…But How Dare You Complain to Me: Ani DiFranco, White Obliviousness and Historical Memory

Imagine for a moment that an artist of some sort — perhaps for lack of a better example, a folk singer — decided to host a writer’s retreat, at which interested and aspiring artists might gather so as to pool their collective energy. And let’s imagine that said folk singer, not being an expert at locating inspirational retreat locations, turned that job over to a promoter. And let’s say that said promoter then came back to said folk singer, excited to announce that such a location had been secured. And let’s imagine that said location was Dachau: the legendary Nazi concentration camp.

Still imagining for a moment, can we envision said folk singer thinking to herself (or himself, after all, since we’re still imagining here), “Whoa!” But then, and this is the important part, going on to think, despite the exclamatory thought bubble just mentioned, that perhaps “the setting would become a participant in the event,” and so rather than objecting to the location and holding the retreat elsewhere, moving full speed ahead so that “a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were.”

Oh, and can we imagine this “organic dialogue” emerging on the site of such suffering, when those gathered to “emerge” it have all paid $1000 for the privilege?

That the answers to these questions are self-evidently negative should be obvious. And yet, this is exactly what famed singer — and noted progressive and feminist — Ani DiFranco just did, by scheduling a retreat at Nottoway, one of Louisiana’s largest slave plantations, which at one point engaged the forced labor of over 400 African descended persons. And although she claims to have been at least mildly taken aback upon realizing where her promoter had scheduled the event — thus the “Whoa!” mentioned above (no doubt the most wildly understated reaction ever to one’s pending professional sojourn to a fulcrum of genocide) — she never once thought better of having the retreat; well, at least not until it became a PR catastrophe of epic proportions.

Despite realizing that, as she put it, “tragedies on a massive scale are not easily dealt with or recovered from,” and that “pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred,” DiFranco insists that her intentions were noble. Rather than utilizing Nottoway so as to forget the past, she was utilizing it so as to remember, because, and these are her words: “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.”

Sure, like Dachau, where I’m quite certain she would never have thought to schedule a writer’s retreat, even if she were in the middle of a European tour at the time, such that getting there would have been a cinch.

That not only DiFranco, but indeed most white people, would flinch at the analogy between Dachau and Nottoway is predictable and largely suggestive of the problem with white people, or at least our propensity for blinkered historical memory. That we cannot recognize the similarities between a forced labor camp in the U.S. — which Southern plantations were, by definition — and a forced labor camp like Dachau (which, unlike the more deliberative death camps operated by the Nazis, was mostly a site of detention rather than extermination), indicates our inability to squarely face the genocide, physical and cultural to which our people mostly assented for hundreds of years on this soil. We do not allow for the pain of black peoples to equate in our minds — or the larger national imagination — to the pain of European Jewry, no matter that the transcontinental slave trade resulted in the deaths of millions (on the forced marches to the African coast, at sea, and once in the so-called new world), and no matter that the system of white domination that was central to enslavement still operates, albeit in a different form, and that the legacy of slavery itself is still evident in patterns of wealth accumulation (and its opposite) very much operative in the 21st century.

While Germany has long confronted the horrific truth of its history, we still have not, principally because most white folks aren’t, by and large, up to the task. Indeed, in one of the most deliciously repulsive ironies in curricular history, one is far more likely to find an American classroom ruminating on the tragedy of the European Holocaust than its American counterparts, be they perpetrated against black folks or indigenous persons. In fact, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, one isn’t even allowed to equate these things, or even use the same words, like “Holocaust” (with a capital H, no less, and perhaps even a trademark symbol) or “genocide” to describe them, unless one wishes to face the wrath of American apologists, who equate nicely with the current operators of Nottoway, all of whom insist upon how humanely the slaves owned by John Hampden Randolph were treated.

But as with the old saying in criminal investigations — that the coverup is always worse than the crime — it was DiFranco’s reaction to the outrage of many of her own fans and others that so compounded the initial act of moral blindness. After all, that a white person would underestimate the symbolic importance and weight of such a place as Nottoway (or, for that matter, Monticello, or Jamestown, or Wounded Knee), while tragic, is not particularly shocking. Just as those who are neither Jewish, nor Roma, nor members of the LGBT community might well fail to appreciate the full gravity of a place like Dachau — and no matter how sincerely they try to understand — so too, those for whom enslavement was not our story can never fully “absorb the reverberating pain” (again, DiFranco’s words) of such a place as Nottoway.

I have been to Nottoway. And I have walked those grounds. And I have recoiled in horror as the docents described the elaborate doorbell system that Randolph had rigged for his chattel, each with a different tone, such that the enslaved would know exactly in which room they were needed, so as to do whatever work the Randolph family was too craven and lazy to do for self. And I remember thinking how telling it is that a people deemed inferior to their owners were capable of discerning even the finest variation in bell tones so as to complete these tasks, knowing that punishment would follow if they guessed wrong, and God forbid went to the kitchen to help Miss Jane when it was really little Master William in need of having his fetid chamber pot emptied. Yet, and however aghast I was, walking those grounds, listening to the puerile revisionism of the home’s operators, there is no way I could have fully taken in the depths of the depravity visited upon black bodies there. That DiFranco also doesn’t really get that is not the issue. No one expects her to.

