Thursday, January 2, 2014

Plantations, Difranco, and Me

I have been reading about Ani Difranco and her response -- and the responses to it -- to her misstep of holding a retreat at Nottoway Plantation with great interest.

For those who haven't been following it, Ani Difranco is a white feminist singer/songwriter.  In late December, she announced that she would be holding a "Righteous Retreat."  This was an occasion where people could join her and friends for 3 days/4 nights singing and songwriting in the Big Easy, with a price tag of $1000.  The location of the retreat was to be Nottoway Plantation, the largest antebellum plantation in the South.  Difranco made the large misstep of choosing a site for her retreat especially burdened with the history of slavery, and a site that seemed to gloss-over and even glorify that history.  Furthermore, her statement said, as others have noted, (emphasis mine):
We will be shacked up at the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle, LA, for 3 days and 4 nights exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company.... In the evenings we will perform for each other and enjoy great food in a captivating setting.
The poor wording choices added to the misstep, taking it way beyond clueless.  And the internet erupted, pointing out the racist setting and demanding the cancellation.  Difranco was slow to respond.  And then she did cancel the retreat, issuing a statement that has been critiqued as a "fauxpology," in which she indicates that at first she had hoped to still go to the location and have a discussion about the setting become part of the experience, and then realized she would have to cancel it after all.  There are excellent critiques of her response here by Emi Koyama and here by Tim Wise.  Koyama's blog links to many other good critiques, as well.  Essentially, Difranco avoids taking any blame, seems to believe that it is her place to reclaim a slavery location, and throws blame back at those critiquing her actions calling those statements "hatred." 

Interestingly, in the days that have followed the cancellation of the Righteous Retreat, Nottoway has adapted it's historical statement on its webpage saying:
We hope also for Nottoway Plantation to serve as an educator, giving the public a glimpse of life on a Louisiana sugar cane estate in the mid-1800s. With this comes the regrettable fact that, as was typical during that period, Nottoway's workforce was comprised of slaves. However, to sidestep this issue out of a fear of public scrutiny would be an injustice. To bypass a historical property such as ours in order to avoid talking about slavery would be to ignore the opportunity we all have to keep moving forward — to not only acknowledge the shameful shortcomings of our past, but more importantly, to continue to grow in our understanding and support of one another. 
It's a very small step.  Nottoway is by no means turning itself into a museum about slavery.  It's still primarily about sharing the opulent lifestyle of its owners, and allowing its guests to luxuriate in, not engage critically, with that history.  As Tim Wise writes:
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.
Nottoway's new statement will no doubt be highly critiqued, but that's not what I'm writing about today.

As I said, I've followed all this discussion with great interest.  And it's not because I'm an Ani Difranco fan.  I've never really listened to her, and  I can't name a single song.  No, I've been interested because I am a white feminist.  And feminism, white feminism, which I love and embrace in so many ways, had a horrible history of racism that we have to acknowledge.  This event is as painful as it is in large part because of this history of feminism that we too often ignore.

And I've been following it because I'm a Landrum, and my family owns a small piece of plantation land. 

My Landrum ancestor, my grandfather's great-grandfather Jeptha Landrum, owned a plantation. Jeptha was born in 1803 and commissioned as a lieutenant in 1822.  He was commander of a military expedition that assisted in driving the Creek Indians out of Fayette County, Georgia.  I know the chief's name, Black Hawk, because his son named his horse for him.  In 1827, he won some of that land in Fayette county in the land lottery.  Jeptha became a judge, and built up a plantation of 3000 acres and had 50 or more slaves.  He was a Jeffersonian Democrat, naming one of his sons (not the one I'm descended from) Thomas Jefferson.  The Landrums had this plantation for only the one generation.  After the Civil War, my grandfather's grandfather, Larkin deLafayette Landrum, would have the work of selling off portions of the land during reconstruction.  He saved some land that was passed down.  My grandfather's father inherited some of that land, and it was divided among his children.  My grandfather inherited  a handful of acres, that was then split upon his death between my father and aunt.  My father owns one of the last couple of parcels that remains in the family (my aunt sold hers). 

My family and I have been struggling for decades and generations with our legacy as descendants of people who enslaved other people, and what that does mean and should mean to us.  We've struggled with the fact that we own this few undeveloped acres of land that was once part of that plantation, and what we can do and what we should do with that land, other than just leave it alone and pay taxes on it, or visit it once in a while and tromp around in the woods, which is all we've done so far.  The only thing on our parcel is the ruins of a small (1-2 rooms) house from after the Civil War that some ancestors lived in for a period (I think my great-grandfather with his family).



