The Free State of Jones

Charles Blow blows his horn in the New York Times

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.

35 replies »

  1. I’m familiar with Mr. Blow having seen him on many news outlets over the years. To me, he’s just another guy ready to spout a reckless opinion around any topic at hand.


  2. I’m rather disappointed that this man viewed us as savages. I think that our county was actually one that had more advancement in the treatment of mankind. Yes there was the KKK but we know they were not in active pursuit like other counties. I’m just blown away that this man can insist rape. He has to be one that goes left when clearly the rest of us know to go right.


    • You’re right, Donna, that without meaning to (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt), Charles Blow has reduced all the children of Newt and Rachel—and by extension, mixed-race people born of white men and black women during slavery—to being descended from rapists, no matter what the nature of their parents’ relationship.

      The identity politics displayed by Blow—defining persons’ actions within the context of their race—is not attached to any one political ideology, however. It represents one side of the same coin: the white supremacy of right-wing extremists versus the counter tendency by some liberals to define people as victims/victimizers in terms of their racial, ethnic, or gender identity within a certain historical context. Blow has definitely placed himself in the latter category.



  3. Lucky me, along with three others, I saw ‘Free State of Jones’ yesterday here in San Diego. I too, have a complaint. How is it possible that Gary Ross omitted Dr G and the Mudcats terrific swampy tonk music ‘Jone County Jubilee’ from this movie? Big mistake…(in my opinion)

    Now having read Charles Blow’s commentary, I can only say that he comes across as a Jerk of major proportions.

    Vikky Wilburn Anders in San Diego



  4. Mr. Blow would do well to actually read “The Free State of Jones”, and then consider revising his review. I am in the middle of reading the book right now, and he is way off track.

    The relationship that Newt and Rachel Knight had is nothing short of remarkable given the oppressive society in which they lived. Interracial mingling of the sexes was simply not allowed in the South, (outside of the institution of slavery, of course) even well into the twentieth century, and could–and often did–result in extreme violence. God forbid that two people of different races loved one another in the Reconstruction or Jim Crow South. But they did. Sometimes they did. And that took a whole lot of courage. To reduce this part of the story, and the history behind it, to a “white savior” trope just will not cut it.


    • Thanks for your reasoned approach to history, Sherree. It doesn’t matter if Charles Blow did read the entire book. His ardent insistence that all sex between a white man and an enslaved woman within slavery must be called rape—“period”—dictated from the start what he would write.



  5. I read the book “The Free State of Jones” and saw the movie. Both are excellent. Charles M. Blow is a prime example of why people are increasingly tired of accusations of “racism.” He is complaining that there is TOO much interracial friendship and romance in the film. Gee, I thought that was a good thing. The truth is that real life is complicated, the Civil War and racial relations included. The “Free State of Jones” shows some of the reality of Southern dissent and interracial cooperation. It devastates the myth of “The Lost Cause.” For that, Blow and others should be grateful. As for Blow’s fashionable nonsense that any sexual relations between a white man and a slave woman was by definition “rape,” let us remind him that many
    slave women were mated or bred to black male slaves against their will. Carrying Blow’s ridiculous argument to its logical conclusion, ANY sex a slave woman had was “rape.” Blow’s “review” of both the film and the book “The Free State of Jones” tells us far more about his racial prejudices than anything else. What irony that this fine film may be done in, not by reactionary neo-Confederates or white supremacists, but by ignorant liberals chasing a fashionable fantasy that every story set in the slave era must be “Django” or “Nat Turner.”


  6. I read the Charles Blow (did he drop the -Hard from his name?) op-ed piece in the New York Times. I tweeted back at him (refraining from my usual snark) and damn, if he didn’t block me! Talk about not open to dialogue. Tsk.

    Great timing that Ambassador Andrew Young’s piece came out in the Huffington Post defending the film. Amb. Young does, Blow(-Hard) talks. I think we know whose opinion is valid. I hope the New York Times will allow a historian to answer Mr. Blow’s complaints.


  7. I read Ambassador Young’s review. It is excellent. Although not about Free State of Jones specifically, Ta Nehisi Coates posted a piece yesterday at “The Atlantic” titled “‘A Species of Labor We Do Not Want'”. He is referencing W.E.B. DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction”, and DuBois’s analysis of slave labor and “poor white” labor in the South. It is definitely worth reading. As usual, Coates is astute and uncovers some basic truths. It seems that Toni Morrison is right: Coates has assumed the legacy of James Baldwin. Tall order, but it looks like Coates is up to the challenge.

