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Five Perspectives on Ani DiFranco's Planned Retreat at a Former Plantation

An ad for th righteous retreat

This weekend, news broke that longtime feminist musician Ani DiFranco was planning to hold a songwriting retreat at Nottoway Plantation, a ritzy plantation-turned-hotel in Louisiana.  It’s clearly a bad idea to hold a “Righteous Retreat” on a former plantation and many writers online have taken the opportunity to discuss how the incident brings up big issues of race, privilege, and activism.

The drawback of a dynamic online conversation is that it can be difficult to follow a discussion as it takes place across Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. So here in one place are five takes on the plantation retreat.

First, Alexa of blog Think Speakstress sums up the anger that many people have clearly been feeling over this whole event. As she says:

Shame on them for thinking it’s acceptable to have a retreat on a fucking plantation and then being so hurt when Black women are angry. If you can’t figure out why having a retreat for all women—Black women included because yes, we are women—is a huge fucking problem, then you should at least be able to figure it out once we fucking tell you.

Over on her blog Gradient Lair, writer Trudy said the whole retreat idea and response was so predictable that the “offensive stunt” was boring. Many white feminists follow this depressing step-by-step process, she wrote: 

1) Do/say racist stuff 2) claim feminism makes it ok 3) pretend cluelessness about last 400 years 4) White Tears™ 5) blame Black women/women of colour 6) career boost. And don’t let it be a celebrity who already has the career boost. Then their actions are defended to the death and if not there is such “heartbreak” involved in having to critique them.

On Sunday, DiFranco cancelled the retreat and wrote an apology that caused additional frustration for many fans. On her blog, Emi Koyama breaks down exactly what’s wrong with DiFranco’s apology. Koyama addresses a lot of points, including that if DiFranco really did believe that the “setting would become a participant” in the retreat and discussion of race, slavery, and history would be an integral part of the experience, then geez—this was not the way to go about creating a healthy dialogue. Koyama writes:

If this was her true intention, she should have been transparent about it in the original “invitation,” and also considered how the venue would be experienced entirely differently by participants who are white, Black, indigenous, or other people of color. I personally cannot imagine that a white person working solo is capable of arranging such an event, but that’s beside the point here. I am not really convinced that Ani had in fact intended to use the venue as a place to “heal the wounds of history,” but if she really did, she did the worst job imaginable of how one could go about doing that–and the issue is not (just) that she is a white person overstepping her boundary.

One problem with the apology is that it focused significantly on how DiFranco felt uncomfortable being under fire and her desire for everyone to calm down.  Michelle Dean at Flavorwire pointed out how, yes, a small controversy can quickly flare into a huge, destructive ruckus. But this is a time where outrage is clearly justified—it should come as no surprise that thousands of people were outraged about the idea. The apology's focus should be on why the bad choice was made to begin with, not how DiFranco feels upset about being called out on it.

There were a lot of year-end reflections on the effects of social media issued last week — I wrote one of them myself — and one common theme seemed to be that the internet can drum up too much outrage. And of course it can.  But, in my experience anyway, the kernel is usually a fair complaint, and that’s true here too. I can’t say I understand why the announcement of an event at a slave plantation would elicit, in someone of Ani’s long association with leftist causes, a mere “whoa.” I also think it’s a bit willfully naive to pretend that an ex-plantation doesn’t carry symbolic weight here, but defensiveness can make people take funny positions they’ll regret later. That part of the internet outrage equation — the ridiculous, reality-free lengths to which people will go to defend themselves when they feel “under siege” in some way — is less often talked about. But oh well.

Meanwhile, it appears that business at the Nottoway Plantation will continue as usual. Raking in $2.5 to $5 million a year, the Nottoway Plantation is a resort hotel owned by a company run by conservative healthcare mogul. Riese at Autostraddle digs into the larger problems with turning a site of horror into a vacation destination: 

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….  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.

Other recommended reading: A satirical letter from Ani DiFranco on The Toast; more information on the finances and ownership of Nottoway Plantation on PQ Monthly; snapshots of the debate on the retreat's Facebook page on For Harriet; and more things that are not okay with DiFranco's "fauxpology." 


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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

You mean...people care about

You mean...people care about Ani DiFranco?

I Guess We Will Never Know

The choice of a white artist to hold a retreat at the Nottoway Plantation (or any plantation for that matter) is highly problematic. I do not say that lightly. It is highly problematic, but it is her problem to figure out as a performer. It is her job to own that problematic history and truth in her white, female skin. It is an unbelievable challenge, but it was the challenge that she took on when she chose that location. Perhaps she would have produced an epic failure of social justice and history or perhaps she would have created a beautiful and brilliant experience that would have deeply changed those who participated or stood witness. Either way, we will never know because the projected expectations of what would occur dictated our emotional reactions and words. We are talking about a very intelligent artist whose entire career has been focused on bringing to light political discussions of social justice. I think it assumes a lot of prejudgements about her perspective and truth to assume she can not hold the space in a place of respect. Maybe I just trust her as an artist more than that. Perhaps she would have brought commentary to its current use as a hotel. Perhaps she would have involved other voices who feel directly connected to the space. We will never know because we decided beforehand that she was not capable of speaking her mind at a location of immense historical pain that has been bastardized by capitalism and tourism. It seems to me there would have been a lot she could have said- regardless of the color of her skin-that could have had a strong and truthful impact.

And that's fine in theory,

And that's fine in theory, but once she knew that the retreat was to take place at a plantation, there's a lot she could have done to address potential concerns head-on. Instead she seemed to just assume everyone would be okay with it, not even considering how painful it might be for black women to visit such a place, especially an offensively whitewashed one. People still probably would have been upset either way, but those defending her might've had a leg to stand on if she was being more transparent about her intentions. I don't blame activists of color for being distrustful of big-name white feminist celebrities, especially when they are quite apparently fucking up.

