Out of Rage: Ani’s Not-So-Righteous Retreat

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”


nottoway-white-castle

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 PLANTATIONThe 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.


 

Nottoway during a winter storm in 2009 via weather underground

Nottoway during a winter storm in 2009 via weather underground

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?


 

The Response

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.

“Instead of canceling #righteousretreat, I’d rather @anidifranco give a decent mea culpa and just book it somewhere else. Why’s this so hard?” tweeted @HappiestAtheist.

“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.

“Reading @anidifranco, am grateful for canceling of plantation event but extremely disappointed in her defensiveness,” tweeted @erintothemax.

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.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

63 Comments

  1. I am just so disappointed in her response. To condemn your fans for engaging in constructive criticism after twenty plus years of encouraging criticism against other problematic social events, issues and institutions is just plain fucked.

    You could do better then this Ani. Shame on you.

  2. I am so over people trying to defend the venue under the guise of “needing to move on” or “everywhere has a bad history” given how the plantation downplays the horrors of slavery on its on website and is owned by a social conservative who stands against what Franco claims to stand for.

    Furthermore, there is likely to be nothing learned because her fanbase, especially on Facebook, is only backing her up and assuring her she did nothing wrong and that she has done all she can do to make it better. In addition, they have taken down what they deem “hateful” and sexist comments, but apparently racist and racist-apolgist comments are not deemed “hateful” and “counter-productive.” If they can’t figure out why taking down “you’re a racist whore” when directed towards Franco but leaving up “you’re obviously emotionally invested in this” when directed towards someone decrying the racist decision, is racist as all get out, then #solidarityisforwhitewomen went straight over their heads.

  3. I was hoping there’d be a post here about this on AS. Brilliant article Riese.
    I’m disgusted by everything about this train wreck: the location, the virtual blackface and Ani’s non-apology. I can’t say more because it just honestly *hurts* to talk or think about and it hurts more because of the carelessness and casualness behind it.

  4. ugh. i just…i don’t really even want to be talking about this, because it hurts to talk about, but i’m gonna talk about it here because i think so many of you feel the same way i feel about it, and i trust you guys, i think, and i am gonna try not to get all stereotypical “processing my issues” but also fuck stereotypes, i am allowed to have feelings and to want to understand them. right? okay.

    i’ve been listening to ani’s music for close to 20 years now. i think a lot of us have been. i didn’t get the last album because whatever, life, and i haven’t always agreed with her viewpoints on various topics, particularly her having played michfest in the past. so it’s been a complicated relationship, me and the artist’s persona and the artist’s music, for a while now.

    but i have still historically counted myself as a fan and i’ve got an embarrassing number of albums and have been to an embarrassing number of shows. and i have to own that now, because it means i’ve been letting myself be a little blind, or maybe a lot blind, for a while. and now that i don’t get to be blind anymore, i have to decide what to do with all this meaning.

    imogen binnie wrote a really excellent essay a few months back – and i’m linking to it here (trigger warning: discusses people being really shitty to trans women) – about how hard it is to trust people as trans allies when they’ve got kathleen hanna on their wall, and i can’t stop thinking about that essay in this situation. i was reminded that people are not their worst moment, and i fervently hope i can say that about ani in this situation. but even if she does the work to understand the damage she has caused and to begin to repair the breach, where does that leave the people who have trusted her? where does that leave POC who now have to wonder which of ani’s fans thinks what happened was ok, that this isn’t something they should take personally?

    the last thing i want is to be someone not worthy of trust because of whom i have chosen to trust. i chose to trust her message, but more than that, i realize i chose to trust *her*. and that’s what’s heartbreaking. the message can still be good, independent of its flawed, human delivery mechanism, but that doesn’t matter when my declared affiliations are telling someone i am going to let them down, have already let them down.

    maybe the message is that i always have to keep my eyes open to my own privilege. maybe that’s a message i should have gotten with her playing michfest, and it’s shitty that i’m just now hearing it and i didn’t hear it then. i can accept that. and maybe i am making it about me and i shouldn’t be making it about me. okay. time for me to go back to listening.