    How ironic that Free State of Jones has been released at this time when white/black alliances have been threatened by both the white and African American communities. If we allow the destruction of that alliance, we will have allowed the destruction of the heart and soul of America. It was black America that taught white America what the new birth of freedom truly meant. Newt Knight got it. He understood that we are all down here together in the swamp. Rachel Knight got it, too. Ambassador Young is right: we do need more Newt Knights. We need more Rachel Knights as well.

    What a movie. It has jump started a much needed conversation..


  8. In our family we have a relationship similar to Newt & Rachels’. When my three times great grandmother’s father died in his will (the 1820s) he divided up his slaves amongst his children. One of his sons (we always wondered why no one spoke of him until the last ten years or so) was a widower with three young daughters whom he gave to one of his unmarried sisters to raise. In the probate papers of his father’s estate we found slips of papers which were receipts where he went to all his sisters & brothers & purchased from them for a dollar each several of the slaves. They were the woman he loved & their children. Knowing the laws of the state (Georgia) he could not just free them to stay there as free people of color because they would be in danger of being taken up by slave stealers & sold elsewhere & freed slaves had to get out of the state by a certain date after being freed. So he took them all to his plantation where he gave them his name & they all lived together as a family. In the war he fought on the southern side like most of his family & neighbors. In the first census after the Civil War they are all together with him on his land. When he died & was buried near the woman he loved, he left his estate to be divided amongst his children. His daughters by his white first wife had already married & were with their husband’s families. So as you said this was probably more common than people think because until the last generation most families would never have spoken of such to people outside the family. We also grew up in south MS near a well known family who were descended from another white man & one of his slaves who became his admitted family after the war. People loved who they loved & had families with them sometimes openly & or not. Mr. Blow needs to realize these relationships were not always the result of rape as they could not legally marry in that time.


    • Thank you for your first hand description of your mixed-race family, Marcie Lee. I’m reminded by your story of the many documents I have studied in various southern state archives.

      Frankly, it amazes me that Mr. Blow and his followers cling so tightly to their dogma that enslaved women could ONLY be raped by white men, never consent. I understand the legal point: if you’re defined by law as property, you lack the right to say no. Fair enough, and no one here is denying the reality or impact of rape on the entire slave community. But to apply reductive logic and say, in effect, that if an enslaved woman can’t legally say no to rape, then she also can never socially consent to sex—ever—with a white man is absurd. Such logic ignores an entire world of nonslaveholding white men and women, free people of color, and slaves who frequently crossed the color line socially and sexually in the Old South.

      Ironically, by denying the existence of this alternative interracial southern culture, the purveyors of an absolutist world of rapists and victims have simply reversed the racial identities of rapists and victims within the rape trope created by 19th and 20th century white supremacists. Their visions of “black beast” rapists and white female victims are now replaced by roving bands of white men on the hunt for black victims. Women have no agency in such a world. Sex between the races is taboo, rape is fetishized. Women’s bodies are the objects over which men fight. Individual will is denied.

      Fortunately, court records reveal a far more complex world than one in which all (white? black?) men are rapists and all (black? white?) women are victims. While we must never forget or trivialize the realities of slavery, we should also remember that human beings have shown time and again the will to build lives under horrific circumstances. Not all of them will succeed; not by a long shot—but to erase from history those who struggled to do so reveals a special brand of willful ignorance.


  9. It’s easy for such self-styled critics and jet-setting pop journalists to sit in their comfortable, well-paid elitist perches and take potshots at whatever book or movie that happens to come along. Much easier than to go out and put in years and years of painstaking research–often at one’s own expense–and write a historical monograph or produce such a movie of their own! Much easier to cherry pick and take a quote out of context in order to distort the book’s meaning and better serve his own political agenda! I’m sure any day now Mr. Blow will bless us with his own book or movie on the Free State of Jones that is fully anchored in the historical literature, exhaustively researched, and carefully nuanced as to the complexities of history. I, for one, would be thrilled to critique it, especially if they’d let me publish it in the New York Times!


  10. This from an op-ed contributor who is a defender of Hillary Clinton who backed her husband’s elimination of AFDC and who referred to “super-predators” in the Black community. Frankly, his article was disgusting.


