You don’t have to look far these days for controversy surrounding American history and the presence of the past.
The latest controversy came in a most unusual way (as they often do) when singer/songwriter and noted feminist Ani DiFranco was compelled to cancel a planned retreat at a plantation because according to opponents of the event,
Holding an event on the site of the genocide of black people is no way to show inclusion and intersectionality, both of which are important tenets of feminism.
Writing as the executive director of a historic plantation, I disagree with the simplicity of that argument. Simply holding an event at site, such as a plantation, is not in itself the problem.
The Power of History
Historic sites are powerful places – and harnessing their stories for good (and the betterment of the human condition) is part of our jobs as stewards of these places.
So, it’s not so much that the plantation is the problem – but what are they doing with that history . . . and that word?
Unfortunately for Nottoway Plantation (where Ani scheduled her event), it seems they’ve not harnessed the power of history well.
Based numerous entries on their website, they seem to have tragically misinterpreted the unvarnished terror of slavery. In one glaring example, the website refers to the master as one who provided “additional compensation and rewards” to his slaves, including a hog on New Year’s Day.
The above statement should tell you all you need to know about Nottoway and their understanding of the past. Hogs on New Year’s Day are not synonymous with compensation or reward. A basic understanding of slave life or perusal of any history of the institution would immediately tell you that.
And, so, it’s understandable that Ani’s fans would react negatively to this kind of interpretation of the past.
A Place for the Past?
But what of other plantations and historic sites? Are we all equally unfit for an event that celebrates inclusion and diversity?
Here at Long Branch Plantation, we’ve worked hard over the past year to open up our story and honestly discuss our past – good, bad and ugly. Plantation is not the dirty word; forgetting is our dirty word.
In short, we’d rather tell you the whole story and use that story as an opportunity to explore our past and perhaps provide some insight into our future.
Glorification of slavery or an oversimplification of its cruelty is not acceptable. But tossing out all sites that work hard to tell that story in an inclusive and diverse way is equally unacceptable.
Fortunately, Ani seems to get it, too. In her statement on the issue she noted,
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.
Our Open Invitation to Ani
That’s why we’re inviting Ani to Long Branch Plantation – where we address our history head on. You’re welcome anytime as a guest, or if you’d like to hold your event, we’ve got plenty of room for that, too.
Perhaps you’ll join us for our “Created Equal Series” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities when we’ll honor Dr. King with a screening of a documentary on Freedom Riders. Or later when we host a documentary on abolition and then interracial marriage.
Or, maybe you’d like to join us in the spring when the community is invited to help us plant a recreated slave and kitchen garden to help tell those important stories.
Or, maybe you’d just like to come and reflect and meditate about life on a plantation. You can do that here, too.
So, Ani . . . please be our guest. That goes for the rest of you, too.
Executive Director, Long Branch Plantation