Commentary Race

Ani DiFranco’s Epic Fail: Reflections on Nottoway Plantation

Adele M. Stan

America's history of racialized slavery distilled the essence of patriarchy, and formed the roots of American rape culture. So why do famous white feminists fail to get it?

At the Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana, an eerie disproportion defines the atmosphere. In the “big house” and in the mansion’s wings, spaces grand and cozy are hung with portraits of pale people in 19th-century dress. A cluster of blonde girls graces a painting in an opulent music room, replete with a golden harp, a rosewood piano, and two other dainty keyboard instruments of the era. Take the long walk to the “boys’ wing” of the sprawling home, and a young, auburn-haired master assumes a jaunty pose in an oil painting above a fireplace.

Even if you’re not taken to believing in ghosts and spirits, a trip to Louisiana can change that for you. And in the big house at Nottoway, the ghosts one feels whooshing about are less likely to be those whose visages stare out from the paintings; they are the ghosts of people rendered faceless by those who recorded the plantation’s history, the ghosts of 155 enslaved African Americans who served the 13 members of the Randolph family (Nottoway’s owners), and who built the mansion and worked the land.

When news broke that Ani DiFranco, the acclaimed feminist poet and songwriter, was under Twitter siege for having scheduled a “Righteous Retreat” at Nottoway for writers and artists, it took me a while to recall it as the very place I had stayed in 2005, two weeks after New Orleans was inundated by Hurricane Katrina and nearly strangled to death by the callous negligence of the Bush administration. So deeply disturbing was my Nottoway stay, and the circumstances that brought me there, that I had locked it away in the recesses of my memory.

In the days just after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans proper was closed to anyone other than those who were locking it down or cleaning up debris. I wound up at Nottoway with two colleagues from the labor union for which I worked at the time because the hotels in Baton Rouge, where Katrina humanitarian aid operations were staged, were full, and the best the travel experts could come up with was the honeymoon suite in an out-of-the-way plantation. We had come to Louisiana to find out where the members of the union’s locals had dispersed to after the storm, and to assess the working conditions of those involved in the clean-up and post-hurricane security operations.

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It was either fitting or ironic—I’m still not sure which—to find ourselves in the ancestral home of the man who once maintained one of the largest workforces of enslaved people in Louisiana’s history, lured, as we were, by a catastrophe in which our nation’s brutal racial history played no small part. Who knows how many of the drowned descended from the people once held here?

New Orleans is DiFranco’s adopted home, which made her choice of a retreat venue all the more puzzling, since it would presumably take a willful disregard of the history of that most historic of cities, once the center of the U.S. slave trade, to not have a clearer sense of the still-raw wounds of what polite white people once referred to as “our peculiar institution.” But for those of us who are white, it is all too easy to minimize the part of our history that makes us uncomfortable.

Have a look at the horrors endured by enslaved women, and the continued effects of those horrors on the lives of women who descended from them, as well as American culture writ large, and one would think that the study of the institution of slavery and its aftermath would be a primary path of inquiry for U.S. feminists. But it is not—at least not for those of us who are white.

It’s hard to imagine the notion of patriarchy more baldly expressed than by the slave-holding culture of pre-Civil War America, where a plantation’s master, usually married, used for his pleasure the women he held as slaves, and then enslaved any children the union produced. Need we look any further for the roots of American rape culture?

Yet despite the obvious pain of this history, not to mention the myriad ways in which it has distorted cultural and sexual relations, we look away. How else to explain the utter shock expressed by DiFranco in the defensive screed, described by Brittney Cooper as a “faux-pology,” with which she announced the cancellation of her “righteous” plantation retreat?

Meanwhile, in the comments section of DiFranco’s Facebook page, to which she subsequently posted a more apologetic note, we find some of her supporters telling her she had done nothing wrong because, they say, her intentions were good.

Now, if you’re a white feminist, you may find yourself a bit bowled over by the push-back on Twitter and in social media by African-American feminists and women of color over what may seem to us like innocent oversights. We expect compassion for “not having meant it that way,” whether the “it” is omitting a visual image of African-American women bloggers from one’s presentation on the feminist blogosphere, comparing the murder of Trayvon Martin to the peril of being a white woman in a sexist society, or, in DiFranco’s case, going along with a promoter’s venue choice that purportedly gave her pause (“whoa”).