    • Ok maybe don’t compare playing at Michfest with playing at a plantation. Racism and transmisogyny aren’t the same, and ya know, playing at a spot where mass genocide and slavery and mass rape and all that happened is different than playing at a camp for snobby old rich white lesbians that don’t want snobby rich white lesbian trans women in their midst because they’re stuck in the seventies. Unless you want to talk about how Hanna playing on Indian Removal land is racist. But even then. I’m not saying playing at Michfest is right, I’m just saying that you as a white person don’t really get to compare the two because they lie on different axes and just cannot be compared without getting into some problematic shit.

    • You make a really valid point about how perceptions about being a fan of someone can be conflated with agreeing with their problematic viewpoints and actions. With that, I would agree that claiming to be a trans* ally while supporting Michfest is just as much of a cognitive dissonance as being an anti-racist ally while defending Ani DiFranco.

      • thank you, yes, that’s what i was trying to get at. it’s sometimes hard to document a thought process as it happens. i was just struck by this topic – what does it mean not to support an institution but to support/be okay with/turn a blind eye to people who defend that institution, and how can one then be an ally of the people that institution hurts? i know it took me a long time to see the connection (i have a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance – ask me sometime about being a quaker who worked for the military), and even then it was with a lot of help.

        i don’t share that thought, btw, to get a cookie; i find it helpful to see where others are in the process of sorting out their beliefs and stances, and maybe me talking about what i am still learning will help someone else. that’s my hope, anyway.

  5. I’ve been a lukewarm Ani fan at best, and I’m glad she’s being called out for this mess. The silence (coupled with the deleting of facebook comments) followed by a non-apology that essentially amounts to flouncing away is truly sad. It reminds me of white men getting really upset when called out for what privilege, and following the call-out with declaring who has the right to be upset about the event, and who doesn’t…while failing to note that it’s this very privilege that allows them to make such declarations unselfconsciously. Also: am I the only one who got nauseas due to her stated intent of parading wealthy white women with the ability to shell out $4K for a plantation retreat around a disadvantaged school for a little poverty tourism? Particularly that this was stated as part of the non-apology, perhaps to reassure everyone that she maintains hip and progressive status? Yikes.

  6. I’ve been following this whole mess on tumblr and I’ve just been gobsmacked. Like, a fucking plantation? Really?? I keep wanting to ask who the hell could think that’s a good idea if they claim any kind of progressive politics, but then my answer is right there on the internet. Apparently, a lot of people who make such claims are did just that and it makes me want to headdesk until I’m unconscious.

    The complete mishandling of the situation and the defensive non-apology from Ani’s camp is extremely disappointing. I’m actually a little surprised that I had enough faith left in a chunk of humanity that I’m capable of being this let down. I really expected 1) something like this not to have happened in the first place or 2) if it did, she’d at least try to rein in her defensiveness, listen, and genuinely apologize.

    I’m still hoping that a real apology will happen, but this whole situation is still so gross. And that digital blackface thing? What the actual fuck is wrong with people??

  7. Oh, Ani. I just don’t see how someone can justify this? Especially with the plantation website’s stupid descriptions of things. Like, were they trying to be ironic? Was Ani trying to be ironic? This all has to be some big joke. It’s just way too stupid. Oh, white people.

  8. I’m really glad you wrote this. I actually only own Ani albums because of the series of things you have written about her work and when I heard about this I was worried there wouldn’t be an opinion here because we’ve celebrated her before. I’m glad she cancelled this event and sad that she cannot or wouldn’t admit that maybe hosting an event on a plantation is clearly more offensive than any of her supporting arguments of terrible things we all support. I grew up in the South and there is a small plantation/estate near my hometown that we took a few field trips to when I was a child. This entire situation gave me the same sense of dread I felt clutching my lunchable while listening to the glorification of slave ownership.

  9. wow.

    This thanksgiving, my family visited Monticello. I was shaking my head as the tour guide went on about how Thomas Jefferson was against slavery though he owned hundreds of slaves. This woman claimed he had five children- not including those DNA evidence proved he had by his late wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings, a slave he inherited from his father-in-law. They jumped around everything related to slavery, because that would contradict the bs that he was this noble abolitionist. ugh.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!