I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve listened to some Ani DiFranco music back when I was going through my patchouli and incense phase. But this weekend, DiFranco has rubbed plenty of black feminists the wrong way with her “feminist” songwriting camp, Righteous Retreat, that was being held on Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, La. For a little over $1,000 you could sit in a circle with other feminists, burn incense and learn to write songs, on a former plantation.
Yes, you read correctly, a former plantation. Also, “feminist” songwriting camp, because apparently feminists write songs differently.
Here’s something else I’ll admit to. I’ve visited the plantation for a wedding several years ago. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why two black people would pick a former plantation as a venue for a wedding. What’s even more disturbing about Nottoway Plantation is the fact that they make slavery sound so awesome on their website:
Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.
It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.
So either DiFranco didn’t expect too many black women to attend this retreat, or really didn’t think holding a feminist event on a plantation wasn’t a big deal.
Well she was wrong.
Black women feminists and their allies put DiFranco on blast all weekend. The retreat’s event page, which has now been deleted, had some harsh words from DiFranco’s critics. Everyone wanted to know why she was taking so long to respond to her critics, since the uproar started on Friday. “I feel sorry for not only Ani, but all the women who look up to her and think of her as a leader or pioneer in feminism,” wrote Ayana Ivery on the retreat’s Facebook wall. “I feel sick,” added commenter Sandra Karlsson. “And [ashamed] of white women claiming to stand up for equal rights but [still] hold on to their white supremacy and ignorance. If this was on Europe it would be similar to holding the event on the sites of the Holocaust. What an immense disrespect!”
After a massive public outcry, DiFranco announced Sunday that she was cancelling the event, with a quite lengthy unapologetic and victim blaming apology. DiFranco even acknowledged learning that the venue was a plantation beforehand, but she said she just thought “whoa”:
later, when i found out it was to be held at a resort on a former plantation, I thought to myself, “whoa”, but i did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.
DiFranco also doesn’t seem to be too happy that people are being so divisive and they’re ruined her patchouli and banjo party:
let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled. i obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain. i believe that your energy and your questioning are needed in this world. i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain. i cancel the retreat now because i wish to restore peace and respectful discourse between people as quickly as possible.
again, maybe we should indeed have drawn a line in this case and said nottoway plantation is not a good place to go; maybe we should have vetted the place more thoroughly. but should hatred be spit at me over that mistake?
i also planned to take the whole group on a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans. Roots of Music is located at the Cabildo, a building in the French Quarter which was the seat of the former slaveholder government where all the laws of the slave state were first written and enacted. i believe that the existence of Roots of Music in this building is transcendent and it would have been a very inspiring place to visit. i also believe that Roots could have gained a few new supporters. in short, i think many positive and life-affirming connections would have been made at this conference, in its all of its complexity of design.
i do not wish to reinvent the righteous retreat at this point to eliminate the stay at the Nottoway Plantation. at this point I wish only to cancel.
DiFranco doesn’t like divisiveness or starting sentences with capital letters. None of this would have happened if instead of thinking “whoa”, she would have found another venue.