  11. ‘Unruly Women’….I treasure this copy of Vikki Bynum’s first book on interracial marriages and miscegenation in the South…This lead to me to want to follow anything that Professor Victoria Bynum publishes….Her research is terrific! And that’s just for starters. Her writing is superb. She’s proved that in her three books. Indeed, she knows how to tell a story…She and Gregg Andrews make such a neat couple. Both super talented and good looking too. And kind hearted. True humanitarians, both of them… The best of the best. It was such a treat to sit back and watch this great movie ‘Free State of Jones’, this past week-end, As previously stated, my only regret was that Gary Ross did not include ‘DR G and the Mudcats swampy tonk song ‘Jones County Jubilee’ I love that number!!!!! And would have loved to have heard it played somewhere in the movie. And I am certain that EVERYONE seeing this movie would have LOVED it too!!!


  12. I usually reserve my Times website quota for Ross Douthat, but I made an exception for this.
    Charles Blow’s review is not all negative, and his criticisms are not all wrong, but he is ultimately demanding a different movie.

    Perhaps the film should have made room for Black characters to display rage, as well as forbearance and forgiveness. The Tarzan swipe is fair, if limited to the movie and not the book. The irony is that the real Newt Knight probably did know the swamp better than Rachael, if only because he grew up in Jones while she was only sold there as a teenager. Of course, there may well have been slaves – escaped or not – who knew the swamp better than Newt, but a Newt initially lost in the swamp is as likely artistic license as one who masters the swamp as Blacks cannot.

    I respect what I take to be Blow’s desire that a movie referencing rape broadcast outrage toward it in every frame, but that presentation would not fit this story. Sadly, Rachael probably learned – from her mother’s experience even before her own – that a cry for help would not likely bring help, and would likely bring more trouble; so I interpreted the movie-Rachael’s muted reaction not as a “genteel treatment” but as depicting a woman who’s learned to survive in an abusive environment. Nor is the movie necessarily naive in imagining that Rachael became bolder during her association with the Knight Company: the camp would have given her a place to escape until Emancipation could be enforced, and the promise of a committed relationship with Newt would have given her a powerful new impetus to resist conceiving by another man.

    But when push comes to shove, Blow admits the root of his hostility: “This story emphasizes white heroism and centers on the ally instead of the enslaved…a sour chord — particularly coming from a Hollywood that delivers a dearth of black-focused stories.” I don’t blame him for resenting Hollywood’s pattern of centering Black liberation stories on a White liberal hero, while reducing the Black characters to saintly spear-carriers (e.g. “Mississippi Burning”). However, “Free State of Jones” is about the Civil War and Reconstruction as experienced by an 85% White county, where slaves and slavery were in fact peripheral, and where the cleavages exacerbated by the war were primarily about class, not race. The Blacks of Jones accepted junior partner status in a White-led rebellion not out of servility, but shrewdness; launching a rebellion of their own would have been a disaster.
    Blow wishes that the production money of “Free State” had been used to make a movie about the Stono Rebellion or the seizure of Georgia’s Sea Island plantations by their slaves. Fair enough, but that doesn’t make “The Free State of Jones” wrong for being true to its subject.


    • Excellent. I look forward to many more movies on each of the additional Rebellions. Have we yet seen Bacon’s Rebellion on screen, for example? Not in my memory.

      To quibble just a bit — even if the specific county exhibited cleavages more along class lines, the peculiar nature of the US makes race ever present. I believe this county and others similarly constituted show the strength of white supremacy as embedded within the constituent nature of all of our institutions (public and private).


      • Indeed, Jones County politics shifted to race once there was no longer a Confederacy vacuuming up food and fighting-age men. Of course, looking at any society through a single prism, including race or class, is going to lead to a truncated and distorted picture.

        I agree that it would be interesting to see a movie about Bacon’s Rebellion (does Gary Ross read this blog?) not least because its settlement reputedly launched Anglo-America on the course of minimizing class differences and maximizing race differences. From our perspective, Latin America made rather the opposite choice. I recall that when one of my Brazilian cousins visited shortly after the LA Riots, she just thought it was crazy that people would kill eachother over skin color, and in a sense she’s right. Of course, if Latin America has had fewer race riots, it’s also had more revolutions and coups; we continue to pay for our race lines, they for their class lines. Ideally, we should learn from eachother.


  13. Since this is one of the first films to engage many themes that have become ossified from the “Lost Cause” to what consent “property” can exhibit to “Reconstruction was a disaster” I believe we should be more understanding of critique even if it is comes from a knee jerk position. It is unfortunate that Blow has chosen to argue as strongly as he has. But it does no good to “name call” or to lump his critique into “identity politics” or “liberal elitist” or whatever.