But it’s precisely the fact that “we didn’t mean it that way” that is the problem. That we continue to make these sorts of off-handed insults and worse with no understanding of why they hurt—that takes a kind of willful indifference, and a denial of our own history, our history as a nation, as a movement, as American women. It’s the kind of denial afforded by our privilege. There’s just no shaking that.

Remember the television images of people, even babies, begging for help, thirsty and hungry, at the New Orleans convention center? I doubt that an African-American woman who found herself housed at Nottoway in the wake of Hurricane Katrina would have forgotten the name of the plantation eight years later, would have been unsure if that was the same place. But I did. I couldn’t wait to forget it.

It’s not that some irrational and sudden fury over incidents such as the DiFranco debacle suddenly appeared. What you witness today on Twitter, with hashtags such as Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen, is the culminated frustration with centuries of disregard of the opinions, contributions and experiences of women of color, especially Black women. But today feminists of color now have, in social media, the kind of platform that was never available to them in the multitudinous spaces, from the academy to pop journalism, where they’ve traditionally been denied anything other than token representation (if that).

As for Nottoway Plantation, allow me to skip the parts of the history already told in the pushback on DiFranco: you can read them here, distilled by Professor Pink of Jezebel’s GroupThink, including the way in which the owners of Nottoway describe the life of the antebellum enslaved population on the estate, and the supposed benevolence of John Hampden Randolph, the plantation master, to his enslaved workers. I’ll simply add that, in the index of his papers, housed at Louisiana State University and listed on its website, is two sets of speech notes “concerning the White League.” No hint is given as to whether Randolph was part of or sympathized with the White League, a sort of vigilante militia in the service of white landowners after the Civil War that specialized in killing Black people who demanded their political rights, and in otherwise terrorizing Republicans, then the party of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

Perhaps this bit of the Randolph family history sheds some light: Nottoway’s own website has a brief entry on one of the youngest of the master’s sons, Peter Everett Randolph, who, the present-day overseers of Nottoway tell us, “fell in love with Alice Thompson, the beautiful mulatto daughter of a former slave, Eliza Thompson.” (Yes, they use the term “mulatto.” And just how Alice Thompson, an enslaved woman, came to give birth to a daughter of mixed race is not explained.) The two ran off to New Orleans, according to the website, and had two daughters. Peter, we’re told, was “written out of the family will for quite some time.”

But a 2005 Masters’ thesis by one Christian Williamson, who participated in an exhumation project of a Randolph family cemetery plot in Bayou Goula, Louisiana, notes the slavemaster’s fury at his son. Writes Williamson:

Because of the ongoing relationship between Peter and Alice, John Randolph eventually disowned his son, destroying any record of him at Nottoway. Allegedly, John Randolph went so far as to tear out Peter’s name from the family bible. According to Mr. [Anthony] Reffells (personal communication 2004), Peter moved to New Orleans and lived in a house officially owned by his mother that was near Alice and their children. [Reffells is described as “a confirmed descendent of Peter Everett Randolph”.]

It wasn’t until his father died that Peter was written back into the family, Williamson writes. On the Nottoway website, richly illustrated with photos of the Randolph offspring, the reader is simply told that no images exist of Peter Everett Randolph. Nor, apparently, are there any of his daughters, or of Alice Thompson, the mother of his children.

Yet the Nottoway website tells us that the descendants of Peter Everett Randolph’s daughters “have come to Nottoway over the years to learn more about their heritage,” suggesting that the true history of America isn’t lost to us; it’s hiding in plain view. We just have to want to see it. Until we do, we’re only talking the talk.

Analysis Politics

Fact-Checking a Texas Republican’s Claims on Women’s Health ‘Advances’

Andrea Grimes

Texas state Sen. Jane Nelson took to the editorial page of the Austin American-Statesman this week to tout "advances" in women's health care under Republican leadership. But Nelson fudged the facts on her, and her party's, anti-woman voting record.

