Singer songwriter Ani DiFranco, who is known for her staunchly anti-sexist and anti-racist lyrics, has decided to cancel a feminist songwriting retreat that was going to be held on a Louisiana plantation.
The event, dubbed the Righteous Retreat, was slated for the summer of 2014 at Nottoway Plantation, a sprawling estate nestled in between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. DiFranco’s decision to host a feminist “retreat” on a plantation further reinforced the idea that feminism is exclusively for white women.
Feminists of all races quickly took to social media to voice their displeasure. A heated debate ensued on the event’s Facebook page. The page has since been deleted, but not before a few screenshots were taken.
— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) December 29, 2013
Architectural appreciation over historical acknowledgment
The event’s official page and the Nottoway Plantation website, both gushed about the architecture and landscape of the estate. The plantation’s website boasts about the “stunning and truly awe-inspiring Greek and Italianate style White Castle… Completed in 1859, Nottoway’s 53,000 square foot palatial white mansion awes visitors with its 64 rooms and countless extravagant features like 22 massive exterior columns, 12 hand-carved Italian marble fireplaces, exquisitely detailed plaster frieze moldings, soaring 15½-foot ceilings, enormous 11-foot doors and a lavish pure[-]white oval ballroom.”
It is in fact an impressive structure and if this were a luxury resort of another type, it would sound downright lovely. However, this particular “White Castle” was built with and sustained by slave labor. Hundreds of slaves worked that land. The 1860 census alone notes 155 slaves on the site, far more than the average slave owner at that time.
So, when I see the delicate water features on the property and the nearby swamp, I wonder how many enslaved women drowned their newborn babies in those waters, choosing death over a life as property. When I see those handsome trees that shade the sprawling estate, I wonder how many black bodies swung from them. How many black people were tied to those trees and whipped? How many female slaves were raped under the shaded cool of those trees? When I see the intricate detailing on the 15 ½-foot ceilings, I wonder about the black hands that painstakingly cleaned them and how those same hands had higher and better uses in life.
A “kind” master
Unlike the Righteous Retreat website, the Nottaway website does at least talk about slavery. However, the information provided about how the owner of Nottaway, John Randolph, treated his slaves, paints a picture that slavery wasn’t that bad. Here are a few choice excerpts:
“Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive.”
On New Year’s Day, “the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.”
“It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the phrase “willing workforce” used in reference to slaves. And don’t you need to have a salary in order to get a “bonus?” What exactly does it mean to be a slave who was “treated well for the time?” So many questions, not one good answer.
Statement from DiFranco
The issues with holding a feminist retreat at a plantation are obvious and numerous, as stated above. Despite being deluged with tweets and Facebook comments, DiFranco and her team took a few days to issue a statement about the controversy.
DiFranco’s statement is not so much an apology as it is defensive whining. In part it reads [sic]:
“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. 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. i have heard the feedback that it is not my place to go to former plantations and initiate such a dialogue. ”
She goes on [sic]:
i obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain. i believe that your energy and your questioning are needed in this world. 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. i entreat you to refocus your concerns and comments on this matter with positive energy and allow us now to work together towards common ground and healing.
DiFranco prattles on about how many buildings in the South were built with slave labor and how we all contribute to modern day slavery in the form of sweatshops by patronizing these huge international corporations. She also is upset that people took issue with her because the current owner of the plantation is a major donor to anti-gay and anti-abortion causes in Australia. She says it was all one big oversight. It’s a long-winded statement that makes it clear that DiFranco was mostly just insulted that people had the nerve to question her poor choice of location. Not much in her statement suggest that she is being truly open to hearing constructive, albeit passionate, criticism.
Exclusively White Feminism is Not Feminism
I’ve visited plantations in Louisiana as well as a “slave castle” in Ghana. It’s important to remember these places and I am very much in favor of maintaining such properties and keeping their historical legacies in perspective. However, holding a so-called feminist retreat at a place where countless enslaved black women were violated for years is unacceptable. On top of that, DiFranco’s website didn’t even acknowledge the ugly part of the estate’s history and even more mind blowing is that fact that DiFranco is mostly known for her anti-sexist and anti-racist beliefs.
You can’t call yourself a feminist if you’re really only for obtaining equal rights for white women or if you don’t even think about how different scenarios will impact women of color. Feminism is for all women. Allegedly. If you only have lip service for women of color, then you’re not a feminist, you’re an advocate for white women’s rights. Call yourself that. It’s a bit clunky, but it’s more accurate.