Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

Ani DiFranco, White Privilege, and the Chance to Remember

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A house where enslaved people lived on a plantation in Central VA

Ani DiFranco . . . I remember when Hez and I saw her show in State College . . . it was amazing, not just because she read Tony Hoagland from the stage but because I felt the energy of activism, of power inverted, of strength.  I’ve been a fan for a long time.

So last week, when her decision to hold a song-writing retreat at a Louisiana plantation caused such controversy and pain for many people and when her statements – intended, I think, as apologies – caused such anger . . . I took a pause.  Ani – thoughtful Ani didn’t know she was performing at a plantation . . . but I believed her statement, even as I grew to understand how it felt false to so many.

Yet, it wasn’t Ani DiFranco’s decision to schedule and then cancel the retreat on a plantation that caused me the most queasiness . . . and I certainly understood why so many people protested both her choice to schedule and her choice to cancel. . . no, it was that I felt an opportunity was missed here – an opportunity to discuss the legacy of slavery and the way its relics, plantation houses in particular, overlook and ignore – sometimes purposefully – the stories of the people who cleared that land, built those buildings, and created the wealth that kept these places standing.

Oh, how I wish Ani had gone to this place with intention – an intention of bringing light and dialogue, of using her power to open a space for others to speak, of allowing her platform to be a place where the very real and very close anger and the very real and very close suffering of so many could be held forth.  Oh, how I wish this could have been a place to find healing.

But it was not for so many reasons, not the least of which was Ani’s ignorance about the plantation itself but also about the practices of the current owner.  And the white privilege that allows that ignorance.

***

I’ve been reading a great deal about white privilege of late, trying to find my way to see my own – a mirror that will reflect what I cannot glimpse without refraction.  In this article by Peggy McIntosh, I found myself – an educated, well-intentioned white woman who still operates out of her own privilege.

I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

So much this sentence resonated with me. . . so much it helped me here.

***

As I continue to turn over DiFranco’s decisions, as I continue to consider how we use these relics, these plantations, as tools for conversation and healing while honoring the very real pain and suffering people felt on that land and continue to feel in their bones . . . I come to the words of the wonderful Michael Twitty.

We African American living historians of slavery believe that places of cultural and spiritual and creative and culinary memory must be acknowledged, explored, studied, and never forgotten, just as the ancestors whose spirits still stand there must never feel that they are the victims of willful amnesia.

That willful amnesia, I see it so often, particularly in white people. That desire to forget, to pretend . . . the pain that comes from willful amnesia is one of a festering wound.  A wound that affects all Americans, and our African American brothers and sisters most of all.

With Michael, I hope that we can come to use these plantations to remember not only the pain and suffering of the people enslaved on them but also the perseverence, the skills, the artistic mastery of so many of these human beings.  I want to remember . . . I don’t want to forget.  Because to forget, to pretend like these atrocities never happened, to downplay them as if they are minor or to ignore them as if they are incidental is to forget and erase the amazing people who survived under this system and came out from it to thrive.

The Southern Plantation has yet to be acknowledged as the birthplace for a community and a culture that has changed the world.  Roots music, pop music, world music…started there.  The plantation quarters, its fields, its brush harbor/hush harbor churches..the streets of Southern cities…Congo Square….America’s indigenous arts–jazz, blues, and all of their creative spawn was right there–way down South in Dixie.  I celebrate the food that was created there–the grandness of the Southern and Creole/Cajun traditions and beyond–and how hands of color cooked their way to renown.  Our aesthetics–our foodways–our music–our spirituality–our everything—owes a great deal to the civilization in chains – Michael Twitty

I want us to remember, respect, and celebrate – the suffering, the death, the music, the food, the great architectural skill, and the amazing fortitude – these people who built our nation.

What do you think about the role of plantations in healing? Is that possible? Why or why not? 

My book The Slaves Have Names is available for sale on Amazon, or if you’d like a signed copy, please visit this linkhttp://www.andilit.com/the-slaves-have-names/ – to order.  Thank you.

All voices are welcome in this space, and I encourage us to share honestly and openly – but respectfully with one another.  Any disrespectful, hateful comments will be deleted without comment.

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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