In an editorial published Wednesday in the Austin American-Statesman headlined “Women’s healthcare advancing under Republican leadership,” Texas state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) touts what she sees as her, and her party’s, achievements in expanding family planning and cancer-screening care for Texas women. There is no GOP-led “war on women,” she writes, calling the “so-called” war “a purely political campaign designed to paint Republicans as anti-women.”

But the record shows that Sen. Nelson herself cast the first “no” vote against establishing the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program in 2005, and Nelson’s editorial deliberately obfuscates some of her party’s most damaging moves toward dismantling the family planning safety net in Texas.

Nelson has become the Texas GOP’s most prominent spokeswoman. She is the Texas senate’s highest-ranking member and the longest-serving chair of the state senate’s Health and Human Services Committee; she also enjoys a number of other top committee and conference committee appointments. When her name is on a bill—or when her vote is called—Republicans take note.

Here, we’ll parse Nelson’s true and not-so-true claims in a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis.

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Nelson begins:

When I was first elected to the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock appointed me vice chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

True: In 1999, Nelson was appointed to a split Health and Human Services Committee, with Nelson chairing “health services,” while Democrat Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) was appointed to lead “human services.”

Back then, health care was considered a “women’s issue.”

True-ish: Health care was certainly considered a “women’s issue” in 1999. But in light of the current legal battles over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit, it’s clear that when “health care” involves care specific to people who may become pregnant, a great many Americans perceive it as a “women’s issue” that should be uniquely separated from “health care” writ large.

I never liked that term because, in my mind, all issues are women’s issues. We care about the same issues as men. But health care is of particular interest to women. Our bodies are different than men’s, and so are our health care needs.

True: Female bodies are indeed different than male bodies.

In this new role, it didn’t take long to recognize that our policies were behind the times when it came to meeting the needs of women. The Women’s Health Program didn’t exist. There was little in the way of education about the unique health care risks for women. Medicaid didn’t cover early treatment for breast and cervical cancer.

Barely true: Certainly the Medicaid Women’s Health Program (MWHP) did not exist in 1999, and women’s health and family planning was not an express focus for state lawmakers. But no concrete action was taken on the matter during Nelson’s first term on the Health and Human Services Committee. The New York Times has reported that in 1999, “family-planning advocates” coordinated an “orchestrated push” for state-funded contraception and well-woman exams, but failed.

Over the years, we changed all that. We expanded treatment options for low-income women battling cancer. We made sure mammograms were safe for women. We invested in prevention of breast and cervical cancer.

False: At least in terms of Nelson’s use of “we,” if she means to include herself and Republican lawmakers, writ large, in that designation. In 2001, Sen. Zaffirini authored a Medicaid reform bill, SB 1156, which in part directed the state to work with the federal government on a family planning program. Sen. Nelson was neither a co-author, sponsor, or co-sponsor of the bill. Three senate Republicans co-authored the bill with seven Democrats, and their house sponsors included three Democrats and one Republican. Most notably, Republican Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill.

In 2005, we created the Women’s Health Program, providing screenings, wellness checks and family planning services beyond the traditional Medicaid population.

False: In 2005, Sen. Gregory Luna (D-San Antonio) sponsored SB 747, which created the Medicaid Women’s Health Program (MWHP). Three Republican senators authored the bill, most notably John Carona (R-Dallas), along with Sen. Zaffirini. All of the bill’s senate co-authors were Democrats.

Nelson’s use of “we” in this case is especially misleading: She, as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, cast the first official “no” vote against the program at a hearing on March 22, 2005. Watch the record vote here:

Nelson only later supported SB 747 after other Republican lawmakers amended the bill to ensure that WHP patients would be barred from receiving emergency contraception and would receive information “emphasizing the health benefits of abstinence from sexual activity,” and after an amendment preventing  “abortion affiliates” from providing MWHP services was attached to the bill. That “abortion affiliate” amendment would ultimately later lead to the ouster of Planned Parenthood from the MWHP in 2012 and the wholesale dismantling of the program. Lawmakers later created the Texas Women’s Health Program (TWHP), a program that, without Planned Parenthood, has seen a 77 percent decline in clients served—at an increased cost per client—compared to the original MWHP. In hindsight, Nelson’s voting record shows that she expressly supported the provisions of the bill that ultimately led to the demise of the program and a drastic decrease in services provided to low-income Texans most in need of affordable family planning care.

