The songwriter’s statement does little to assuage anger after canceling her artists’ retreat at a famous slave plantation.
The iconic feminist songwriter Ani DiFranco has elicited no small amount of outrage among her fans first with a songwriting retreat at the Nottoway plantation outside of New Orleans, and then with her tepid apology when she announced its cancellation. According to the website, Nottoway, now a resort, was once “home” to 155 slaves during the height of its “grandeur.” The website refers to the slaves of original plantation commissioner John Randolph as a “willing workforce,” and does its best to show how well they were treated by their owner, efficiently glossing over the fact that they were OWNED in the first place. So when the Righteous Babe and outspoken social critic DiFranco announced that her creative retreat would be held there, the Internet went berserk: The event’s Facebook page sparked an all-out war among commenters, some of whom presumably revealed unwitting levels of racism, including one white woman who created a fake profile to weigh in as a black woman. The profoundness of DiFranco’s unwitting error in judgment deepened when it was revealed that Nottoway is owned by the investment group of Paul Ramsey, an Australian billionaire who, according to PQ Monthly, “has given more than $1.8 million to the anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-immigrant Liberal party over the last fourteen years.” Instead of searching for a new venue, DiFranco has chosen to cancel the event, saying: “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.”
It’s rather astonishing that DiFranco, a longtime grassroots organizer and champion of social justice, would have considered—even fleetingly—using a plantation as an artistic retreat. But if we were to give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she believed she could reclaim Nottoway by populating the venue with songwriters from every cultural background who would create politically important work. “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 says with a seemingly uncharacteristic shrug. And that argument is exploded by the fact that the former plantation is owned by an organization that represents everything she has fought against for years. And why all of this apparently had to be brought to her attention at all is puzzling to say the least. That said: Does anyone honestly believe 43-year-old DiFranco has become a racist, anti-feminist neocon in her middle age? Seriously now.
Still, this controversy is only the latest in the highly inflammatory discussion of systemic racism within feminism (we saw it earlier this year with #solidarityisforwhitewomen), and as long as some of the most socially aware among us remain willfully blind about a plantation’s spin on slavery, we have quite a ways to go in educating even the most enlightened among us.
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