30 December 13

Open Letter to Ani Difranco

About a week ago Ani Difranco announced that she was going to be leading a retreat at Nottoway Plantation about an hour outside of New Orleans. This retreat would let a select group of attendees receive one-on-one attention from Ani and several other musicians who she has played with and helped get published for years to help them become better song writers. On Saturday, many feminists online began criticizing her decision to have a retreat on a plantation. On Sunday, Ani published a reply to her critics and announced that she was cancelling the retreat. As a vocal anti-racist, feminist, and anti-corporate activist since at least 1990 when she released her self-titled album Ani Difranco, her decision to have a retreat on a plantation was a surprise to many. And her cancellation announcement was a disappointment to many.

Andrew introduced me to Ani in 1996 and to say her words changed my brain, touched my soul, and inspired me to be better would be an understatement. She, her words, her business model, her focus affected me. She got me to critique many things I hadn’t thought about. Her business model affected how I run my own small business and it certainly helped effect how I thought about organizing a craft show for 10 years. I adore Ani, her work, her words, her influence. I had the chance to meet her briefly in 2004 when we saw her at a hotel lobby and I was so nervous that I couldn’t even say hello. So my dear friend and constant encourager Veronica said hello and thanked her for me. I’m still grateful for that.

However, today I’m saddened. A woman whose wise and challenging words have had such an effect on me, let me down. I still adore her. I still love her music and the effect she has had on me. But I hoped for more. And because I’m reeling, my thoughts are all over the board and unfocused and I hope that listing a few bullet points will help me process into something cohesive.

Some basic facts and my thoughts:
• Ani didn’t organize the retreat. A company approached her to do a retreat at an unnamed location just outside of New Orleans. She knew others who had used the organizer and liked the idea of spending the nights in her own bed. This makes sense. Organizing events like this is a lot of coordination and it is easier to have a company with established resources do it for you than to try and do it for yourself. And since Ani still has a young child, I can’t blame her for wanting to spend time in her own bed and see her child each day.

• Ani has spoken out for more than 20 years about how corporate profits and racism and sexism have had lingering effects on American culture and we need to challenge and think critically. I don’t doubt for a second that Ani trusted the organizer, whether that is because she trusted other people who had worked with them, or because she knows the organizers personally, I’m not sure. She says that when she realized that the conference was on a plantation she said “whoa”. I’m not sure what pushed her from being skeptical of the location to agreeing to have continue on with the retreat. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she tried to challenge for a location move and the organizer had her tied to a contract and she took the easier route. But that is an assumption based on my adoration of her, and not based in fact. I strongly feel that as soon as Ani found out the retreat was on a plantation she should have at least done some investigation to find out how the current plantation owners portrayed the history of the plantation, and the history of slavery in general. Why? Because if you’re going to ask women, many of whom are descendants of slaves, to return to a plantation and pay for the privilege of sleeping on ground previously slept-on by slaves or sleep in rooms previously slept in by slave-owners, you better know that the plantation is working to present the crimes of the past in an honest and healing manner.

• The Nottoway Plantation is the largest antebellum plantation in the country, and one of the largest plantations in South when it was active. It had 155 slaves and 42 slave cottages. None of them are still standing, but it is assumed that they were 2-room shacks. It was a sugar plantation built in 1859. The history page on the website seems to smooth over the treatment of slaves and says that slaves were paid a cash bonus based on their output. Each field slave was expected ot produce 270 gallons of dried sugar during harvest. Of all the different types of plantations, sugar plantations were the worst. The work was the hardest, most dangerous type of work. There is no down-time on a sugar plantation. In order to make a profit, there had to be a huge swath of land planted with sugar cane. The cane was planted in February and manually tended daily until October to January when the harvest would happen. Because the harvest often required 14-18 hour days to get done on time, it was common for all sugar plantations to pay cash to the slaves during this time. It wasn’t uncommon for as many as 10% of the slaves to be injured or killed during harvest. Most injuries were caused by the sharp scythes used to cut the cane or being injured on the machinery that the cane was fed into. Because of the high risk of injury, and because of the unending physical labor required by the work, slaves were encouraged to save the money they earned so they could buy their freedom when they were a little older and less valuable.

