They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy
now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
We’ve got it rehashed
We’ve got it half-assed
We’re digging up all the graves
and we’re spitting on the past.
– Ani DiFranco, “Fuel”
A Not-So-Righteous Retreat
Ani DiFranco taught me — and maybe you, too — a lot of things about love and heartbreak and queerness and feminism and anti-racism and integrity. She also taught me — and maybe you, too — about respecting history, about acknowledging the violent colonialist origins of our present culture and about refusing to swallow government propaganda. She commanded us to “dig deeper, dig deeper this time, down beneath the impossible pain of our history, beneath unknown bones, beneath the bedrock of the mystery.”
Sure, when we quote Ani, we usually quote her telling our exes to fuck off and we quote her condoning our post-heartsmash recklessness. But in between “Sick of Me” and “Gravel” we have politics, too — some of the best political folk songs of our time from undoubtedly one of the most talented lyricists of all time. In Self-Evident, she indicts the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11, in ‘Tis of Thee she condemns a culture complacent in arresting black men in order to declare “ok the streets are safe now, all your pretty white children can come out and see Spot run.” The list goes on.
She didn’t just sing about social justice, though, she lived it: she spoke at rallies, hosted benefit concerts and backed grassroots political and cultural organizations through The Righteous Babe Foundation. She’s been active in anti-war, pro-choice and anti-death-penalty activism as well as the United States Campaign for Burma, the Buffalo public schools, The Katrina Piano Fund, The Roots of Music Program and the March for Women’s Lives.
We listened, and we learned, and we never thought we’d be presented with an opportunity to apply what we learned from Ani to, well — criticizing Ani. But that’s what happened this week when it was announced that Ani DiFranco would be hosting a “Righteous Songwriting Retreat” next summer at the Nottoway Plantation & Resort in White Castle, Louisiana. Yup. A PLANTATION. The four-day “all-inclusive” retreat would offer a variety of lodging options, including on-ground camping or more luxurious quarters (formerly inhabited by slave owners) ranging from $1,099 – $3,398 per person. 100 guests would enjoy workshops with Ani DiFranco and Toshi Reagan, concerts and “jamming” at night and a day trip to New Orleans. The event website promised a weekend spent “immersing yourself in music and art in a righteous way” and praised the splendor of their chosen locale.
The questions raised by this announcement were many: How can you do anything, let alone make music or art, in a “righteous way” on a plantation that once enslaved 155 human beings? A plantation that, following the Emancipation Proclamation, struggled so hard to remain profitable that its owner John Randolph then “tried the use of Chinese laborers” to maintain his gross wealth, an effort that thankfully “proved futile and was short-lived”? How can black women sing their truths on the same land where black women were sold, raped, tortured, overworked and beaten? Let alone a historical site which, through its media and glossed-over narrative, lavishes endless praise on Randolph as if he was not a man who enslaved human beings? A site that praises Randolph as a benevolent slave owner because he allowed his slaves to take showers?
A loud backlash justifiably ensued, and Ani’s facebook page became a site of incensed discourse between anti-racists and white total fucking morons, such as one white girl who created a fake facebook account for a black girl named LaQueeta Jones to defend The Retreat’s choice of venue.
“What is righteous about a retreat at a former plantation?” tweeted digital marketer Chevon Drew. “The #righteousretreat plantation is also not unionized, so it undoubtedly is run on exploited WoC labor today as well,” tweeted @juliawong. “You have a lot to answer for. I hope you have a PR team working on this #righteousretreat mess cuz you’re gonna need them,” tweeted The Angry Fan Girl.
A Change.org petition was launched asking Ani to cancel the concert:
Holding an event on the site of the genocide of black people is no way to show inclusion and intersectionality, both of which are important tenets of feminism.
Then, Kat Endgame at PQ Monthly did a little research and discovered that not only is the plantation a, you know, plantation, but that its annual revenue of $2.5 to $5 million goes to Nottoway Plantation Inc, which is owned by The Paul Ramsay Group. Endgame found that this Group is “the investment arm of Australia’s thirteenth richest billionaire Paul Ramsay, a healthcare mogul well known in Australia for donating half a million dollars to conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s election campaign.” Abbot, Endgame points out, has “given more than $1.8 million to the anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-immigrant Liberal party over the last 14 years.”
I started writing this story yesterday morning. We emailed Righteous Retreats for a statement. We called Righteous Retreats for a statement. We called Righteous Retreats’ other phone number for a statement. We heard nothing in return.
