but most were exploitive regardless of how much the white man provided for his multiracial family. They are complicated histories that deserve to be presented with far more nuance than Stauffer and Jenkins provide.

    Thank you for your kind words, Deborah (Muttslikeme). I don’t know how I could be more respectful of the authors and still critique their work at the level it demands. I appreciate your recognition of my effort to keep my scholarly criticisms free of personal attacks.

    Vikki Bynum

  6. Bill: It would be immodest for Vikki to praise her own “Free State of Jones” as a paragon of accuracy, so let me do that. I’ve been researching the history of Jones County for about 4 years. I’m descended from the Collins line. Jasper Collins was my GGGG uncle. And by researching, I mean digging into original documents found in the MS Archives and Jones County rather than relying only on second hand accounts.

    In Vikki’s book the facts are accurate. Highly accurate. And she has so many facts, including complex family relationships, that I’ve tried hard to tease out errors. And I have damn little to show for it. Sadly, the same is not the case with “State of Jones.” There I’ve come across numerous factual errors and many more half truths. Please note I don’t mean the authors’s questionable use of very speculative suppositions–I mean factual errors and omissions of information that I feel is necessary for a truthful representation of events.

    Here is one small example: “State of Jones” implies that J.H. Powell won election as Jones County’s anti-secessionist delegate to the Mississippi Secession convention because he was Jasper Collins’s father-in-law–and Jasper was a staunch Unionist. Left unstated is the fact that J.H. Powell owned slaves (a female and 2 children). At every junction where Vikki explores these complexities, the authors of “State of Jones” opt to adhere to a more simplistic narrative. Easier to read? Sure. Accurate? Not by my reckoning.

    If you want to read a second book about these events, consider Rudy Leverett’s “Legend of the Free State of Jones.” His viewpoint is that the deserters were not as organized a military force as legend suggests. And he downplays their Unionist motivations. He did not, as Vikki did, explore the intricate kinship connections that–in my opinion–play such a crucial role in the story (and possibly explain why things did not get as bloody as they might have, given the passions involved). But his facts are solid and, since it’s a relatively short book, it provides a good contrast to “Free State of Jones.” As a matter of fact, if you decide to read both, my suggestion would be to read the Leverett book first for an overview of events and then Vikki’s for it’s deeper look into the full cast of characters and their motivations.

    Hope this helps you sort through things.

    • There are few people with a sharper eye for historical detail than Ed Payne, as I’ve learned during the past few years of our correspondence about the Free State of Jones. Thanks, Ed, for pointing out the problems with simple accuracy of detail that abound in State of Jones.

      Vikki

  7. Bill has absolutely hit upon why I most object to Jenkins’ and Stauffer’s work. It leads one to believe false information about an already little understood aspect of the antebellum, war and Reconstruction experiences of the South. Vikki has tried to present the complexities for what they were, not reading anymore into them than the record shows. Stauffer and Jenkins have taken the facts and, in my estimation, sensationalized them for the sake of a better “narrative.” That does little to further our understanding of motivations within Jones County or how they can compared to those of other Unionists in other areas of the South.

    • Greg,
      Yes, sensationalization seems to have been the guiding force for State of Jones. Sometimes I feel like the authors are yelling rather than telling the story.

      Vikki

  8. Dear Vikki: I am very disappointed in Jenkins’ and Stauffer’s book. I agree with Yvonne, historical fiction. Thanks again for researching and writing “The Free State of Jones” with accurate facts about Jones County and Newton Knight. For the record, Harlen is still alive and well.
    Just wish “State of Jones” would have been more facts than fiction.

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thank you for your comment. Descendants of Newt and Rachel who provided the authors of State of Jones with documents and stories to help them write an accurate history of the Free State of Jones were ill-served by the final product.

      For those who don’t know: Catherine assures us in her comment that her husband, Harlen, is “alive and well” because Jenkins and Stauffer refer to him in footnote 309, p. 307, as “the late Harlan McKnight.”

      • Mark Twain, I believe, said, “Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” This situation might be humorous, at least in the Mark Twain style, were it not indicative of the type of research problems evident in this work.

        Greg

  9. Ah, the Old South dies hard, kicking and screaming all the way into the 21st Century and beyond. Why they are even tagging words and writing Doubleday. Thanks Newt, you’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest of what is right and what is wrong in America. And you really look good, while the butternut, may it R.I.P, doesn’t.