Today there are four main programs specifically tailored to women. They are expected to reach more than 400,000 women and have a combined budget of over $240 million.

Truthy: Nelson appears to be speaking of the following: the Texas Women’s Health Program, another state family planning program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, and a fund for breast and cervical cancer screenings, as laid out on page 11 of this February 2014 Department of State Health Services presentation. Those four programs do indeed have a combined budget of $240.1 million. At first glance, this appears to be a massive increase from the previous fiscal biennium’s $127.3 million budget. But what Nelson fails to mention is that she personally signed her name to a 2011 budget that slashed family planning funds by $67 million—meaning that any actual funding increase is more to the tune of $40 million, and of services paid for by the $100 million increase, only two-thirds of the primary care program must be family planning services. If Nelson claims that the funding increases are remarkable, it is true only because the previous budget cuts she herself endorsed were so substantial.

Women’s health has advanced under Republican leadership.

False: Over the last 15 years—under a decade and a half of statewide Republican leadership and strong GOP majorities in both the Texas house and senate—maternal mortality in the state has quadrupled. According to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas, 59 reproductive health-care clinics—none of which provided abortion care and most of which were located in rural and underserved areas of the state—closed as a result of the 2011 budget cuts; only a handful have reopened as of 2014. Those that remain open or which have reopened must navigate a retooled contraceptive discount system that significantly negatively affects their ability to prescribe the most effective and long-acting forms of contraception.

From 2007 to 2012, the operative years of the Medicaid Women’s Health Program (MWHP) during which Planned Parenthood provided services to about half of the program’s clients, enrollment climbed and the state enjoyed a nine-to-one federal match in funds. The state lost that federal match when Republican lawmakers ousted Planned Parenthood from the MWHP—the provider’s exclusion violates federal law that allows patients to seek care wherever they choose—and enrollment plummeted by the tens of thousands. According to the Department of State Health Services, Texas’ state-funded family planning providers are currently seeing 77 percent fewer clients, at an increased cost of 17 percent per client, than they were before the 2011 budget cuts that Nelson signed off on. In 2013, the Department of State Health Services lost its long-standing claim to a federal Title X grant to an independent organization of Texas reproductive health-care providers who have taken on the work of attempting to repair some of the damage done by the 2011 budget cuts.

And safe, legal abortion in Texas is harder to access than ever today, in part thanks to Jane Nelson, who in 2011 co-sponsored the state’s mandatory ultrasound bill, which forces people seeking abortions to submit to a sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure, and requires them to listen to their provider’s verbal description of the sonogram. In 2013, Nelson co-sponsored SB 1, the senate’s version of the omnibus anti-abortion bill that has reduced Texas to just 24 legal abortion providers, down from 44 in 2011. In September 2014, when the entirety of the bill goes into full effect, Texas will have just six legal abortion providers.

Sadly, our progress is being undermined by those trying to manufacture a so-called “War on Women” — a purely political campaign designed to paint Republicans as anti-women.

False: While in its literal sense, the use of the term “war” may be considered hyperbolic, in light of the demonstrable crisis in access to affordable reproductive health care in Texas, evidence clearly shows that when family planning and women’s health programs suffer in Texas, they do so at the hands of conservative lawmakers who, leaning ever more to the political right, have privileged political rhetoric against abortion (and “abortion affiliates”) over fiscally conservative, cost-saving family planning policies that serve low-income Texans and lessen the taxpayer burden statewide, in addition to reducing the need for abortion in the first place.

They claim funding, which was reduced during the recession, has not been restored. That is not correct. Not only did we restore funds, we increased them to an all-time high.

True and false: In saying family planning funding “was reduced,” Nelson again fails to mention that she signed off on the budget cuts. And while some specific family planning has been restored since the 2011 cuts, again, the new $100 million increase in funds that prompts Nelson to tout the “all-time high” is directed to the Expanded Primary Health Care Program (EPHC), which may or may not meet its family planning goals in its infancy. In fact, explicitly directed family planning funds are at a four-year low, down to $140.1 million from $201.4 million in fiscal year 2010-11.