    For more than 150 years, “white washed” visions of the South, the Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction have been depicted on screen and fed to readers through history books and in academic institutions. The recent academic scholarship has begun to chip away at and revise The Lost Cause, the Dunning School, etc. Scholarship was woefully inadequate for years in its depiction of the institution of slavery and the popular imagination on the whole is no where near this new scholarship. It is only recently that tours of Presidential homes and other “historical” plantations have broached the subject of slavery in a more realistic manner.

    Popularizing history through film, for example, or through public history, e.g. the National Park Service, is hard work at best given the strongly held views. Dr. Bynum I suspect knows this better than anyone else commenting. It must be difficult to present the complexity of human nature through the scant evidence available. And this must be presented against the backdrop of the reality of the much more prevalent sexual exploitation at the heart of the system of chattel slavery practiced in the US. There is ample evidence of this practice for “economic reasons” (increase the number of enslaved people) as well as purely disgusting abuse of women by men (exacerbated as Blow feels strongly by the economic relation of those men to enslaved women).

    I have not yet seen the movie, but I have read Bynum’s book on The Free State of Jones. And I know that her work in The Long Shadow of the Civil War provides solid, incredibly detailed and extensive evidence for geographically spread inter-racial communities, as well as pro Union and anti-slavery groups within the South. But this is one of the first public depictions with a wide release and a big name white actor put out by an industry (Hollywood) whose track record is meager at best and historically immoral. Even in recent time, blockbuster movies such as The Help have also been contentious.


  14. Kew100, you make several excellent points about the state of historical scholarship and the pernicious presence of the Lost Cause version of the Civil War and Reconstruction for well over a century.

    In response to your comment that “recent academic scholarship has begun to chip away at and revise the Lost Cause, the Dunning School, etc.,” I would like to stress that in fact, scholars of history demolished the Lost Cause version of history some 80 years ago with W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Because of Dubois’s race and far-left politics, however, his classic work was largely ignored, even within the profession. Some 65 years ago, in the midst of a revitalized Civil Rights Movement, the Lost Cause myth was again demolished, this time by C. Vann Woodward in Origins of the New South (1951). Since then, it has been denounced time and time again by historian after historian.

    So why is the Lost Cause still a vital part of our culture, and a Hollywood movie that overturns it so controversial? One obvious answer is that popular culture—epitomized in Hollywood movies such as Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and more recently, Gods and Generals—generally ignores scholarly history. When you add the current crop of Neo-Confederate groups that flourish online to Hollywood’s romantic movies about the Confederate “noble cause,” you understand the uphill battle that historians face.

    But it’s not just reactionary, rightwing Neo-Confederates who uphold the Lost Cause mentality. So also do liberal practitioners of identity politics such as Charles Blow. The notion that class might separate white men affronts Blow; his analysis of Southern slaveholding society posits race as the sum total of experience. All Southern white men, then, share a common mentality—that of the slaveholder, and the slaveholder is a raper of black women. The syllogistic logic is perfectly in place: Newt Knight is white; Rachel Knight is black; white men raped enslaved women; therefore, Newt Knight raped Rachel Knight.

    Charles Blow did not merely write a “strong” response to the movie. Through willful distortion of the scenes and messages of The Free State of Jones, he labels it nothing more than another “white savior” movie. Through willful mis-characterization of my words as the author of The Free State of Jones, he condemns and dismisses both the book and the movie as mere apologies for white-on-black rape.

    Blow’s “strong” words are in fact dishonest words. He assures readers that whites and blacks were incapable of common cause or consensual relationships under slavery and during Reconstruction. In so doing, and from a liberal position grounded in identity politics, he reinforces the same version of history that racists thrive on. No matter how many class-based uprisings against the Confederacy are documented by historians, Blow insists on hustling us back to the Lost Cause vision of a Solid (white) South.


    • Thank you for such kind words, and I am chastised appropriately for suggesting that academia only recently moved beyond the “Lost Cause.” That is my own naiveté speaking.

      But as my own understanding has only recently been enlightened, I feel I cannot condemn Blow’s understanding. He is not the only NYT opinion writer who is, I think, not able to fully sympathize with all of the complexities of US history and politics.

      I read how personal this is for you and for a more nuanced understanding of the “identity politics” of the South. This is another point of discussion/disagreement that provides for learning and development (some steps forward, a few backward probably). I realize that my “big feet” sometimes trod painfully on unseen or misunderstood differences. And sometimes I just have to be hit upside the head! Unfortunately, I know that my feet and head find company with those having even larger feet and harder heads.

