i’m no heroine
at least, not last time i checked
– Ani DiFranco in ‘I’m No Heroine’
A gargantuan mess has exploded over last the few weeks over a controversy surrounding American indie folk artist Ani DiFranco. Ani’s official apology Thursday set off another wave of public opinion and media response, and this circus may not yet be over. As a lifelong fan, I’ve spent a great deal of time reacting to the reactions, thinking about my own ideologies, and figuring out how I can turn this imbroglio into an opportunity to be a better feminist and human being.
Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Ani DiFranco or Righteous Babe Records. I ran an Ani DiFranco fan site called ani-difranco.net several years ago and eventually sold the domain and content to her record label for a modest sum when I was no longer able to maintain it. It is still being used as a redirect. I’ve seen Ani live about four times but have never met her.
Who is Ani DiFranco?
Ani DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) grew up in Buffalo, New York to Italian American parents. Her first experience of social justice work was accompanying her mother on grassroots women’s rights campaigns. Ani took up songwriting and performing at an early age and after extensive touring, and despite multiple contract offers from record labels, she scrounged together all the money she could raise and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19 (by most accounts). She gained a huge cult following for her overtly political songs that deal with issues including domestic abuse, sexism, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and religion. Many LGBT fans were drawn to her for her fierce pride in her own bisexuality and her commitment to shattering stereotypes. Ani’s career has now spanned over two decades and her repertoire includes over 20 albums. Ani is much-loved for her diverse musical talents and songwriting prowess, her incisive and articulate analysis, and her open, upbeat, and compassionate manner.
Ani was approached to lend her name to and participate in a music workshop in Louisiana, dubbed Righteous Retreat. She asked for the event to be held near New Orleans, where she lives, so she could return home every night. She learned some time later that the event had been booked at Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation, which has been restored and is rented out for events such as conferences and weddings. While many people expressed enthusiasm regarding the event, many also quickly pointed out that it could have the effect of excluding black women or others who did not wish to spend time in a place with such horrific history, and that this could also amount to supporting a business that is exploiting that history. Furthermore, the oversight was interpreted as yet another example of white privilege steamrolling over the goals and concerns of people of colour, particularly in the mainstream feminist movement. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the concerns.
There can be no question that this was a serious and unfortunate miscalculation on Ani DiDranco’s part. Even though she didn’t create or organize the event, she knew where it was going to be held, and even after a great deal of uproar over the venue, a full apology and cancellation did not come nearly as quickly as many had hoped – myself included. It’s a testament to the insidious nature of white privilege that an individual who is so passionate about and well-versed in the language of social justice failed to anticipate that people might be offended by the idea of holding this event in this kind of space. Though she explained that her hope was to encourage reconciliation and healing by incorporating discussions about the setting into the content of the workshop, that was not her torch to carry. Explaining your intention does nothing to remedy the offense and no matter the character of the person in question, it always carries a whiff of cold, calculating damage control, all the more insulting because the damage is already done. A dab of whitesplaining rubbed on for good measure is just another slap in the face.
There was a lot of talk about Ani having a racist fan base with many people, including myself, being defensive about this. What, me, racist? Where there’s white people there’s racism. Rich white people, working class white people, straight whites, queer whites, white men, white women – doesn’t matter. The common denominator here is white privilege. If you’ve got white privilege there’s a far greater probability of your having retained racist attitudes – no matter how hard you’ve tried to unravel them – than not. White progressives may prefer not to admit this because we like to think we’re the enlightened white people. It’s this very belief that sets us up to perpetuate racism under the cover of liberal politics.
Obviously, when many people are faced with an opportunity to accept an inconvenient truth, they choose the alternative, which is to rationalize. One of the things that people need to stop doing is hiding behind straw man arguments. This topic is discussed brilliantly by Scott Woods in 5 Things No One Is Actually Saying About Ani DiFranco or Plantations.
Since numerous articles have called attention to the details surrounding the venue itself as a basis for criticism of Ani DiFranco, I think it’s worth delving into. It’s true, as some have pointed out, that it’s nearly impossible to find soil in the South – or most of North America, for that matter – upon which atrocities have not been committed against African Americans, Native Americans or other oppressed people. Many plantations have been restored, reimagined and used for entirely new purposes. If progressive artists were to visit only venues whose history, owners, and staff were squeaky clean, they wouldn’t have many venues to choose from. But anyone whose defence of Ani’s behaviour rests entirely on this analysis is completely missing the point.
The following except from Nottoway Plantation and Resort’s website has been cited as indication that they’re whitewashing history:
“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.”
Sure, it would be counterproductive for them to emphasize their painful and dark history, but when an establishment misrepresents or manipulates its history for any reason, and especially for the sake of profit, that legacy of racism takes on a modern manifestation. If this account of a visit to Nottoway is at all accurate, whitewashing is exactly what they’re doing. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the 102 out of 137 individuals who rated the resort as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on TripAdvisor that they were participating in something objectionable.