• Ani’s statement doesn’t contain any of these words: apology, apologize, regret, or sorry. That makes this not an apology. Just a cancellation announcement and her sharing her thoughts. And sadly the tone of her statement seems to be that she is more upset that she’s being challenged than it is that she understands why the anger existed and that she takes ownership of being the source of that anger. For a woman who encourages us all to “dig deeper” and who says “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, or you don’t care,” this seems out of character. And this leaves her critics to ask “Are you stupid? Or do you just not care?” And for a woman who has made a career, a business, a support system for other musicians, based on not being stupid and caring till it hurt, this response is erratic. The tone of her statement scolds people for being angry and attacking her for having the retreat there. And her gut told her it was wrong, but she proceeded anyway.

The family who built the plantation hasn’t owned it since 1889. It is now owned by a Australian billionaire who supports many conservative causes. Considering how Ani didn’t want to sign a standard record deal at the age of 20 because she didn’t like limits being placed on her creativity, because she didn’t like her hard work resulting in profits for large companies that she didn’t support, second-guessing this location seems obvious to me. I’m curious what caused her to not second-guess this location, to not do further research into the owners.

What do I think she should have said?

i have heard you: all who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway Pantation. i have decided to cancel the retreat. I am sorry I gave approval to have a retreat focused on creativity at a location that glamorizes plantation life and slavery. Thank you for sharing how hurtful this action was and I will share more later.
(The bold are her words. See, she started to get it right.)

Why is it wrong to have a retreat on a plantation?
Having a white woman make money on the site of some horrible atrocities against Africans and then African-Americans is a bad idea. Having an expensive (to many, not all) retreat based on creativity appear on the ground where people died brutally and had no rights ignores the history of the land.

So can nothing be held on a plantation? Like Ani says, pretty much everything south of the Mason-Dixon line, and many things to the north of it, were built by slaves. And no matter where in the US you’re talking about, white people stole the land from others anyway. Does that mean she/we should avoid ever doing any events in the South?
It’s hard, if not impossible to find a stain-free location in this country to host something where no one was treated unfairly, killed undeservedly, or taken advantage of. However, having a vocal anti-racist, feminist, activist be the figurehead for an event on any plantation that isn’t run to promote anti-racist and feminist work is problematic on its face. And even though the original ruling family isn’t earning the profits, the location does seem to either minimize the effects of slavery on the slaves while glamorizing the life and the family who owned and ran it. Ani is right that there are many locations in New Orleans that have slave quarters and now rented out as apartments or hotels or used as guest houses. And I don’t think they should be torn down and have something new rebuilt in their place. But their presence shouldn’t keep us from criticizing her choice to be the figurehead for a retreat on a slavery plantation. I did a short google search to see if there was another location just outside of New Orleans that would have been large enough to host an event of this size that is run with the intention of providing a more accurate history related to slavery and I couldn’t find one. My hope is that one exists, but it is possible that this was the only location within a short driving distance that provided the amenities and had room to host the number of people expected. So, I’m not sure where else she should have had the retreat. And, I’m honestly not sure what should be hosted on a plantation. But, if your even the slightest bit curious what it would be like for a black American to work on a plantation now while interacting with the public, then you have to watch the Ask a Slave. It is hilarious and sad at the same time. More items like this are needed to help us create the healing and understanding. I hope that plantations don’t always gloss over the hard parts of our history to make it easier for white people to ignore the truth. It is very likely that the great-great-grandparents of myself and anyone reading this post were affected directly by slavery in some way, even if they weren’t a slave or directly owned a slave.

What are your expectations of Ani now?
I would like her to apologize. Succinctly accept that she made a mistake, apologize for making that mistake and for deflecting the understandable anger in this statement. I would hope that the organizer is able to present a better location for the retreat so everyone interested (and able to afford to go) can get the experience they were hoping for. I would love to see her explain, likely more eloquently than I, how to accept the history of our country while honoring the positive and hopeful and peaceful changes in the world that she has strived for with her music. I would like to see her answer some of the direct questions that her fans and women of color have asked her. I would like to see her lead a conversation that explains to all of her fans why it was problematic for her to agree to have a retreat on a plantation, especially to the many out there who didn’t see what was wrong with it.

I would like her to

Dig deeper, dig deeper this time
Down beneath the impossible pain of our history
Beneath unknown bones

and let us all dig with her.

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