      Upshot — I am just thrilled this movie and project (e.g., the web site accompanying the movie) are happening. I sincerely appreciate the years of hard work that you and others have already put in. I hope to help carry the burden armed with much more information and empathy going forward.


      • Thank you, Kew100. I appreciate your understanding response to my own response. I hope that greater dialogue about this important movie, one that includes mutual respect and active listening, occurs at the national level. We truly do need the “national conversation” that Sherree posited in an earlier post.



    • I saw this—David Walsh delivers an important analysis that I wish would appear on the pages of the New York Times as well.



      • Racialist? Yes. Right-wing? No. I also know conservatives who can’t argue with eachother without calling eachother left-wing. It’s generally an unhelpful distraction from substantive debate.


      • Sean, if you read David Walsh’s analysis of why he considers Charles Blow’s “racialist” ideas to ultimately be right wing, I think you’ll find that he’s not just engaging in a knee-jerk call-out of the sort we see regularly on mainstream media political shows. As I have written elsewhere—and it’s pretty much what Walsh argues here—Blow and his followers will brook no class/race alliances in history—political, sexual, or familial. Their thinking reinforces 19th century white supremacist dogma, merely reversing the racial identities to end up in the same intellectually segregated and politically impotent swamp.



  15. To expand slightly upon my exchange with Kew100, one rebellion that has definitely not graced the Silver Screen is The New York Conspiracy (a.k.a. Negro Plot) of 1741:

    Historians disagree as to whether there was a conspiracy, and even those who grant it generally doubt that it extended beyond one or two dozen slaves resisting their bondage. Nevertheless, at a time when both anti-Catholic Penal Laws and Slave Codes were becoming more stringent, British authorities may honestly have feared collaboration between the two disenfranchised groups (the cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” testifies that there was some overlap). At the same time, stoking these fears was an effective way for the British ascendancy to rally poorer Whites/Protestants to its side. See:

    By the time the purge was over, 34 were burned at the stake (in perhaps its last use as a judicial penalty in the Americas) or otherwise executed, and 72 were sold down to infamous sugar plantations or otherwise deported.
    The subject could be of interest to a wide range of Americans today, from those who fear an Islamophobia that blurs religious, national and racial prejudices to those who fear a secularism that redefines free exercise of religion as a threat to rather than part of civil society.

    Perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda can turn it into a musical!


    • Our history includes such great fodder for movies! Musical or not, why do we need a rehash of Tarzan, Ben Hur, and Scarface. Plenty of lovely massacres, plots, religious fights, blood available within history. And who would have thought such great educational tidbits would happen in comments…


      • Glad to oblige, Kew100! Few of us who live here realize that there were Afro-Hispanic New Yorkers in the early 18th Century, let alone that New York brutally suppressed a slave revolt amid a fever of racism, xenophobia and anti-Catholicism.

        Of course there will be sequels to – say – Spider-man, since it’s a known “brand” that made money before. If Americans had been fed a steady diet of Newt Knight comic books, cartoons, action figures and kids’ pajamas over the last several decades, I’m sure “Free State of Jones” would have gotten better box office! Vikki and Gary have done their part. Often classic films aren’t recognized as such until time has sifted out the wheat from the chaff. The impression that entertainment was better in the good old days derives at least in part from the tenancy to forget how much junk used to be popular.


  16. Vikki, I did read Walsh’s article. I even agreed with most of it, despite not being a Marxist! My point is that racism (or racialism) is not a creature of the Right, but a creature of its own that goes wherever it finds food and shelter. The National Party that gave South Africa Apartheid started out organizing mine workers under the banner “White workers of the world, unite!” Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger maintained a warm correspondence with leading Nazis in the 1930s, and her eugenic racist tracts were eagerly translated and reprinted in Nazi journals.

    David Walsh’s conflict with Charles Blow is not that people like Blow are a Rightist sleeper cell within the Left. Their argument is over: What is “Left?” What is the goal to which Progressives are meant to progress? More specifically, it’s an argument between economic Marxists on one hand, and on the other cultural Marxists whose touchstone is less Rosa Luxemburg, more Jeffrey Katzenberg (or less Leon Trotsky, more Antonio Gramsci).
    It’s a debate worth having, but it will be had more coherently if it is understood for what it is.


    • I think Blow’s thinking reflects a common assumption that slavery divided people into total “white” and “black” experiences. In fact, many factors beyond one’s racial designation affected her or his experience of freedom and slavery.



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