Questions have come up about whether it would have been fair to expect Ani to have done her own research on this particular venue or whether she should be held personally responsible for the scripting and practices of a venue with which she was unfamiliar. An establishment whose website describes itself as offering “luxury resort amenities” clearly caters exclusively to the needs and wants of the affluent, who we can safely assume are overwhelmingly white, at best. Does that clash with the image of person who defends the poor and otherwise underprivileged? Of course it does! While I think that expecting her to know that Nottoway is owned by a corporation/individual who funds bigoted political campaigns would be going a bit far, the issue here isn’t one of a celebrity accidentally being associated with something unsavoury; it’s the fact that she entertained the idea of patronizing this establishment knowing what she already knew.
It’s certainly difficult to form a consensus on when we should be involved with a place that has a dark past and when we should not. How far should or can we go in order to avoid contributing to systems of exploitation? While these questions might comprise a valid element of the debate and can stimulate further discussion regarding the politics of space, we should never use them as an excuse to disregard the idea that we might really want to think twice about visiting former slave plantations, or more specifically what we might do when we’re there.
That being said, I noticed something interesting in some of the language used in news reports and media commentary. The Huffington Post published this headline: Ani DiFranco Is ‘Remarkably Unapologetic’ About Slave Plantation Retreat. There word former is missing. Mother Jones did it too. Huffington Post actually published another article, which they introduced on Twitter with the following blurb: “What happens when a pop star realizes hosting a retreat on a slave plantation is a bad idea”. Ani DiFranco a pop star? And again, mysteriously absent that one word. Why the repeated omission? It’s predictable that the media will latch on to a scandal and that they may not get everything right. What bothers me about this is that there’s enough contention here that we don’t need to be disingenuous or resort to semantic laziness – whichever it is.
Reflection and perception
There may be some people so turned off by this situation that they’ve decided they’re done with Ani. Maybe previous controversies were the stepping stones to this. For the rest of us there remains this uncomfortable dichotomy to our fandom. People attach a strong emotional connection to artists who’ve helped usher them through their formative years or through difficult or even magical times in their lives. It hurts to know that the people we idolize are flawed because there’s an existential truth hidden there: we’re flawed too. No degree of coolness subtracts the actions we regret. Everything coexists, the good and the bad.
Still, I love Ani. I still respect her for having opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I might not have been aware of or cared about otherwise. I reread the lyrics she’s written now with fresh eyes and they speak to me in a slightly different tone. They carry more weight now that the person who’s written them has had a mirror held up to her face, as I have to mine. Something discomforting has been brought out into the light that changes the context, doesn’t it? If you’re familiar with Ani’s music, does it sound different to you now? Do these words, ideas, and images, feel different?
i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
so i lean in
breathe deeper that brutal burning smell
that surrounds the smoldering wreckage
that i’ve come to love so well
yes, color me stunned and dazzled
by all the red white and blue flashing lights
in the american intersection
where black crashed head on with white
comes a melody
comes a rhythm
a particular resonance
that is us and only us
comes a screaming ambulance
a hand that you can trust
laid steady on your chest
working for the better good
(which is good at its best)
and too, bearing witness
like a woman bears a child:
with all her might
born of the greatest pain
into a grand canyon of light
– Grand Canyon in Educated Guess
they caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation
they cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff
and they dragged his black ass down to the station
and said “ok the streets are safe now.
all your pretty white children can come out to see spot run
and they came out of their houses and they looked around
but they didn’t see no one
– ‘Tis of Thee in Up Up Up Up Up Up
i know so many white people
i mean, where do i start?
the trouble with white people
is you can’t tell them apart
i’m so bad with names and dates and times
but i’m big on faces
that is, except for mine
– Names and Dates and Times in Puddle Dive
you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
– Crime for Crime in Not a Pretty Girl
they were digging a new foundation in manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
am i headed for the same brick wall
is there anything i can do
about anything at all
except go back to that corner in manhattan
and dig deeper
dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones
beneath the bedrock of the mystery
beneath the sewage system and the path train
beneath the cobblestones and the water main
beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
beneath everything i can think of to think about
beneath it all
beneath all get out
beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
– Fuel in Little Plastic Castle
so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in palestine
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of mt. rushmore
– Self Evident in Girls Singing Night (Disc 2 of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)
when i was four years old
they tried to test my i.q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
– My I.Q. in Puddle Dive
teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we’re stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it’s never really one or the other
there’s a paradox in every paradigm
– Paradigm in Knuckle Down
too many stories
written out in black and white
come on people of privilege
it’s time to join the fight
are we living in the shadow of slavery
or are we moving on?
tell me which side are you on now
which side are you on?
– Which Side Are You On? (title track)
white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
– Subdivision in Reckoning
Lyrics to pretty much every Ani DiFranco song published can be found here.