On Dark Tourism
If you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of visiting Nottoway or other sites of exploitation and murder turned into tourist attractions, known academically as “dark tourism,” you’re perhaps familiar with the profound cognitive dissonance experienced at these sites. “Dark tourism” is defined as “travel to sites associated with death and tragedy,” such as battlefields, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Ground Zero and the Spirit Lake Internment Camp. I remember being fascinated and entertained by my visit to Alcatraz as a kid, but when I returned as an adult a few years back, I was profoundly disturbed by this monument to machismo and “justice” characterized as fairly delivered and riotously entertaining. At Alcatraz, the “bad guys” are neatly defined and punished and the profound corruption and racism of our criminal justice system is rendered invisible. Of course, as S.J Culver wrote in his Guernica essay ‘Escape to Alcatraz” last year about the dissonance he experienced visiting Alcatraz, “I am not suggesting that it’s possible or feasible for the NPS to radicalize every visitor to Alcatraz Island. I am suggesting we bother to learn enough to radicalize ourselves.” He notes that “such ambivalence seems to be a sad commonality among redeveloped sites of human suffering such as prisons, asylums, and concentration camps.”
Plantations are not always considered part of “dark tourism,” but they should be. The horror of a concentration camp is clear-cut, but plantations actively obscure their darkness. Prisons and asylums are not, generally, beautiful buildings, whereas plantations are opulent and majestic by definition. Nobody wants to spend the night at Alcatraz, but Nottoway functions as a hotel and wedding venue. There are no memorial walls listing names of slaves beaten, killed or raped at Nottoway. Whereas sites of mass genocide are clearly advertised as such, plantations are relentlessly dishonest, designed and celebrated to bury a violent legacy. This is precisely what makes visiting these places so fucked up, and why a Righteous Retreat cannot take place there.
In fact, according to Carie Rael and John Belleci of The Social and Global Justice Program, there’s no acknowledgment at Nottoway that anything bad ever happened there. They recall a gift shop stocked with books like Myths of Slavery and The South Was Right. The latter, sporting a book cover embellished with the Confederate flag, claims to prove “how the South was an independent country invaded, captured and still occupied by a vicious aggressor.” The former plans to disprove that slavery was “cruel, unjust and contrary to our nation’s basic creed of individual freedom.”
Rael and Belleci visited the lush grounds and the on-site museum where a film portrayed the plantation owner as “a fundamentally benevolent man.” They were presented with a historical narrative that failed to even mention slaves at all, except when the tour guide praised Mr. Randolph’s wealth, noting that he received $20,000 in cash and twenty slaves as his dowry, which he used to build Nottoway. When the guide described Randolph’s growing wealth, Rael and Becelli recall that “she made it a point to quantify his wealth in terms of slaves, rather than money. The guide bragged that, at the peak of his wealth, Mr. Randolph had 155 slaves.”
The “bragging” didn’t end there:
The second mention of slaves came when the guide spoke of the ingenuity that Mr. Randolph displayed when he developed an intricate bell system which rang in different tones so that the slaves would know exactly which room they were needed in. The last mention of slaves on the one-hour tour came when the guide described the “whistling way.” This was the path that led from the outside kitchen to the dining room. As the guide noted, Mr. Randolph ordered his slaves to whistle while they walked along the path in order to ensure that they were not eating or spitting on any the family’s food.
The two concluded that the most disturbing aspect of Nottoway is that it is now “a resort where tourists can drive through the Black rural ghettos and arrive at the grand plantation and pay upwards of $240 a night to stay in ‘cottages’ which are replicas of the original slave quarters.”
“Scholarly observations indicate that very few black tourists engage in plantation tourism, and those seeking their own family history often tend to find this missing in the sites’ narratives,” write Linda Lelo and Tazim Jamal in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and Interpreting Dark Places. “Where the lives of enslaved Africans living and working on the plantations are acknowledged, they tend to be ‘dark’ stories overshadowed by those of their white owners.” Furthermore, “how these sites are represented and ‘produced’ greatly influence not only visitor experience, understanding, cultural identification and social well-being, but also . . . how the nation-state is portrayed and imagined by its citizens and residents.”
How could Ani DiFranco, who criticized how “white people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country and put up houses on loop-de-loop streets” in Subdivision, host a retreat at a site many black people feel triggered by? How could Ani DiFranco, who criticized the government’s neglect of post-Katrina New Orleans in J, host a retreat on a historical site that pays tribute to the racist history of this region?
This morning we heard from Toshi Reagon, a black queer musician also on the bill for this event, about her discomfort about holding a retreat at a plantation. (Sidenote: Reagon did perform at the trans misogynist and trans* female-exclusionary MichFest this past summer.) Reagon has requested that the statement she posted on her facebook page not be reprinted or edited in any form, so I encourage you to read it yourself.
A few hours after Toshi’s statement, another Righteous Retreat performer, Buddy Wakefield, a white cis man, chimed in with a vitriolic and highly offensive non-apology:
Until I or Ani or Toshi or anyone else are able to respond from our personal perspectives on the blunder, I think it’d be most productive for y’all to continue assuming the absolute worst, don’t you dare ask thoughtful questions as to how this really went down, venomously insult Ani and her years of efforts, then write as many demolishing statements and articles as possible in an effort to eternally shackle her to this oversight.
