It seems unthinkable that singer and songwriter Ani DiFranco, a fiercely independent artist who has spent her career giving voice to the voiceless and speaking truth to power, would end up being called a racially insensitive entertainer.
And yet that is what has happened over the course of the past several days, in the wake of DiFranco’s aborted plan to hold her “Righteous Retreat in the Big Easy” on the grounds of a former plantation in Louisiana.
Last week, DiFranco posted on Facebook that her songwriting and socio-political discourse workshop would take place in June at the “historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort” in White Castle, a short distance from New Orleans, where Western New York native DiFranco now lives.
By Sunday, comments on Facebook, blog posts, and statements from other artists slated to take part in the retreat led DiFranco to cancel the event.
“I have heard you: All who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway plantation,” DiFranco wrote on RighteousBabe.com. “I have decided to cancel the retreat.”
In her statement, DiFranco cited her desire to encourage discourse on the shared American history that imbues such a site, but also conceded that she “did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high-velocity bitterness.” Rather, she imagined “the setting would become a participant in the event. 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.”
DiFranco, who this month announced plans to performer May 2 at her Buffalo home – Asbury Hall at Babeville – has said nothing else publicly about the controversy.
But plenty of other people have weighed in. Sara Starr, writing on Change.org, issued a petition to have the event canceled. She said DiFranco’s scheduling of the event at Nottoway “is insulting to black feminists and black queer individuals and is a very blatant display of racism on her part.” Starr went on to blast DiFranco for what she called “racist and oppressive gestures, not to mention the obvious exclusion of/disregard for her black fans.”
DiFranco’s two decades of recordings, her charitable work, her activism and her investment of her own money in her economically troubled hometown suggest otherwise. But that doesn’t get DiFranco off the hook; she made that plain in her cancellation post, in which she noted that the plans for the retreat were in motion prior to the selection of a venue.
Interestingly, great portions of this country boast buildings erected on the sites of genocide. It would be difficult to find a venue on this continent that is not the site or near the site of a racially motivated travesty. The problem with Nottaway is the fact that the “venue” is still known as a Plantation. In fact, Nottoway’s website largely ignores its history while touting it as “a stunning historic plantation that lies between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana,” going on to boast of a “dramatic, multi-million-dollar renovation [that] has restored this historic plantation to her days of glory as well as adding luxury resort amenities and corporate and social event venues.”
Insensitive? Undoubtedly. But these are not DiFranco’s words, though they have been attributed to her over the past several days. It is surprising that no one from the DiFranco camp – or indeed, no one from the office of the promoter responsible for booking the venue – saw any of this as a red flag. Then again, it’s entirely possible that DiFranco never even saw these words on the Nottoway site until it was too late.
Maybe the larger point isn’t that DiFranco’s name has been associated with a racially insensitive landmark that has strong and inescapable ties to slavery. But, as she has pointed out, our country has yet to come to terms with its own history. Moving the planned “Righteous Retreat” a few miles down the road would not magically undo the very fact of slavery, or the racism that has endured to varying degrees ever since. There is, in fact, nowhere to go to escape that history.
DiFranco’s post, in a section that has been largely overlooked in the media over the past several days, suggests the deeper issues at work here.
“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. I know that in New Orleans, the city I live in, most buildings have slave quarters out back, and to not use any buildings that speak to our country’s history of slavery would necessitate moving far, far away. I know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of its 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 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.”