Posted on January 2, 2014

Outrage over Ani DiFranco’s Planned Retreat at a Former Slave Plantation Isn’t Just the Internet Overreacting

Mikki Kendall, Guardian (London), December 31, 2013

The outrage over singer Ani DiFranco’s planned Righteous Retreat at a former slave plantation in the American south isn’t just another case of the internet overreacting.

As the stories start to proliferate across the web about the cancellation of the retreat (which would have taken place at the Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana), the reasons so many found it offensive have been obscured.

Let me explain: legalized chattel slavery ended in the United States on 19 June 1865, and in many ways the people involved are an abstract idea to much of America. Nottoway plantation’s desire to present John Hampden Randolph as a benevolent slave owner by highlighting a few things, and obscuring others (note that the website says nothing about punishments, the selling of those enslaved away from their loved ones, or about the lower than average life expectancy of those enslaved on sugar plantations) makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. It is much easier to enjoy plantation-based resorts if you ignore the horrors that took place there in the not so distant past. However, the romanticizing of this history comes at a high price.

It’s easy to say that people are being too sensitive and assume that this is an overreaction. It’s true, many freed slaves remained on the land where they had lived all their lives. Some may, in fact, have felt some sense of loyalty to their former owners, but it is more likely that for those hoping to find family members that had been sold away, or those with family nearby there were other reasons to stay in the area.

With limited resources and no knowledge of the world beyond the plantation, they likely felt they had no choice but to make the best of their situation. After all, leaving carried many risks, ranging from starvation, to imprisonment under the Black Codes that would later become Jim Crow laws, to death by lynching. For the descendants of slaves, this history is not necessarily remote. Many of us grow up with a knowledge of that family history, and to see it merchandised in this way–dressed up as a lovely conference center and wedding destination–is deeply painful.

America is a country that prides itself on personal freedom and the rights of the individual. So yes, Ani DiFranco and her supporters are absolutely correct that she has the right to hold her event at any facility willing to host it. But, freedom to choose is not freedom from reaction. DiFranco’s detractors and disappointed fans exercised their right not to support the event. After all, as an activist and an artist DiFranco has often spoken out against racism, so there was a legitimate expectation that she would not book an event at such a problematic location.

As fans reached out to her on social media, Ani’s silence and the less than helpful reactions of her most ardent fans and fellow performers helped drive the initial disappointment and anger to outrage. Whatever DiFranco’s initial intentions might have been, it is clear at this point that the impact of Righteous Retreat was not going to be a positive one.

Impact is often the place where the efforts of the well meaning privileged can collide with the needs of the marginalized. Cliched as it might be to say, the road to hell is indeed paved with the good intentions of those who did not consider potential consequences.

DiFranco’s cancellation announcement makes much of the idea that this was all a mistake, with no indication of remorse. What can be righteous about a retreat that didn’t indicate any intention to address the painful history of slavery on this plantation? At least not until after the backlash had begun? When a retreat starts at $1,099, who is it intended to benefit? What is the best way to start a conversation about history this ugly, and who is qualified to start it? DiFranco didn’t ask these questions, possibly no one involved did, but they should have been asked before the announcement was made, and certainly should have been part of the thought process once the backlash began.

I have no idea what Ani DiFranco was thinking, but I hope this will be a learning experience for her (and perhaps other entertainers) to check where they are holding their events and the message–intended or not–that it’s sending.

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco