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Saturday, January 4, 2014

January 4-5, 2014: Ani DiFranco and Slavery

[A special post in response to a complex and crucial recent American non-event.]

On two historical contexts for a very 21st century controversy.
In mid-December, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco announced that she would be running (along with some songwriter friends and colleagues) a writers’ retreat and workshop in June 2014 at Louisiana’s Nottoway Plantation and Resort. Because Nottoway is a former antebellum slave plantation turned tourist resort and “educational” site (not so much about slavery itself, it seems, as about life for antebellum Southern whites), DiFranco’s choice of setting led to a significant and growing backlash, particularly on social media and in other online communities. [I should note that the site seems to have been chosen by an event planning company, although since the retreat is DiFranco’s the ultimate responsibility nonetheless resides with her.]  As a result, in late December DiFranco cancelled the retreat, writing an extended apology-but-also-defense-that’s-a-non-apology that is likely to become a classic in that ubiquitous contemporary genre. While I’m happy to critique DiFranco’s specific choices and tone deafness, however, there are also broader American historical and cultural contexts to which we can and should connect this controversy.
For one thing, I would connect Nottoway to “The Southern Restaurant,” one of the most popular culinary attractions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As I highlighted in the Introduction to my first book, the overtly representative Southern Restaurant (also known in some promotional materials by the even more defining name “The South”) promised “to recreate the feel of an antebellum plantation, down to the ‘band of old-time plantation ‘darkies’’ which performed at all times.” While such details reveal the inescapable presence of racist narratives in these nostalgic images of the South, the restaurant overall signaled an interconnected but even broader late 19th century national trend—toward the kinds of curiosity for and attraction to the luxuries and excesses of the plantation world that would reach their apotheosis a few decades later in the immense popularity of both the literary and cinematic portrayals of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara. This embrace of the plantation South often required, to my mind, not overt racism so much as a willful elision of race and slavery from the picture at all—an elision that, to be clear, is at least as destructive as overt racism, and that might well be echoed in DiFranco’s tone deaf choice and then defense of Nottoway as the setting of her writers’ retreat.
DiFranco did acknowledge those histories of race and slavery in her pseudo-apology, but did so in a frustratingly condescending way, suggesting that she has a better sense of such histories and how to engage with them than do her critics (many of them African American). An interesting historical and cultural context for that attitude would be William Faulkner’s 1956 telegram to W.E.B. Du Bois: Du Bois had challenged Faulkner, an opponent of the era’s post-Brown federal integration policies, to a debate in the aftermath of the Emmett Till lynching and the acquittal of his accused killers; Faulkner responded by telegram, writing, “I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically. …  If it is not evident to you that the position I take in asking for moderation and patience is right practically then we will both waste our breath in debate.” Like DiFranco, Faulkner was an immensely talented artist, and one profoundly sympathetic to the complexities and even horrors of American history and identity; but like DiFranco’s apology, Faulkner’s telegram to Du Bois suggests an unwillingness to step back and learn from those whose perspectives on and understandings of our histories would have had a great deal to add to his own. But DiFranco’s story isn’t over, and I hope her pseudo-apology won’t be the last word on this complex and important subject.                                                                             
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

3 comments:

  1. Her original non-apology was worthy of all the eye rolling it no doubt set off, but by the time you published this piece--which was a great little read on an important subject, by the way--she had already issued a (more) genuine apology.
    http://www.righteousbabe.com/blogs/ani-difranco-news/11256905-from-ani

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  2. Faulkner existed wholly in the complexities of being at once part of and also keenly aware of the shortcomings of the South. I think it was easier for him to exist in that "make-believe" world of his, where he ultimately controls the content and the message. I can see DiFranco, as an artist who I'm sure lives in a little bit of a similar type of world, enjoying this type of control. It definitely comes across as an 'I know better than you' ethos at times.
    Du Bois certainly understood this complexity, and was able to explore those grey areas in his work. But he also was perhaps the greatest proponent of reality ever. He was certainly not afraid to push people to make choices and take sides and face facts.
    I'm sure that Faulkner was intelligent enough to also realize that Du Bois would have mopped the floor with him in any conceivable intellectual or rhetorical challenge.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! And I should note for the record that it was Ian who first alerted me to the Faulkner/Du Bois debate that wasn't.

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