 

As you can see, it's no Nottoway Plantation.   I'm no millionaire heiress.  I'm also a descendant of poor country farmers who hung onto this land even though it was mostly just a tax burden to them.  Why did they keep it?  A sense of honor or legacy or family or duty?  A nostalgia for the Old South? I'm sure the reasons were complex and varied and perhaps not even understood.  Why will I hang onto it, if I do?  That, too, is complex and not thoroughly understood, except that to get rid of it is equally complex.  Can I just sell it and keep the money? 

One thing that's clear in Difranco's situation is that she tried to turn her event into an event focusing on slavery without partnering with the descendants of slaves in that framing.  As Jaya wrote:
Ani, you don’t get to choose how Black women want to deal with the legacy of slavery. 
I agree.  But I do have to choose how I deal with the legacy of oppression.  This Difranco did not do, to her detriment.  Similarly, Kimberly Foster writes in a post titled, "Dear Ani DiFranco Supporters: You Cannot Reclaim an Oppression You Have Never Experienced":
There can be no healing at Nottoway Plantation. Continuing to hold an expensive getaway here is an affront to feminists of color.
I agree that I cannot reclaim an oppression I haven't experienced.  Is this the same thing as reclaiming a site of oppression?  Is it possible for my heritage to be reclaimed?  What would that mean?  These are the questions I've been engaging in for decades.  And then, how do we go about it?  How do we avoid making racist mistakes that continue to add to the problem of the legacy of slavery?

We will make mistakes.  That will absolutely happen.  It's fear of missteps, in part, that keep me and people like me from really dealing with our legacy of slavery, and fear of a reaction like the one Ani Difranco got.  But Ani made the crucial mistake of not really acknowledging her mistake -- or even seeming to understand that it was one.  Like her, I didn't ask to get handed this problem.  But it is mine to deal with, and as a would-be ally, it's important that I do so, and not, when I make mistakes, blame the people who point them out to me.  When we make mistakes, as white feminists and would-be allies to people of color, it's important for us to recognize and own them, something Difranco did not really do.  Mel Hartsell gives an example of what Difranco could have, should have said:
I was well-intentioned when I thought that it would be an act of boldness for us to have a progressive event in a place so wrought with suffering. I did not see outside of my white privilege or reach outside of my circle to gather input from communities that would be directly affected by this venue. 



It's pretty tough to see outside one's own privilege. And often we would like to ignore that it exists.  I would like to be able to just inherit this land when my time comes and have it come to me free from the legacy of slavery.  But it doesn't work like that.  My inheritance will come without its history.  It is my legacy, and as such I'm compelled to engage with it.  However, it's very clear that it's also something that I cannot do alone.  It is also not the case that I will get to just simply decide that I am able to reclaim it from this legacy all by myself.  That was the main thing Difranco did wrong, beyond her initial clueless lack of insight into what her location choice stands for -- she didn't dialogue with people of color either in her attempt to keep the retreat there, or in her framing of her understanding when pulling out of the location.

And that is what this situation says to me --  I get to live with my legacy, but I do not get to decide alone what the Landrum plantation land means and how or whether it can be "reclaimed."  If I want to truly engage that question, I have to engage in it with the descendants of people who were most affected.  That's going to take more work.  It's easier for to find out the name of Jeptha's son's horse than the names of the people who he had enslaved, much less their descendants, if it can even be done.  And I can choose whether or not I engage in the task of finding them, but I can't control whether or not they will want dialogue with me or to help me engage this question -- it's not their job to resolve my legacy for me. 

For now, I continue to ponder and philosophize, rather than act.  But it's a story that won't be complete until more steps are taken.  It's a burden that will hang on me until I address it.  

3 comments:

Davi Trusty said...

Wonderfully insightful and expressed with ribald honesty. You're remarkable Rev. I appreciate all your efforts

Dusty Baker Adamson said...

Unfortunately, this isn't just about slavery. That land was wrongly taken from the Creek Indians before it became a plantation. The plantation just adds insult to injury.

As for owning and using the land, that is a very difficult choice. None of us can go back and right our ancestors' wrongs to the extent we would love to. To do so would force many of us back to our ancestral lands. But even this causes issues. For example, I'm the descendant of a Revolutionary War Captain who 'fought against the Natives' in the unsettled Ohio Territory before European-Americans were living west of the Ohio River. But I also have a maternal ancestor that was one of the many Indian children "assimilated" into American life by stripping her of her history and her birth name. I have mixed blood but via hostile means.

Can we ever make our ancestral sins whole? I hope so. My best to you in your process.

Allie said...

Interesting. I think I'm descended from the same Landrums, although our branch ended up in Tennessee.

The only problem I see is that all sorts of places in America, not just the South, were made up of slaveholders if you go back far enough. There were slaves in New England, in historic buildings which are celebrated there today. Do we condemn them out of sadness?

If you can't reclaim an oppression you have never experienced, then no one living today can reclaim the oppression of African American slavery. You have not enslaved anyone and the people objecting to the use of this property have not been enslaved.They must imagine what slavery was like for their ancestors. Anyone can do the same.