At last, this evening, Ani DiFranco released a statement that she would be canceling the Righteous Retreat. The tone of her statement was defensive and angry and deeply disappointing for many reasons, primarily its failure to include the words “I’m sorry.” Ani explained that she wasn’t aware of the venue when she committed to the event, and when she did hear about it, she apparently “thought to [herself] ‘whoa'” but “did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.” Yup, she truly characterized the righteous anger of her fans as “high velocity bitterness,” a classic technique used to silence marginalized groups — black women, in this case. Ani said that she had imagined “that the setting would become a participant in the event.” (Um, worst participant ever??) Ani:
this was doubtless to be a gathering of progressive and engaged people, so i imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were. i have heard the feedback that it is not my place to go to former plantations and initiate such a dialogue.
tragedies on a massive scale are not easily dealt with or recovered from. i certainly in no way expect or want to be immune from that pain or that process of recovery. i welcome (and in fact have always pursued) constructive dialogue about these and all political/social issues. my intention of going ahead with the conference at the nottoway plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but it’s opposite. i know that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history. i believe that even though i am white, i can and must do this work too. if you disagree, i respectfully understand where you’re coming from and your right to disagree. i am not unaware of the mechanism of white privilege or the fact that i need to listen more than talk when it comes to issues of race. if nottoway is simply not an acceptable place for me to go and try to do my work in the eyes of many, then let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled.
Ani goes on to argue that “one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say “racism reached it’s depths of wrongness here” and then point to the other side of that line and say “but not here.”” This is an argument put forth by many of her supporters, such as a commenter on Toshi’s post who asked “what part of the US is without our blood, what soil is there without the blood of ancestors on it?” But hundreds of black women have spoken that this plantation is, in fact, where that line should be drawn, and us white people need to listen to that. It’s a lesson we are offered the opportunity to learn every time we are called out. Our feelings about how best to harness “compassionate energy” are irrelevant.
Even if one were to assign any value to the argument that you’d be hard-pressed to find any venue not built on the backs of racist exploitation, it’s impossible to deny the absolute wrongness of this venue’s commercialized whitewashed history, glorification of racist antebellum society, complacent commerce in racist revisionist histories and the fact that revenue garnered by the plantation will support corporate interests and an anti-gay, misogynist anti-choice politician. There is no way around that. Nothing righteous can happen here. Ani continues:
i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth. i know that each of us is sitting right now in a building located on stolen land. stolen from the original people of this continent who suffered genocide at the hands of european colonists. i know that many of us can look down right now and see shoes and clothes that were manufactured by modern day indentured servants in sweat shops. i know that micro profits from purchases that we make all day long are trickling down to monsanto, to nestle and to GE. i know that a sickeningly large percentage of the taxes we pay go to manufacturing weapons and to making war. and on and on and on. it is a very imperfect world we live in and i, like everyone else, am just trying to do my best to negotiate it.
She writes that she’s disturbed by the political leanings of the current owner of Nottoway, but argues that probably “there are a lot of rich white dudes with conservative political leanings” on the list of people profiting from venues she’s performed in. She asks if this kind of vetting is required for every gig and if it is “possible to ensure that no ‘bad’ person will ever profit in any way from my existence or my work?”
I understand that it’s hard to figure out where to draw lines and that it’s impossible to avoid supporting a “bad” person or corporation at some point — it’s a challenge that defines our daily existence running this site, often compromising our politics in order to pay the employees who write about those politics. But there are some clear-cut lines to be drawn — like we can safely say we’d never take advertising from Wal-Mart (and that we have turned down advertising from Michfest) and, as Toshi Reagon suggests in her statement, activists shouldn’t host events on plantations.
“Bullshit is a phone booth that you somehow stumbled into and, look at you, you’re just like everybody else,” tweeted @mcILLCrop.
“Here’s how it shoulda gone down: Event Planner: “Hey Ani! What about a retreat at a planta— Ani: “NOPE.” aaaaand SCENE,” tweeted @angryblacklady.
Ani writes that she’d planned a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans, located in a building that formerly was the seat of a slaveholder government. This point is more valid as a counterpoint: a slave-built building converted to a music school is one thing, a slave-built building that currently serves as a celebration of slaveholding is another thing entirely. She ends with this:
i ask only that as we attempt to continue to confront our country’s history together, let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites. let us not oversimplify to black and white a society that contains many many shades of grey. and let us not forget to be compassionate towards each other as we attempt to move forward and write the next pages in our history. our story is not over and, Citizens of the Internet, it is now ours to write.
Unfortunately, even though Ani felt sad about the tone of many responses, there were also plenty of people asking for apologies and explanations in “pleasant” tones and plenty of black women sharing personal stories about their connection to Ani’s music — and they too were ignored, dismissed and disrespected today. Before Ani released her statement, The Daily Dot wrote that her failure to make a statement “is a true blow to many of her fans, who viewed her as a rare example of inclusivity and intersectionality among high-profile white feminists.” Well, the statement has been made, and the disappointment has only deepened.
Ultimately, she’s left us all wondering what she once wondered herself:
i’m wondering what it will take
for my country to rise
first we admit our mistakes
and then we open our eyes.