After much public protest, Ani DiFranco has canceled her artist retreat at a former slave plantation.
The singer-songwriter initially planned her “Righteous Retreat,” a four-day songwriting and creativity workshop, to be held at the Nottoway Plantation and Resort in Louisiana. As its name suggests, the site was once one of the largest slave plantations in the South, and now serves as a museum and vacation spot.
DiFranco’s choice of Nottoway Plantation for her feminist retreat angered many people, not least because the venue is promoted with a glib website that ignores the horrors of slavery. Its historical summary reads, in part, “Ever the astute businessman, Randolph [Nottoway] 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.” Jezebel, a vocal opponent to the retreat, marveled over that tone-deaf sentence and noted that the Nottoway Plantation is now owned by Australian billionaire Paul Ramsey, who has donated over a million dollars to his country’s anti-gay and anti-abortion Liberal party. A Change.org petition demanding that DiFranco cancel the retreat yielded over 2,500 signatures.
DiFranco addressed her critics today by canceling the retreat, but she further irritated many by sounding more defensive than apologetic. “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,” she wrote on her site, adding that she did not wish to relocate the retreat. “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.”
The musician acknowledged the pain of slavery and added that she’d planned to involve a group of underprivileged children, and she went on to further defend her choice of venue. “I believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness,” she wrote. “I ask only that as we attempt to continue to confront our country’s history together, let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites. Let us not oversimplify to black and white a society that contains many many shades of grey.”