by Victoria Bynum
In today’s New York Times, opinion editor Charles Blow delivers a harsh critique of the movie, Free State of Jones, arguing that its treatment of slavery in general and the rape of slave women in particular amounts to a “genteel treatment” of the institution. Blow then turns to my book “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, and accuses me of using “grossly inappropriate descriptors” to characterize what in reality was rape. To demonstrate, he quotes the following passage from my book:
Through encounters with women such as Rachel, Newt knew that white men regularly crossed the color line despite laws and social taboos that forbade interracial liaisons and marriages. Rachel, light-skinned and physically attractive, was the sort of slave after whom many white men lusted. The fact that she had a white-skinned daughter announced to interested men that she had already been “initiated” into the world of interracial relations. (page 86)
With great indignation, Blow then exclaims, “Encounters? Liaisons? Initiated? Sexual relations? As long as she was a slave this was rape! Always. Period.”
I responded in the comments section of his op ed with the following:
Mr. Blow quotes my phrase “interracial liaisons and marriages” as though I use them to mask what in reality was rape. He is wrong. In fact, there were many such “relationships”—yes, relationships—that were consensual in the antebellum South, and those relationships were forbidden by law (most, but not all, were between whites and “free people of color”). Rape of a slave woman, on the other hand, was not against the law unless the slavemaster brought charges against someone who “damaged” his “property.” By mischaracterizing my remark in that paragraph, Mr. Blow charges me with ignoring the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. Anyone who knows my work knows that nothing could be further from the truth. In The Free State of Jones, however, I analyze the relationship of Newton Knight and Rachel Knight on its own terms, and not within the trope of slave rape. The relationship between the two began in the midst of the Civil War. Newt Knight was not Rachel’s slavemaster; they were fighting together against the Confederacy. They lived together until her death in 1889. Not every sexual relationship between a Southern white man and a woman of color was an act of rape, albeit many if not most were exploitative. To level such a blanket charge trivializes rape and ignores the complex stories of interracial relations during the eras of slavery and segregation that historians like myself have struggled for years to bring to light.”
Let me add that Charles Blow did not dare to quote the passage that appears on the very next page of Free State of Jones.—the passage where, in critiquing Ethel Knight’s 1951 treatment of Rachel, I wrote the following:
Missing from Ethel’s Old South were white men familiar in Newt Knight’s world—slaveholders (not just slave traders) who treated black women as property to be bred like cattle, and white men who regarded sexual access to African American women as a simple right of manhood. (page 87)
No, Mr. Blow did not quote those words. They would not have advanced his goal of condemning any work on the Free State of Jones that might reflect well on the film he strove to condemn.
Shame on Charles Blow for choosing to employ dishonest rhetoric rather than careful analysis in his critique of a movie that strives to tell a true story of anti-Confederate class resistance and interracial alliance during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To read the entire op ed, click here.
Categories: The Free State of Jones