While you were away from the Internet watching football, "Elf," exercising and/or eating, songwriter and indie folk figurehead Ani DiFranco was drowning in a public-relations nightmare in the wake of the announcement that her forthcoming artists' workshop would be held on the grounds of a former slave plantation in Louisiana.
After posting on Facebook that her "Righteous Retreat in the Big Easy" would take place in June 2014 at a setting portrayed as "the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort" in White Castle, La., commenters replied with outrage. This was a place, after all, described on DiFranco's site as recently undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation that "restored this historic plantation to her days of glory as well as adding luxury resort amenities."
The seeming tone-deafness prompted a fascinating, contentious and at times incendiary conversation on history, slavery, race and context. The most lively of those posts, however, were then deleted, sparking frustration at the DiFranco camp's reaction and charges that the deletions were stifling a healthy discussion.
On Sunday, after days of petitions, blog posts and mounting online pressure that she relocate her workshop, DiFranco announced that she was canceling the Righteous Retreat.
"I have heard you: all who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway Plantation," she wrote.
"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." Rather, she continued, she had hoped that the setting would "become a participant in the event."
This weekend, though, the criticism had snowballed. One scheduled participant, songwriter Toshi Reagon, penned a fascinating piece about her reaction to the Nottoway location. Writing that was unaware of the setting when her "dear friend and sister" DiFranco asked her to participate, Reagon acknowledged the complex history that underscores much of America, especially in the South. She used as an example past performance locations "that are built on the backs and the pain of my ancestors." But Reagon was blunt about her reaction to the Righteous Retreat, saying that "the Nottoway Plantation really triggers me."
Continued Reagon: "For some reason I find it easier to move across the paved roads that hide the history of their foundations. Or the many institutions of higher learning that I have been to that I know would not exist without the labor of my ancestors. I don't like big white buildings -- you can call it a mansion all you want -- I just say it's the big house. I don't like too strong white pillars. I don't like the flowing fields of green, because I just see fields of cotton. Even though I never had to pick cotton -- whenever I see places like that -- I feel like I can see people picking cotton. So I never would want to be at Nottoway."
Despite the cancellation, DiFranco held firm that her goals were noble: "My intention of going ahead with the conference at the Nottoway Plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but its opposite," she wrote. "I know that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. 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."