Over the holidays. Musician Ani Di Franco had scheduled her Righteous Retreat to teach up and coming musicians at a…wait for it….slave plantation in Louisiana. Boom goes the dynamite.
The reaction in the online feminist community was swift. Ani DiFranco was an important musician in the lives of many feminists who expressed disbelief at having to critique their own role model that for so long seemed above reproach, while others like myself who were not listeners/fans of her music but were still aware of her significance in the feminist movement in the last 20 years were just stunned and angry. Ani DiFranco is not just like a pop culture star who decided to finally call herself a feminist, but a woman who BUILT her career on feminism. DiFranco started her own record label entitled “Righteous Babes” that gave her as a woman more creative control over her music (still rare in the music industry), writing music about the trials of girlhood, womanhood, figuring out sexual orientation, even speaking to racial injustice in her music. Ani even developed her own foundation that specifically gave money to a whole host of feminist causes and hosted benefit concerts. So why would Ani DiFranco (of all people) have a feminist music retreat at a place that formerly enslaved people, and not one that was a plantation once upon a time one that became a hotel, but a plantation turned into a museum that provided daily tours and tales of the generous life the masters provided their slaves.
Exhibit A: “Considering his slaves to be valuable tools in the operation of his business, Randolph provided the necessary care to keep them in good health. He understood the importance of hygiene in controlling the spread of illnesses and disease, so he provided a bathhouse where slaves could bathe daily if they wished. He also had a slave hospital; he paid a local physician to make weekly visits and trained one of the slaves as a nurse to care for his slaves. “
The peculiar institution of American slavery is well known for its stories of abuse, torture, and rape to silence and intimidate black men and women into their places in antebellum Southern society. It’s an institution for a while that was white washed (much like Nottoway Plantation) in such mega films hits like Gone With the Wind or Birth of a Nation, that justify the horrors of slavery by portraying “happy” slaves with benevolent masters. What made Ani’s decision even worse was that one blogger uncovered it was owned by an Australian conservative who use some of its profits to fund anti-abortion and anti-gay causes in Australia.
Feminism, especially amongst Gen Xer and Millenial Feminists who voiced vocal discontent is not only about the social, political, and economic equality of white women, but ALL women. As feminists, we also fight for social justice, (some even learned it from Ani’s music and work) and for Ani DiFranco to hold a retreat at a place that showcased the worst of injustice was a mortal offense.
That Ani Di Franco supporters of the retreat were piping up in her defense on facebook did not make matters any better. Some tried to persuade black women and angry allies that all was needed was to “reclaim” the venue and when on DiFranco supporter didn’t get their way impersonated a black women on social media to make the case for Ani’s plantation retreat.
Don’t get me wrong, as a young black woman who grew up just outside the former Capital of the Confederacy (Richmond, Virginia), I understand much about the need to not be trapped by history. But unlike, finding out your house was once upon a time a plantation or that your dormitory for school may or may not be on the graveyard of slaves (who knows, because since slaves were considered chattel no one tracked it precisely), Ani and her colleagues were having an event that made it’s fortune being a reminder of the antebellum period, except this reminder wasn’t even an “in your face” type of museum to make you realize the true history of the place but a whitewash that could make you forget in reality what it had been.
When DiFranco finally did respond,I was (as were many) profoundly disappointed in the response. While she conceded that she would cancel, it was a longer defensive note that chided those for chiding her about her decision to hold it at plantation, because as Ani DiFranco, she knew about social justice and history. “I know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves. i know that in new orleans, the city i live in, most buildings have slave quarters out back, and to not use any buildings that speak to our country’s history of slavery would necessitate moving far far away.” DiFranco goes on to express frustration about the anger vented toward her “i bet there are a lot of rich white dudes with conservative political leanings on the list. is it possible to separate the positive from the negative people in this world? will those lines be clear and discernible with enough research? is it my job to do this for every gig?” And she bemoans what she could have done had she been able to hold the retreat. In short, the Ani DiFranco apology went over with many like me like a lead balloon.
Ani was caught in a defensive lecturing mode. A place, I’m sure many of us may have found ourselves at some point, it being a natural human response. But, whether you’re a white feminist, learning about communities of color, or an abled woman of color feminist learning more about what it means to live life with a disability, we must learn “cultural humility”. We must as feminists know everyone’s experience and thoughts are important, and not to be mocked. When feminist activist Mikki Kendall, started the very successful hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen she meant to call attention to the fact that women of color have felt marginalized in a movement in in which their collective histories should made them feel a part of, but didn’t. When Ani Di Franco and her supporters tried to defend the Righteous Retreat location at a plantation, it was that feeling felt all over again.
Clearly the frustrated social media responses to the 1st apology were felt because DiFranco had a day or two to think about it because her 2nd apology, apologized for the first apology and not truly understanding what people felt.
“it is obvious to me now that you were right; all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents.”
I was (like many others) happy for that, because what Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Retreat disaster can serve is as a teachable moment for all feminists. That we can always do better and be better or as one fellow activist eloquently put it:
“Feminism is not a credential. It is an action that needs to be continuously improved upon and lived”.
Photo Credit Eric Jensen via Righteous Babe