Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Retreat: I thought it was a joke from The Onion

I never thought of a plantation as a place to party, not even when I lived in South Carolina. Never took a plantation tour or attended a plantation wedding (people really do this!) because it just seemed weird. I had to drive past the Confederate flag twice a day on the way to work and back as it waved merrily above the State House in Columbia, and that freaked me out enough. I’m, like, from Arizona. I didn’t understand a lot of things out there, like cheese grits or wearing pantyhose to work or “Sugar Pig” as a term of endearment.

I was just there for a job. And, no matter how long you live in the South, if you weren’t born there? You’re a visitor.

Southerners avoid discussing the region’s racial history with outsiders, but I did manage to meet a few pro-Confederate Flaggers who had a one-sided romance with “history” and “tradition.” Their position was, the flag didn’t necessarily support the institution of slavery but merely recalled a gracious bygone era and states’ rights. (My position was, this position was disingenuous).

And I met liberal Southerners of all races who thought nothing of attending events held at plantations (they’re listed in historic registers all over the South, where the word “plantation” isn’t loaded in the same way as everywhere else) but who HATED the flag.

Sometimes there’d be protests outside the State House, and at one of them I saw a Black woman holding a sign that said, “Your Heritage Is My Slavery.” This, I thought, was sufficient reason to take the flag down. Common sense! As George Costanza said, We’re living in a society here. We’re trying to rub along together in 21st century America with all its attendant unrest and trouble; why give unnecessary insult? Why be weird? That flag is weird! Plantations are weird! I still think this.

So. I’m not the Ani fan I was 10 or 15 years ago – her last few albums were music to wear hemp sweaters to – but I connected with her work so deeply, and for so long, that the Nottoway Plantation retreat shitstorm is a big sad ugh. I recall with unalloyed pleasure my first girl-kisses with Up Up Up Up Up Up on repeat during a foggy September night; the scent of patchouli lingering on my mouth-friend (a girl who’d marked Ani’s 30th birthday on her wall calendar) and I still play “Living in Clip” real loud when I clean the house, but the magic is mostly memory for me.

If you knew that magic, you remember: Ani was singing about you, for you. She was plucking out, with duct-taped press-on nails, the rhythms of your life. You knew the B-sides; you hung the posters; you cried on your ex-girlfriend during “Both Hands” (yeah, ex-gf came to the show with you) and took fuzzy photographs from the second row. You wished you were her guitar-changer.

We didn’t have an Internet to tell us we weren’t alone.

But I’m not 23 anymore, and Ani is worth 10 million dollars. She’s an empire who no longer personally watches over every aspect of her business; otherwise RBR wouldn’t have participated in an event at a place that whitewashes slavery (an institution known for sexual violence against women; something history books gloss over) and funnels money to right-wingers. Her fan base is liberal  and progressive; sensitive to hypocrisy of any kind, and they’re quoting her own lyrics back at her (They were digging a foundation in Manhattan/and they found a slave cemetery there…)

Her no-caps response to the escalating pile-on – much of it misogynistic, abusive and demonizing in ways unique to anonymous social media – reads badly. Whether her PR people were simply unprepared for this kind of disaster and gave her bad advice, or if they gave her good advice (apologize quickly, clearly, unequivocally, and briefly) to many it reads like an oblivious elitist didn’t hear a word they said – and for them, that negates 25 years of activism.

I don’t know if it’s my place to say they’re wrong, or to opine how a plantation site should be “reclaimed,” because I’m not Black. (It was former inmates who decided Auschwitz should be a made into a museum, you know?)

Reading non-Black opinions re: Nottoway plantation (excepting Tim Wise’s piece) reminds me of my feelings when non-teachers share vehement opinions re: education politics and classroom management strategies, or when my great-uncle says, dismissively,”No one really discriminates against the gays anymore.”

I hate that. So presumptuous! I think: This is not your pain, your struggle,  your history or your reality, so you wouldn’t know. You can’t. I’m not mad at you for not knowing, just for not listening, so hush for a minute – 30 seconds, even! – and listen. Then you can ask questions.

Nobody ever went wrong that way.

3 thoughts on “Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Retreat: I thought it was a joke from The Onion

  1. I used to listen to Ani D when I was in college as well (and I’m in the UK). I was quite taken aback by this decision — not only is this a venue that heavily promotes its slave history and has links to the right-wing Liberal Party in Australia (probably among other right-wing causes), but also the claim of a retreat “in the Big Easy” was plain false. White Castle is closer to Baton Rouge than to New Orleans (it’s 76 miles), and Nottoway is on the Baton Rouge side of White Castle.

    I also got the impression that she thought that a plantation in or near New Orleans wouldn’t cause so much anger as one in any other Southern state which have a more recent association with racism and the Civil Rights struggle. Some people see New Orleans as a big theme park, an open-air entertainment venue and the plantations are just one more element in the Big Easy vibe. Perhaps she also thought she was above this kind of criticism being from well outside the South, but she has plenty of connections in the South (other singer-songwriters like Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, the Indigo Girls for example) that could have advised her on this before announcing it. Really foolish move and the stain won’t wash away easily.

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