They claim the funds approved last session will not enhance family planning. Untrue. We required that approximately two-thirds of the women served through these new resources will receive contraception and other family planning services.

Unknown: Certainly critics of the EPHC have expressed concerns that providers will be unable to make up the difference in clients lost due to family planning cuts; with the EPHC’s recent launch, it is simply too early to tell whether that will truly be the case.

They claim that excluding abortion providers and their affiliates continues to diminish our provider network. Not so. Over 3,000 providers are signed up for the Women’s Health Program — more than double the number participating in 2011.

True, but only through a very short lens: No abortion providers were ever involved in the provision of publicly funded family planning care in Texas; for them to do so would have been a violation of the nearly 40-year-old Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from going to abortion care. In 2012, Texas lawmakers deemed Planned Parenthood locations that do not provide abortion, and which keep their funding and operational structure wholly separate from their abortion-providing entities, to be abortion “affiliates,” which did indeed result in an initially drastically diminished provider care network, as Planned Parenthood provided services to about half of the MWHP’s 130,000 or so clients. Since the creation of the state’s replacement program, the Texas Women’s Health Program, the overall provider numbers may indeed have increased, but their individual capacity to efficiently handle the volume of clients at the same low cost as Planned Parenthood, has been questioned.

These claims are irresponsible, politically motivated and hinder our ability to enroll women in these programs. No one should be discouraged from receiving the health care they need because of this misinformation. The services are there. The funding is there.

False: It was Republican-fueled funding cuts and the party’s crusade against Planned Parenthood that hindered the state’s ability to enroll women in family planning programs. In October 2013, a spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission admitted as much to the Houston Chronicle, saying that “Planned Parenthood not only served many of the clients, they also helped their patients enroll in the Women’s Health Program.” With regards to misinformation, the Department of State Health Services itself spread a great deal of it in the run-up to the dismantling of the MWHP by advising enrollees to call colonoscopy centers for pap smears. Today, it may be true that between the partially restored family planning funding and the primary health-care expansion that services and funding are available; whether Texans can avail themselves of services offered, again, remains to be seen. If Texans do not or cannot receive services, it will be because Republican lawmakers—and some anti-choice Democrats—intentionally fractured a cost-effective safety net that saved taxpayer dollars and helped Texans plan their families.

We recognize there is more work to do. At our recent hearings, we identified four areas of focus to enhance women’s health: improve education, make it easier to navigate the system, expand our reach in underserved areas and strengthen family planning.

True: The senate Health and Human Services Committee met in February 2014 to discuss what Nelson described as “legislative achievements in women’s health care.”

We will work across the aisle on areas of common ground — without abandoning our principles. We budget within our means. We don’t agree that embracing Obamacare is the right way to expand women’s health care. We oppose using public funds to pay for abortions. These positions are often twisted to mean things they don’t, but the truth is these views are held by most Texans.

True, inasmuch as an opposition to the Affordable Care Act and a stated goal of general fiscal conservatism are an accurate representations of Republican party positions. But it bears repeating that the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already expressly bans public federal funding for abortion, except in extremely limited cases involving rape or incest or the health of the pregnant person. According to the Center for Medicaid Services, only 150 abortions nationwide were funded by Medicaid in 2012. And with regard to Texans’ views on abortion legislation, a 2013 poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that only 38 percent of Texans would like to see the kind of stricter abortion restrictions favored by Nelson and her cohorts in the GOP. And while Republicans do oppose the ACA, the attendant Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government, which has been outright refused by Gov. Rick Perry and his GOP allies, would allow an estimated one million Texans—in a state with the highest rate of uninsured adults in the country—to access affordable health care, including family planning services.

Since I became the 10th woman ever elected to the Texas Senate, women’s health has come a long way, and there are more women making decisions about our health care policies than ever before. Seven women now serve in the Senate. Three of us served on the four-person panel that wrote the Senate’s health and human services budget last session.

True: Texas women now hold seven of 31 senate seats. Four of them are Democrats.

That budget, championed by Republicans, included a historic commitment to women’s health. Not only does my party care deeply about the rights, respect and needs of Texas women, Republicans have delivered results for women since becoming the majority party.

