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When critics mutter the recent Oscars have become too black and too liberal, I think of the 2016 film THE FREE STATE OF JONES starring Matthew McConaughey and British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The screenplay is based on the true story of a poor Mississippi farmer who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. When wealthy landowners were excused from fighting if they owned enough slaves, he was one of many soldiers who realized they were dying in what was known as a “…rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Given America’s current tax code that will eventually make the lower and middle classes pay steeper taxes and lose benefits to provide greater profits to the wealthiest corporations, the Civil War situation in the South feels oddly familiar. If most Americans will be required to work harder and longer for fewer benefits, who are we working for? If assault rifles are more important than our children, who are we planning to protect with them? Yet what remedy is there when there is so much power/financial distance between the groups?
Newt Knight, the Mississippi farmer, formed a coalition of escaped slaves and deserters to protect the families, crops, and homes of his poor neighbors from brutal tax collectors and forced conscription. The ragtag army wanted to be partnered with Union troops, but the Union didn’t recognize them as a significant ally. In spite of that lack of support, the coalition managed to seize control of an area the freedmen called “the Free State of Jones” using the swamps as an impenetrable fortress against attacks. Blacks and whites, men and women, lived and fought side by side under the ugly N-word that meant they were all mere pawns of other men’s ambitions.
In March, 2016, Richard Grant of The Smithsonian Magazine explored the region that had once been the “free state” and discovered many present day occupants were more appalled by the interracial relationships of the Jones County army than they were impressed by Knight’s courageous, altruistic battle to protect the locals. They renamed the county to bury the “disgrace.” Today Knight’s many descendants fall into different camps, according to their relative “purity” and are treated accordingly.
Which of us should be standing side by side in these turbulent times instead of looking for excuses to cut each other down? Which of us are unwittingly engaged in a “poor man’s fight” for goals that will not benefit us? Why is it so many are incensed when people of diverse races, religions, and sexual orientations as well as women want to stand as equal human beings to straight white men, working and contributing to the strength of the country? What do we gain by drawing lines between our sub-populations and fomenting distrust and disgust?
Perhaps the Oscar speeches were merely nice words that will fade away with the next trend. And perhaps not. Perhaps we have begun to see our diversity is a strength if we can use it that way. Sameness is weakness because it has no soil for fresh ideas. Divisions destroy civilizations. We have scraped the bottom of greed and corruption. Other countries speculate they are witnessing the fall of the American empire. Do you feel great now?