This weekend, news broke that longtime feminist musician Ani DiFranco was planning to hold a songwriting retreat at Nottoway Plantation, a ritzy plantation-turned-hotel in Louisiana. It’s clearly a bad idea to hold a “Righteous Retreat” on a former plantation and many writers online have taken the opportunity to discuss how the incident brings up big issues of race, privilege, and activism.
The drawback of a dynamic online conversation is that it can be difficult to follow a discussion as it takes place across Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. So here in one place are five takes on the plantation retreat.
First, Alexa of blog Think Speakstress sums up the anger that many people have clearly been feeling over this whole event. As she says:
Shame on them for thinking it’s acceptable to have a retreat on a fucking plantation and then being so hurt when Black women are angry. If you can’t figure out why having a retreat for all women—Black women included because yes, we are women—is a huge fucking problem, then you should at least be able to figure it out once we fucking tell you.
Over on her blog Gradient Lair, writer Trudy said the whole retreat idea and response was so predictable that the “offensive stunt” was boring. Many white feminists follow this depressing step-by-step process, she wrote:
1) Do/say racist stuff 2) claim feminism makes it ok 3) pretend cluelessness about last 400 years 4) White Tears™ 5) blame Black women/women of colour 6) career boost. And don’t let it be a celebrity who already has the career boost. Then their actions are defended to the death and if not there is such “heartbreak” involved in having to critique them.
On Sunday, DiFranco cancelled the retreat and wrote an apology that caused additional frustration for many fans. On her blog, Emi Koyama breaks down exactly what’s wrong with DiFranco’s apology. Koyama addresses a lot of points, including that if DiFranco really did believe that the “setting would become a participant” in the retreat and discussion of race, slavery, and history would be an integral part of the experience, then geez—this was not the way to go about creating a healthy dialogue. Koyama writes:
If this was her true intention, she should have been transparent about it in the original “invitation,” and also considered how the venue would be experienced entirely differently by participants who are white, Black, indigenous, or other people of color. I personally cannot imagine that a white person working solo is capable of arranging such an event, but that’s beside the point here. I am not really convinced that Ani had in fact intended to use the venue as a place to “heal the wounds of history,” but if she really did, she did the worst job imaginable of how one could go about doing that–and the issue is not (just) that she is a white person overstepping her boundary.
One problem with the apology is that it focused significantly on how DiFranco felt uncomfortable being under fire and her desire for everyone to calm down. Michelle Dean at Flavorwire pointed out how, yes, a small controversy can quickly flare into a huge, destructive ruckus. But this is a time where outrage is clearly justified—it should come as no surprise that thousands of people were outraged about the idea. The apology's focus should be on why the bad choice was made to begin with, not how DiFranco feels upset about being called out on it.
There were a lot of year-end reflections on the effects of social media issued last week — I wrote one of them myself — and one common theme seemed to be that the internet can drum up too much outrage. And of course it can. But, in my experience anyway, the kernel is usually a fair complaint, and that’s true here too. I can’t say I understand why the announcement of an event at a slave plantation would elicit, in someone of Ani’s long association with leftist causes, a mere “whoa.” I also think it’s a bit willfully naive to pretend that an ex-plantation doesn’t carry symbolic weight here, but defensiveness can make people take funny positions they’ll regret later. That part of the internet outrage equation — the ridiculous, reality-free lengths to which people will go to defend themselves when they feel “under siege” in some way — is less often talked about. But oh well.
Meanwhile, it appears that business at the Nottoway Plantation will continue as usual. Raking in $2.5 to $5 million a year, the Nottoway Plantation is a resort hotel owned by a company run by conservative healthcare mogul. Riese at Autostraddle digs into the larger problems with turning a site of horror into a vacation destination:
If you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of visiting Nottoway or other sites of exploitation and murder turned into tourist attractions, known academically as “dark tourism,” you’re perhaps familiar with the profound cognitive dissonance experienced at these sites. “Dark tourism” is defined as “travel to sites associated with death and tragedy,” such as battlefields, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Ground Zero and the Spirit Lake Internment Camp…. Plantations are not always considered part of “dark tourism,” but they should be. The horror of a concentration camp is clear-cut, but plantations actively obscure their darkness. Prisons and asylums are not, generally, beautiful buildings, whereas plantations are opulent and majestic by definition. Nobody wants to spend the night at Alcatraz, but Nottoway functions as a hotel and wedding venue. There are no memorial walls listing names of slaves beaten, killed or raped at Nottoway. Whereas sites of mass genocide are clearly advertised as such, plantations are relentlessly dishonest, designed and celebrated to bury a violent legacy. This is precisely what makes visiting these places so fucked up, and why a Righteous Retreat cannot take place there.
Other recommended reading: A satirical letter from Ani DiFranco on The Toast; more information on the finances and ownership of Nottoway Plantation on PQ Monthly; snapshots of the debate on the retreat's Facebook page on For Harriet; and more things that are not okay with DiFranco's "fauxpology."