False: Republican lawmakers only came around to the idea of increasing family planning funds when they were assured that funds would be funneled through non-specialty primary care providers, and it’s important to remember that the “historic commitment” came after a historic decimation of the family planning safety net in 2011. In the wider view, it would be difficult to say that any part of Texas’ 2013 budget was roundly “championed” by Republicans, despite the fact that they ruled the legislature with a sound majority. Even the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation at one point described the “great Texas budget debate of 2013” thusly: “four conservative senators joined 30 conservative House members in voting against the budget; never had so many members of the majority party voted against the budget.”

Nelson closes her editorial with this:

Women can’t be defined by a narrow list of political wedge issues. We can be anything we want, including proud Red State women who are fighting for women’s health.

Taken as a whole, Texas lawmakers’ efforts in dismantling the state’s family planning safety net make it clear that if any group can be said to be driving “political wedges” into legislation that affects women, it is the Republican party, which has used its opposition to legal abortion—and its party members’ enthusiasm for relegating Roe v. Wade to a historical footnote—to play ping-pong with the most marginalized, lowest-income Texans’ ability to access affordable reproductive health care.

The only Texas women who can be “anything [they] want” are the Texas women who, like Jane Nelson, have the money, means, and privilege to do so. And that group remains as exclusive as ever, especially in light of the fact that Texas Republicans continue to oppose the adoption of a state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that was proposed by state Sen. Wendy Davis in 2013—a bill that Sen. Jane Nelson also voted against.

Commentary Race

Why I Visit Sites of Slavery

Cynthia Greenlee

Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

When I was house shopping in my native North Carolina, I discovered a cute bungalow in a neighborhood with a most unfortunate name. Let’s call it Emerson Plantations. No doubt some marketing executive had visions of Tara replete with (imaginary) fields of fluffy cotton harvested by gangs of happily enslaved people who toiled from dawn to dusk. I declined to support that fantasy with a 30-year mortgage.

Yet, as a historian and a descendant of enslaved people, I make a point of visiting slavery sites around the world. I’ve been to Ghana’s Elmina Castle and Stagville Plantation, miles from my house, among others.

When I enter such properties, I first brace myself for profound sadness. I think about my paternal great-great grandmother, Myra, enslaved on a small mountain farm. Myra Stepp bore her slaveowner more than a dozen children. Only one of those children, my great-grandfather John Myra, was born into freedom. After emancipation, Myra’s former owner left her with only a few pots to fend for herself. And I think of my maternal great-great grandfather, Mose, probably a skilled carpenter who was valued at more than $1,000 in the will of his South Carolina slaveowner. In freedom, Mose became a substantial landowner by 1869, and my family still owns much of that property.

I then steel myself for deep anger when such historical sites ignore the lives of the enslaved. I prepare myself for what I call acts of “constructively disruptive tourism.” I question guides about slavery’s invisibility in their scripts or, even worse, when they use thinly veiled Lost Cause rhetoric that slavery wasn’t all that bad.

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So I understand the furor over beloved feminist indie songwriter Ani DiFranco and the creative retreat she was planning at the former Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. Nottoway is the largest surviving antebellum plantation in the South. With 53,000 square feet, its own bowling alley, and semi-modern bathrooms, the house’s floor space is roughly equal to that of the White House. You can experience the grandeur during an overnight stay or book your wedding reception there. (Start at the Gold level: $85 per person, minimum 50 guests.)

Running that massive estate required a small army of enslaved people—more than 150 of them in 1860. Original owner John Hampden Randolph used human flesh as his capital. Enslaved Nottoway residents catered to the house’s residents, and they provided the muscle and technical know-how behind the Randolph family’s sugar production.

Critics railed at DiFranco’s choice of venue, saying that a retreat on a site of slavery, one that some say has insufficiently acknowledged its past as a site of slavery (full disclosure: I have not visited Nottoway), revealed a deep insensitivity to history and racism. These plantations, after all, are not just pleasant architectural remnants. Often literally built by the enslaved, they were the ultimate in exploitative workplaces, sites of subjection and resistance, and generations-long crime scenes.

