Feminist icon Ani DiFranco's "Righteous Retreat" seemed like a good idea: for just over $1,000, fans could spend four days hanging out with DiFranco and learning how to "develop one's singular creativity" through various workshops held in a "captivating setting."
Unfortunately, it turned out that that "captivating setting" used to be one of the largest plantations in the South, with hundreds of slaves working its fields. But don't worry! According to Nottoway Plantation's version of its history, life was awesome for them:
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. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, 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.
Nottoway is now owned by the Paul Ramsay Group. Ramsay is an Australian billionaire who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to right wing political campaigns in his country.
For some reason, DiFranco's fans weren't all that comfortable spending time in a place that was built by slaves and giving their money to a man who sponsors conservative causes.
After a great deal of outcry, DiFranco decided to cancel the event. Her long blog entry offers up a variety of excuses and justifications but little by way of an apology. She claims she was not initially aware of where the retreat would be held other than that it would be close to New Orleans. When she figured out that it would be on a plantation, she thought that merited a mere "whoa," nothing more:
later, 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.
Speaking of "high velocity bitterness," DiFranco doesn't seem too happy that other people's "divisive words" have ruined her party:
let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled. 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.
again, maybe we should indeed have drawn a line in this case and said nottoway plantation is not a good place to go; maybe we should have vetted the place more thoroughly. but should hatred be spit at me over that mistake?
i also planned to take the whole group on a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans. Roots of Music is located at the Cabildo, a building in the French Quarter which was the seat of the former slaveholder government where all the laws of the slave state were first written and enacted. i believe that the existence of Roots of Music in this building is transcendent and it would have been a very inspiring place to visit. i also believe that Roots could have gained a few new supporters. in short, i think many positive and life-affirming connections would have been made at this conference, in its all of its complexity of design.
i do not wish to reinvent the righteous retreat at this point to eliminate the stay at the Nottoway Plantation. at this point I wish only to cancel.
So now, because everyone got mad at DiFranco for seeming sympathetic to or supportive of former slave plantations, those underprivileged kids will suffer. That's not DiFranco's fault for planning an event in a place that her intended audience would find abhorrent and then refusing to apologize when it did. It's everyone else's fault for not being cool about it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.