An interview with Victoria Bynum, historian and author of The Free State of Jones—Part 1
World Socialist Web Site
David Walsh and Joanne Laurier
Free State of Jones, the film directed by Gary Ross, powerfully and movingly recounts a significant episode of the American Civil War, the insurrection against the Confederacy led by Newton Knight, a white, antislavery farmer in Jones County in southern Mississippi from 1863 to 1865.
Audiences have been generally warm and receptive. However, Ross’s film has met with a hostile response from commentators who see society and history in exclusively racial terms, like Charles Blow of the New York Times (whose own lead film reviewer, A. O. Scott, to his credit, gave the film positive marks), Vann Newkirk II in the Atlantic and countless others. Free State of Jones is a blow to the practitioners of identity politics because it presents this revealing episode in American history in terms of class conflict.
Moreover, the fraternity of well-paid, thoroughly self-satisfied film critics, white and black alike, quite rightly perceive in Free State of Jones a social and political threat: that the interracial revolt against inequality and aristocratic privilege in the 1860s will find an echo in our day.
Free State of Jones has absurdly been characterized as advancing some sort of “white savior” mythology because it honestly presents the response of common people in Mississippi, inspired by the traditions of the American Revolution, to the reactionary project of Southern secession. This cuts across the effort in particular to paint the white population in America, past and present, as hopelessly backward and racist.
Whatever the immediate commercial fate of Ross’s film, it will have a long shelf life. Those who are serious about American history and contemporary social life will find in it both education and inspiration…
…David Walsh: First, can you tell us something about your background and how you made your way to the study in particular of Southern Unionism and opposition to the Confederacy?
Victoria Bynum: I don’t come from an academic background. Neither of my parents had a high school education. My dad was born in Jones County, Mississippi, but he left the state at age 17 to join the military. That’s how he made his living; he was a master sergeant by the time he retired. In my family, work was valued over education.
I grew up in the fifties and sixties, during the era of the Civil Rights movement. Influenced by my mother, who supported racial equality, I was very affected by this period. Over time, I developed a strong desire to go to college, and at age 26 began taking classes at a community college. To cut to the chase, my early interest in the history of race and social class emerged from my own experiences. When I began college I was a divorced mother on welfare. Pursuing a doctorate in history required a long economic struggle, one that ended after I finally obtained my degree and began teaching at Texas State University.
I began my college research with an interest in “free people of color,” the designation applied to free people before the Civil War. I was initially intrigued by a black friend’s insistence that his Virginia ancestors had never been slaves. That seemed to me unusual, and it piqued my interest in Old South history. Along the way, I became interested in both free black women and white women who lived outside the planter class. Those interests resulted in my dissertation (and first book), Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South…
Read the entire interview here.