Bloggers and pundits then seized on DiFranco’s lackluster apology as yet another example of a clueless white feminist who is tone-deaf to her own privilege. DiFranco contributed to one of 2013’s oft-repeated refrains by white feminists: “Why are these angry/bullying/aggressive women of color feminists picking on me?” She expressed genuine surprise that so many people could get so mad. (She later issued a second apology on her Facebook page.)

I find it hard to believe DiFranco’s wide-eyed act. Yes, Americans gloss over what historian Edmund Morgan called the American paradox—that slavery and inequality were integral to creating a republic ostensibly founded on freedom. We know that slavery rarely makes for comfortable dinnertime talk or history classes. But we talk around it constantly with the seemingly annual fights over how to remember or teach slavery; a persistent education urban legend says that the State of Texas decided to describe slaves as “unpaid interns” in its textbooks. Our language of partisan outrage relies on comparing the most controversial of American policies and challenges—Obamacare, abortion, massive national debt—to slavery. Slavery was so bad that it provides the grist for our most extreme metaphors, though we can’t wrap our minds around its historical realities.

I can’t agree with DiFranco’s critics who have tarred all historical sites with the same racist brush. Scholars of slavery, archaeology, cultural preservation, and public history have moved many plantation museums from an Old South, top-down history. In 1994, colonial Williamsburg in Virginia staged a mock slave auction, a move that prompted heated criticism from Black residents who feared that this soul-wrenching history would be trivialized as entertainment. Years later, Williamsburg launched revamped enactments that put audience members in the roles of the enslaved, events so powerful that “enslaved” audience members sometimes tried to wrest faux guns away from their oppressors. Historic Stagville in Durham, North Carolina, treats its reconstructed slave cabins as integral, not peripheral, to the plantation, and its staff have engaged in years of research to identify, document, and collaborate with the descendants of those who toiled there. Longtime historic preservation officer Joseph McGill continues his Slave Dwellings Project, in which he locates and sleeps overnight in extant slave lodgings. The project aims to illuminate enslaved lives and rescue these structures—which often look like ramshackle eyesores—from disrepair, demolition, or historical amnesia. (You can see McGill and me on a slavery-related episode of PBS’ “History Detectives.”)

That’s not to say that all plantations are making an effort, or that all the efforts hit the mark. Historical interpretation matters. On a recent trip to Tryon Palace, a colonial governor’s residence in New Bern, North Carolina, I asked my tour leader to clarify the term “servants.” Other tour participants didn’t know the term included captured indigenous people, enslaved men and women of African descent, and indentured servants who signed away years of their lives in labor.

But the message was underscored when the tour continued to a detached kitchen where an African-American interpreter in period dress baked bread over an 18th-century-style hearth. Tryon Palace also stages reenactments of Jonkunnu celebrations, and its website has no qualms about including content about white resident John Stanley’s son with an enslaved woman in its information.

No doubt some of these landmarks paint a picture that privileges the slave owners, see benevolence rather than brutality, and attract mainly white audiences. Still, it’s far too easy to point a finger at historic plantations for their seeming devotion to hoop skirts and a whitewashed Southern history. Get rid of these plantations, and you wipe away a part of American material culture and part of slavery’s history.

Rather, let’s push existing sites to have a more accurate, inclusive view of history. Take time to visit a site of slavery, and if you don’t like what you see, post a Facebook update with details about your questions and complaints on your wall and the site’s Facebook page, if it has one. But, more importantly, contact that site’s manager and make your voice heard.

Ani DiFranco did get one thing right when she wrote, “Let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites.” Indeed, visitors to antebellum Washington, D.C., could step outside the capitol and reach a Maryland Avenue slave pen within minutes. Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

Slavery is not that far away from my branch on the family tree, and I feel these historical sites belong to me. Though I have joked half-seriously that African Americans should get lifetime free admission, I enter these sites with a serious purpose. As a historian, I visit these museums to check the stories they tell. I don’t mind being “that” visitor who hijacks the tours with corrective interpretation. I am that brown face that may give guides pause when they launch into a selective version of history. I don’t mind walking into the office of curatorial and programming staff to complain about representations of slavery.

But, more than anything, I go to honor those who never got off the plantation.


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