    • You are so right, Maytorena, nothing kicks up a duststorm like a provocative Southern story of sex and race with the Civil War as a backdrop!

      Is “butternut” in reference to State of Jones’s dust jacket? If so, I agree–poor design.

      Vikki

  10. I’m a historical geographer who chose my topic because of its connections to today, but have since come to realize that many people find it obscure. I would love to be able to present the connections in a way that a broad public would appreciate and use to question what they had formerly understood to be historical fact and contemporary reality. It seems to me this books accomplishes that goal, but gives up on academic standards along the way.

    Is this book posing as a scholarly text? One of the authors (who seems to be the main author, because she’s the one who is shilling it on talk shows) is a journalist. I don’t see why a non-academic historical book is such a problem, unless its marketing makes it out to be something it’s not. Roots, The Scarlett Letter, and Mouse are all “docudramas” that use historical research in order to tell a better story. Of those, I think Roots has been subject to the most scrutiny and criticism of its handling of facts, and the problems with the way entire groups of people are represented in it were especially problematic in the effects on debates and public understanding in the 1970s and 80s. Nonetheless, all of them, and many others like them, do a great service in awaking broad interest which could be used as a starting off point for deeper understanding of the complexities of historical situations.

    There must be something else going on here for this book to raise such ire. What is it?

    • Jennifer, you make an important point. Scholarly works usually have a limited audience. More popularly written “docudrama” works can bring much wider and deserved attention to popular topics. The problem with Jenkins and Stauffer’s State of Jones is not that it is popular history, but that it poses as an original work of scholarship. It is billed by its publisher as “Civil War history at its finest,” and an “investigative account.” To be sure, there are sections of well-documented history throughout the book, but there are also many flights of fancy where imagination replaces the historical record without the reader being adequately informed of the detour taken by its authors.

      Vikki

  11. I’d like to present my views on a recent CSPAN ‘Book TV’ program (taped July 7, 2009 and aired August 9, 2009) where Jenkins and Stauffer discussed their book at the Harvard Bookstore. I want to preface my remarks by stating that I haven’t read either Ms Bynum’s book nor the one by Jenkins and Stauffer. My only previous knowledge of Jones County, MS Civil War history was a brief mention of ‘The Kingdom of Jones’ from Ken Burn’s PBS series on the Civil War. That provided enough of a hook to make me want to listen to the program.

    At the outset of the presentation, Ms Jenkins admitted that she had been retained to ‘punch up’ the narrative, and that it focused on telling the story of Newton Knight as they interpreted it. They still defended the accuracy of the book, however. She also made some statements about how Knight’s story showed that ‘dissent can be the highest form of patriotism’. I found that an odd interpretation, and how they think his story supports that sentiment was not fully discussed during the program. I would have liked to know who they considered Knight to be dissenting against, since his Unionist views were mainstream in the North and he was certainly no supporter of the Confederate States.

    Professor Stauffer detailed how he began the book as a research project for a motion picture project that he expects to start filming in the near future, and later expanded it into a book length treatment of Newton Knight. He also made quite clear that he applied a class-based analysis to Jones County’s history, emphasizing how Knight and his small farmers were among a minority of Southern whites able to overcome the false consciousness that enabled racist attitudes and to determine that his economic status dictated that he should ally with blacks to overthrow the Southern planters. Another undeveloped underlying theme in the presentation was the need for a more nuanced view of white Southerners as being capable of having good relations with blacks like Knight, but being stymied and forced into racist views by a propagandizing overclass of white supremacists like Lowry. This was an assertion presented as self-evidently true and fits neatly into Stauffer’s theory that poor Southern whites were brainwashed into thinking they could aspire to own slaves when they should have been aiding the slaves in rebellion.

    When contrasted with your review, it seems to me that Jenkins and Stauffer backed away from making Vicksburg the turning point for Newton Knight. They engaged in an extended discussion of how the battle of Corinth (MS) precipitated the desertion of Knight and other soldiers from Jones County. Vicksburg was mentioned only in passing.

    A number of the statements made by Jenkins and Stauffer seemed to be thinly supported, and upon reading your review my suspicions were confirmed. If they view Knight as an abolitionist, then they must think John F. Kerry is anti-abortion activist because he is Catholic, says he is personally opposed to abortion, and never participated in or obtained an abortion.