Yet there is no perspective

Yet there is no perspective here that supposes this whole thing was blown out of proportion, that good intention should have been assumed, that dialogue should win over battle.

I actually think Ani was spot on when she said this: "for myself, i believe that one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say "racism reached its depths of wrongness here" and then point to the other side of that line and say "but not here". i know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves"

Always looking for a fight instead of dialogue is why I am no longer sending any money to Bitch Magazine (and I was a regular reader and donor for over a decade, giving substantial amounts.) This isn't thoughtful reporting. It's fight-mongering. You will never create change with this kind of work. You will alienate only.

the saying 'the road to hell

the saying 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions' comes to mind here ...

Funny how in over a decade of

Funny how in over a decade of reading and donating "substantial amounts" you never noticed that you were writing checks to a magazine called "Bitch". Bitches fight for things worth fighting over.

thanks for this comment! it

thanks for this comment! it makes me hope that I can donate MORE to Bitch magazine in the future, because a magazine that's strong in its positions and willing to take sides for racial justice is exactly the kind of magazine that I want to support financially, and that I hope will be around for a long time to come.

and, just to put it out there, I'm confident that you're wrong. my generation of activists, readers, queers, and feminists is ready for an outspoken, social justice-minded publication like Bitch. we are creating change, we are confident in our values, and we are Bitch readers! you're the one who's out of touch.

I agree. It seems it's

I agree. It seems it's fashionable to do this. Nothing less than her taking a knife and cutting herself in public will satisfy the ones eager to hate.

I wholeheartedly agree with

I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments.

I went to a wedding in

I went to a wedding in Louisiana in one of these plantations, and the family was housed in another. Then we went out and visited a couple of the more grand ones in the area. It was sickening to think of the incredible wealth represented there and that it was built on the backs of slaves. I've never again wanted to visit these shrines to excess.

I really appreciate that this

I really appreciate that this post concisely collects several different perspectives on the debate.

From Ani's perspective, I can see how she may see herself as a legitimate victim. 1) It's unclear how much of the retreat she was personally responsible for organizing. She mentions that she was approached by a promoter and "agreed" to the retreat, not that it was her idea; she "found out" it was going to be at a plantation; etc. 2) It wouldn't surprise me, given other folks' experience of social justice cybermobs, if she had received numerous threats promising physical and sexual violence. I didn't see the event's facebook page or whatever, but keep in mind that she probably got a flood of private messages. 3) Achieving success as "the little guy"--by starting her own record label rather than signing a recording contract and generally running her business her own way, with as little corporate involvement as she can manage--probably also means that she doesn't see herself the same way the rest of the world does (that is, the face of a brand).

Furthermore, I disagree that Ani is owed the assumption of good intentions, but I do see some assumption that she had the worst possible intentions, which isn't fair either.

You know what else is unfair?

A WHITE WOMAN LEADING A SLEEPOVER ART PARTY AT SLAVE PLANTATION DISNEYLAND.

I don't understand why she didn't demand a venue change as soon as she figured out the truth of it. The cost of attendance was $1000-4000/person and not limited to cabin space (as the "cheap" tickets were for folks willing to camp on the lawn); she was going to earn a LOT of money for the venue and promoter; she absolutely should have been in a position of strength that would allow a venue change. If she wasn't, she should have cancelled the event without waiting for a cybermob to start hurling epithets.

You can't assume she waited for a cybermob

You are correct about the cybermob and, frankly, hate is hate and let's call it out. It's like DiFranco has never done any good in her life or taken any risks on behalf of her feminist and activism.

You can't assume she waited for the cybermob. She will probably be sued over the cancellation by somebody, however, in cancelling something like this you really need to contact all vendors and contracted talent and adhere to the notification clauses and penalty fees. You have to take meetings. You have to wait for people to return your call...during the holidays I might add. I agree, planning this at a plantation was stupid, but if you try to look up beautiful forresty places for retreat in that state, you're gonna mostly find real estate that was once plantations. She was ignorant, but she IS gonna pay.

The extra joy ride of writing blog entries hating on all white feminists is just a little freebie of joy some people seem to be taking and it's ugly. Seriously, is your brand all about hating white feminists? Seriously? Venom to a race is your thing?

DiFranco took a great hit professionally and financially and now we give her a public beating because, well, who doesn't like a chance to take a whack at a white feminist? I mean, first the men that hate feminists. Then if you are a white feminist you have to cut yourself publically and upon request act out shame and apology for existing in liberal forums who love the blood sport. It's a part of their brand of some bloggers, after all, to write hate about white feminists.

but is it fashionable?

I've read a lot of the commentary on this and it's ironic how people use it as an excuse to write hate about all white feminists. It's like all white feminists plan retreats on plantations and nothing less than tying her to the back of a pickup truck and dragging her will suffice.

Frankly she apologized and took a hit professionally and financially. And if you want to plan a retreat in that state in a green venue most places are on the grounds of a former plantation. It is a case of being tone deaf to an issue you'd recognize if you spent more time in the south and asked about the venues. I guess she shouldve stayed in nyc.

The opportunity to bash white feminists - the whole group for the act of one is like seeing a crime committed by a black person and saying that's how they all are.

Like someone else said today if you use the term white feminist with a sneer what do you do? Do you turn to look at the white feminist beside you and say "oh but not you...you're one of the good ones..."

I just want to thank-you for

I just want to thank-you for this post and say that I would have cancelled my B-Hive membership had you defended Ani's actions in this situation. As a white, queer, disabled feminist, it makes me sick to see other white feminists defending her in the above comments. This isn't about someone's hurt feelings, this is about standing up to someone who is capitalizing on a place built upon the brutal oppression of people of color.