But her reaction upon being called out? That most certainly is the issue.

She could have simply said, “I screwed up. Badly. I underestimated the significance of holding a retreat at Nottoway because, sadly, as a white person, and despite my best intentions, I didn’t fully get it. But I know now that my obliviousness on this matter is not acceptable, and it has been the source of real pain. I resolve to listen, to hear, to challenge myself as much as I challenge others, and to do better from this point forward.” As someone who has made my share of serious mistakes as an aspiring antiracist ally, I know full well that these are the kinds of apologies I too should issue when I drop the ball, and will strive to make in any such future cases.

But she didn’t say this, or anything remotely like it. Instead, she tried to rationalize the event as some kind of “reclamation,” during which the pain of human bondage would somehow be almost magically exorcised, or at least rhythmically absorbed by persons affluent enough to pay the cost of admission. And she tried to rationalize it as such, even though her initial promotional materials for the event — which were circulating right up until the controversy exploded — said absolutely nothing about the meditative value of the gathering, or about using the location’s history as part of the creative process. Rather, they encouraged folks to come together at the plantation “to play” with her and her artist friends. To play. At a forced labor camp.

Oh sure, she has now canceled the event. But in her statement announcing this fact, her tone suggests someone who sees herself as the biggest victim in the drama. To wit, her insistence that although she knows “the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide,” nonetheless, she thinks it is “very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.” In other words, not only will she profess the right to tell black people what to do with their pain — since it is indeed their pain about which we speak when we speak of enslavement — but more to the point, she will consider it not at all troubling to insist that criticizing her for her lack of discernment is an inappropriate focus of said pain.

When she then says, as she did, that she is canceling the retreat because she wishes “to restore peace and respectful discourse between people as quickly as possible,” and when she says, “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,” she suggests, at least implicitly, that others are to blame for the pain because of their unfocused or badly focused anger, that others created the negative energy, and that she is the one most committed to healing, even as it was she, by her actions, who initiated the shit storm in which she now finds herself embedded.

Then, in the ultimate attempt at exculpation, DiFranco reminds us — as if any of those engaged in the critique of the retreat really need a history lesson on white supremacy from the likes of her — that Nottoway is not, after all, the only location of human suffering out there. As she puts it:

one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say ‘racism reached it’s depths of wrongness here’ and then point to the other side of that line and say ‘but not here’. i know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves…i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth. i know that each of us is sitting right now in a building located on stolen land. stolen from the original people of this continent who suffered genocide at the hands of european colonists…

All of which is quite true, and quite beside the point. Of course, there are other blood-soaked pieces of property. Just as there were other such places in Germany and throughout Europe, besides Dachau. And yet, there is still the simple truth that at places such as Nottoway — and quite a bit more so than, say, the land on which most of us live, upon which so many indigenous peoples perished — there is a particularly venal and calculated attempt to revise, to lie, to deceive, to exonerate, to make everything OK, and cheerful, and the site of Goddamned parties, where visitors come to the place in question precisely because it is the place in question, and then get fed fiction in an attempt to re-wire their minds, to prevent them from grappling even with that history they have paid cash money to see.

Oh, and make no mistake, the fault is not mostly DiFranco’s here. It is ours, for allowing former slave plantations to exist as tourist attractions on these terms. At least at Dachau, the guides don’t waste time ruminating on the vicissitudes of life as a camp guard, or the architecture of the prison wings. There, the purpose of the visit is to horrify, to remember without deflection or protection from the evil that envelops the place even now. But in America, we turn our chambers of horror into historical amusement parks, into places where more is said about manners, and weddings, and cotillions, and carriage rides, and ball gowns, and Doric columns and parasols, than about the system of white terrorism that made all of those things possible.

John Hampden Randolph is remembered not as the racist he was, but as the gentleman he fashioned himself to be. Not as the monstrous and incompetent businessman he was in life — so incompetent that once his property was emancipated he couldn’t make a go of the plantation without their free labor — but as a gracious and courteous socialite. And that is on us as a nation, and more to the point on white America collectively, not Ani DiFranco, in particular. We have allowed these lies to be elevated to the level of national myth. We insist on their retelling, on the sanitizing, on the self-deception, in our textbooks, in our politics, and in our own family histories.

Rest assured, none of that is the fault of one folk singer. But unless that folk singer is prepared to place herself squarely in the middle of that problem — our problem — rather than insisting upon her location in some righteous and elevated place above it, which she and some of her fans believe she deserves, apparently, because of her gender and sexual politics (along with several truly strong antiracist songs), then the future does not bode well for the notion of solidarity and allyship in the struggle against racism. And we will all be the worse off for it.

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