    They both consistently refered to the Confederate governemnt as an ‘almost totalitarian’ system. They seem to base this on the taxation practices of the Confederate states, the Confederate draft laws, and the fact that Missississippi secced even though Jones County voted against sucession(!). As one of your commenters noted about the book, they tended to present facts as if they were a unique situation even when evidence to the contrary is available. They engaged in an extended discussion of the ‘twenty Negro’ exception to Confederate draft laws without seeming to realize that the Union allowed men to be exempted from the draft if they were capable of paying a three hundered dollar fee. I’m quite sure that poor farmers in the North found taxation to be just as vexing, and I’m not sure when it became necessary to allow a minority to prevail in an election in order to be considered a democracy (even if the vote results in a war to defend slavery). I was left wondering if they considered Lincoln to be a despot since he suspended habeous corpus and used the US military to suppress dissenting views on the war. Unfortunately the audience at the talk accepted what they had to say uncritically.

    My overall impression was that Jenkins and Stauffer are trying to present the book as a heoric correction to what they feel is the erronous but mainstream view that the antebellum South was monolithically pro-slavery, driven to war by Northern aggression, and that slavery played only a small part in the war. Even though they attempted to claim a naunaced view of race relations in the South, it was evident through out the talk that they regard the South as having been, and even to still be, dominated by a small white supremacist minority.

    • Thank you, Chris Brandt, for a very thoughtful review of the Jenkins-Stauffer CSpan book talk! As I’ve said many times over, these authors’ insistence that Newt Knight was an abolitionist (and they even characterized the Knight band as abolitionist on the CSpan tape!), is an irresponsible leap to a conclusion for which they offer no hard evidence. I myself suggest in my book that Newt Knight and his parents may have been opposed to slavery, and there are indications that his 1st Sgt., Jasper J. Collins, may also have hated slavery. But that is a far cry from being an abolitionist! If disliking slavery was all that was needed to convert a southerner into an abolitionist, ending slavery would not have required a Civil War.

      As for the authors’ statement during the book talk that Newt lived in a “black community,” I doubt Newt would have agreed with such a remark. What he did, and it was certainly remarkable, was live openly among his white and multiracial descendants. That choice, however, was decidedly not the same as that made by abolitionist John Brown–to whom they consistently liken Newt Knight–to live in a black community of unrelated people in a region outside his home state. It is not even clear that Newt Knight considered his mixed-race children and grandchildren to be “black.” As Knight descendant Yvonne Bivins points out, most of them were light-skinned, and many of the 3rd and 4th generations strove to identify as white.

      Jenkins and Stauffer’s exaggerated portrait of Newt Knight and the Knight Company is historically irresponsible and a terrible setback to our understanding of white southern Unionism and interracial relationships of the nineteenth century South. They seek to tell a specific moral tale, and they have willfully compromised their evidence in order to do so. Thankfully, such books have historically had little staying power. We shall see.

      Vikki

  12. I am a direct decendant of Newton Knight, and am proud of it. While some factual matters might be in question, and there must be some punched up material to make a interesting read, most of what I have read in this new book has been passed down as family history. The Knight family, decendants from Newtons wife Serena’s side, has recently meet with the decendants of Newtons other woman in his life, Rachels side. My Father Lonnie Knight Jr, was invited to the Family reunion of Rachels decendants. He was treated as a Honored guest being from Newtons other family side. It was a very great thing for my dad as he was 80 at the time, and has developed a friendship with this side of the knight family we have never known.
    I would like to thank the authors for their hard work in researching this part of our family history and helping others understand the struggles that our great country endured during the Civil War. Thanks for your efforts as all the Knight’s I have spoken too have enjoyed ” The State of Jones” Russell Knight

    • Thanks for writing, Russell. The friendship that has developed in recent years across the white and multiracial Knight lines, thanks to your father Lonnie and others, is wonderful. Although I do not share your enthusiasm for adding “punched up material,” in the name of making an “interesting read,” to a work that claims to be historically accurate, I certainly understand that many descendants are enjoying State of Jones and the new fame that it has brought to Newt Knight. He’s an important figure of history who deserves to be more widely known.

      Vikki

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