Singer and beloved musician Ani DiFranco has cancelled an artists retreat at a historic plantation–a tourist site–Nottoway Plantation, in White Castle, LA; on the River Road. People are still angry, confused. She’s all about social justice, a feminist and GLBT community icon, someone who abhors racism and prejudice. She is taken aback by the outrage and the energy.
In Stacey Anderson’s piece in Rolling Stone, linked above:
DiFranco addressed her critics today by canceling the retreat, but she further irritated many by sounding more defensive than apologetic. “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,” she wrote on hersite, adding that she did not wish to relocate the retreat. “I imagined instead that 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.”
The musician acknowledged the pain of slavery and added that she’d planned to involve a group of underprivileged children, and she went on to further defend her choice of venue. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
Another flashpoint about race.
People respond–they get defensive. Stereotypes fly.
Another flashpoint about race, slavery and the fact that we are still under the shadow of America’s original sin, even on the verge of 2014. Toshi Reagon, an accomplished musician and singer, daughter of musician, scholar and activist Berniece Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock weighed in.
It is really hard work to speak to America’s past and her present. We are so far behind any dream of equality and no matter what year it is, America can’t seem to operate without slavery. When an issue becomes viral, folks look for quick lines and solutions. I have seen folks say, “well Toshi is there so it’s ok it’s on a plantation.” Many plantations are in operation today and I think all kinds of people work at them and go to them. I personally do not feel confortable being in venues called plantations. It does not mean I would not go but like I said before, they trigger me. So there is no “Toshi line” about going. If you say that you may be trying to imply that I think that plantations are cool. That is crazy. I am the first generation that did not pick cotton in my family on my mom’s side. All told, I wish I had been more aware of this gig. I would have spoken about it right away and there would be no way to go that place without being in dialogue with where I was. We all need to be in dialogue with where we are actually standing. Let’s look around. Shall we?
Let me start this by saying, Ani DiFranco is not going to be condemned here. I’m going to condemn and impugn all of us. Even me.
There is not one inch of American soil where historical atrocities and contemporary ones have not occurred. Some might say anywhere on the inhabited planet. Remember Parks and Recreation? The map of “Pawnee, Indiana” was more covered in atrocity space than peaceful space. That joke–and it was funny–because the truth is what really makes us laugh or cry–reminds us with sour tongue we often forget the ground on which we stand, and who stood on it before we knew ourselves to be its heir. How many folks have driven over the graves of women who lived and died for their husbands and children in the wilderness or frontier, of Native peoples, of Chinese laborers and enslaved people? The oppressed dead are many–and yet we lose their resting places every day.
We live in condos and developments named after historic plantations. From Maryland to Texas —you see it all the time. Quaint names that reflect a history–but a history that is hidden from us as we don’t think to ask who Mason or Clopper or Pinckney were—or why their name gets to be put up through the generations. We forget that not just the South-but the industrial and Ivy League North were culpable in the world of slavery and anti-Black racism. We forget–we dis-remember–we decline. The other day ago here in my home area, in Washington D.C., a stray bullet led to the defacing of the National African American Civil War Memorial on U Street. What does that say about our collective memory?
If I’m going to be pissed at anything–its that a bloody Australian billionaire who spends his money promoting causes antithetical to DiFranco’s core beliefs and core audience–gets to use the American dream to persist in the “symbolic annihilation” of our ancestors’ struggles and sacrifice. Do yourself a favor and read the book where I got that phrase, Representations of Slavery where scholars Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small profile plantations in Virginia, Georgia and Lousiana including Nottoway– the 365 windowed–Grandest Plantation Big House in the South—in their study of the plantation museum industry–yes it’s a thing–right up there with Battlefields and encampments–a hallmark of how Southerner’s recreate and reckon their past…our past. You will learn about how many plantation museums use all sorts of ideological weaponry in minimizing the story of the enslaved and their role and human stories. We are often told about “servants” (never the enslaved..) and the kind and benevolent slaveholder, much as referenced in the Rolling Stone piece. If you’re been following the Duck Dynasty debacle or read about it on here–you can see where the happy slave thing got us–it becomes commentary on social inequalities and race relations in inappropriate and offensive ways.
If you are angry at Ani DiFranco just for the plantation bit…sit down. Please. “Just sit down..Because I am about to lay some sh-t on ya,” as my grandmother was known to say when she wasn’t playing….Cut this plantation phobia out–especially people of color.
When I say this-I say this with love. “I don’t want to go to any plantation..” is an oft spoken phrase in the African American community. I’ve experienced it myself—I’ll give a talk and African American’s grimace, look uncomfortable and often walk away. I speak of dignity, accomplishment, social and culinary justice, of resistance and rebellion. Folks get upset, angry, they are unwilling to let other’s in on the emotional detritus left by the past. There is no better to get real on our rap on race. Get this straight right now–anybody–of any color or background—your DISCOMFORT with the issue–with the discussion–is NOWHERE NEAR THE DISCOMFORT, HUMILIATION, PAIN or MISERY faced by anyone living one minute in the institution of American chattel slavery. This culture we all benefit from–this economy–this technological and intellectual advancement–started on the proving grounds of American slavery–and the Southern plantation–is the crux.
Maybe not a Nottoway Plantation, which is owned by a creep and persists in having a museum culture that continues to nullify and obfuscate the real history–but another plantation may be a spot where Ani DiFranco’s real intentions might have been better made manifest. Maybe Toshi and Ani can go to a plantation museum or grounds that can accommodate the retreat and the setting CAN and SHOULD be a major part of the dialogue. This situation needs a reboot.Look at Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project. Look at my work and the work of Nicole Moore! Please have a long long long talk with Ser Seshs at the Forks of the Road! Going to the River Road–go the River Road African American Museum! We African American living historians of slavery believe that places of cultural and spiritual and creative and culinary memory must be acknowledged, explored, studied, and never forgotten, just as the ancestors whose spirits still stand there must never feel that they are the victims of willful amnesia.
Hear me now. The Southern Plantation has yet to be acknowledged as the birthplace for a community and a culture that has changed the world. Roots music, pop music, world music…started there. The plantation quarters, its fields, its brush harbor/hush harbor churches..the streets of Southern cities…Congo Square….America’s indigenous arts–jazz, blues, and all of their creative spawn was right there–way down South in Dixie. I celebrate the food that was created there–the grandness of the Southern and Creole/Cajun traditions and beyond–and how hands of color cooked their way to renown. Our aesthetics–our foodways–our music–our spirituality–our everything—owes a great deal to the civilization in chains–and Ani DiFranco–this African American culinary historian–this interpreter of enslaved people’s lives–salutes your intentions–and when you form that sacred circle–you can bet I want to be there with you–as you salute the ancestors and the generations waiting to be born who will live in the fertility of your footsteps.
But Ani…from this point forward seek the advice and counsel of your fellow artists and sisters and know their voices mattered and matter. This was a bad situation because the venue was tainted and those who felt the situation was tainted a while back felt their concerns and voices were not heard. The powers behind it, that Toshi so well addressed are not the kind your fan base expects you to have dealings with. At the same time it’s crucial to come to a collective understanding that the contemporary world will always have a deep root linked to this part of the Atlantic past. It will always be a tender spot, and healing it will have to come from all of us.