Why the Ani DiFranco Debacle Rings the Alarm on the Divisions Between Black and White Women

If we’re supposed to be expanding on the legacy of the Grimke sisters and Sojourner Truth, who worked hand in hand to end slavery and bring the right to vote to women, we’re failing miserably.
Publish date:
December 31, 2013
feminism, race, ani difranco

When I first heard that Ani DiFranco planned to hold a songwriting workshop for women— a "Righteous Retreat"—at the infamous Nottoway Plantation outside of New Orleans, I thought it had to be a hoax.

And then I read the invitation with its blithe descriptions like, “We will be shacked up at the historic Nottaway Plantation and Resort…exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company,” and my head spun around like I was that possessed girl in "The Exorcist."

Was this the same Ani DiFranco who had album liner notes written by Howard Zinn? Who sang on “Fuel”: They were digging a new foudation 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”?

I was actually shocked that DiFranco, a known advocate for equality and justice would believe that a place of human suffering like Nottoway would be appropriate for anything. How exactly do you cosign a retreat at a place whose website glorifies its slave owning builder and master John Randolph? Were attendees supposed to be creatively inspired by the site’s claim that Randolph saw slaves as “valuable tools in the operation of his business”?

Unless the folks attending the retreat were planning to write the soundtrack for “American Horror Story: Plantation” -- No, thank you.

Folks blasted DiFranco for wanting to hold the retreat at Nottoway, and then took DiFranco’s announcement cancelling the retreat to task for not including a formal apology.

Unfortunately, as is the case in so many of these big racial dustups, when that blasting happens, people like DiFranco get defensive -- it doesn’t make that defensiveness right, it’s just human nature. Unless the person making the misstep has a really good PR person who can twist their arm, chances are they’re not going to apologize.

The result: DiFranco tried to run the “everywhere you go in the United States is steeped in blood and suffering" game on us -- and sure, the first time I went to the White House I was fully conscious of the fact that it was built by slaves. But there’s built by slaves and then there are plantations.

Why DiFranco ultimately canceled the retreat instead of just moving it somewhere else is also beyond me. She was charging a pretty penny for the event, so why not collect that cash somewhere else? Surely she needs the money for the impoverished children at the New Orleans music school she referenced in her announcement, and it’s not like she just broke the Internet and sold millions on iTunes like our newly crowned Queen of Feminism (even with a dash of Ike Turner on the side) Beyonce.

Instead, DiFranco’s response was to behave like a petulant, privileged child -- you don’t like what I’m offering? I won’t just take my toys and go play somewhere else, I’m going to take them and not play at all because I can.

The thing that those of us who call ourselves allies, as DiFranco does, have to remember is that we aren’t suddenly in possession of a magic wand that inoculates us from what is the norm in America. As rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel, who led the front line of the Selma Civil Rights March sandwiched between Ralph Bunche and Fred Shuttlesworth once said, “If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual's crime discloses society's corruption.”

DiFranco’s not doing anything that’s out of the ordinary given America’s deep-seated racial corruption. Whether she intended to offend or not, on the cusp of 2014, racial privilege still means that someone like DiFranco doesn’t have to pay attention to the ramifications of holding a retreat at a plantation because, let’s face it, as progressive as she may be, people who looked like her lived in the big house. Meanwhile people who looked like me might’ve had their lips pinned to her apron, because of the time Master Randolph spent raping in the slave quarters.

The whole debacle, with white women stereotypically impersonating black women on DiFranco’s Facebook page, and black women dragging DiFranco within an inch of her life on Twitter, firmly rings the alarm on the continual divide between white women and black women.

If we’re supposed to be expanding on the legacy of the Grimke sisters and Sojourner Truth, who worked hand in hand to end slavery and bring the right to vote to women, we’re failing miserably.

Let’s face it, for the most part black women and white women still aren’t close fiends -- I’m not talking about that colleague you’re cool with at work. I’m talking about the fact that your best girlfriend that you tell all your secrets to is probably not of a different race. It’s far too easy to depressingly close the door on 2013 truly believing that #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

Yes, we should speak out against people holding events at plantations. At the same time, we each have to ask, what am I doing in my own life to come together with my sisters? It’s a question I don’t like posing because a part of me wants to clap back to it and say, look I don't have to do anything but stay black and die.

But the moment I respond like that, I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s wise words: “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” Until that close friendship and genuine love happens between us, we can’t truly move forward as a society. How can we forget that collectively we have the same boot on our necks?

Sure, depending on how light or dark our skin is, depending on our education, the amount of cash in our bank account, or our sexual orientation, we each feel that boot a little more or a little less, but let’s be clear, the boot is still there.

As Dr. Midge Wilson, professor of women's and gender studies at DePaul University, who co-authored the book "Divided Sisters: Bridging The Gap Between Black Women and White Women" with Kathy Russell writes, “It is easy to identify how others with more power discriminate against you. What is harder to realize is how you, by virtue of your membership in some privileged group in society, may discriminate against others.”

Wilson goes on to note: “Only when we finally work to bring an end to even those types of discrimination that don't personally affect us, will we truly be sisters beneath the skin.”

No, DiFranco shouldn’t get some sort of plantation justification pass from black folks -- particularly from the black women who rightfully sounded the alarm, only to be passive- aggressively referred to as “bitter” by DiFranco in her response. But how do we extend empathy and forgiveness to her?

It’s the higher road, sure, but we are up to it. And no one wants to be here a year from now watching the sunset on 2014, still tweeting with a #SolidarityIsStillForWhiteWomen hashtag.