The first time I heard about the protests surrounding Ani DeFranco’s decision to host a ‘Righteous Retreat” for artists at a former plantation in New Orleans was an article in Salon by Brittney Cooper. I read the article and immediately jumped to “what was DiFranco thinking holding a retreat in a former plantation and that apology. Honestly”. I made all the appropriate noises suggesting that I would never be so callous as to engage in replicating the white supremacy in such an egregious manner.
It turns out I was engaged in some deeply hypocritical self-delusions.
I have to be brutally honest: I have never thought about plantations other than architecturally beautiful buildings. In DiFranco’s position, it would never have occurred to me that it was a problem. I have that ‘romantic’ view of plantations as beautiful; much in the same way that I view estates like Chatsworth in England or the city of Liverpool which was basically built from the profits of the Slave trade even after slavery was declared illegal in the UK.
I’m a historian by training. I know the history of slavery. I know that plantations were built on the profits of the brutal kidnapping, torture and murder of African peoples. I know that the beautiful buildings I love to see in Liverpool, and a large number of other cities, were built on the profits of the brutal kidnapping, torture and murder of African peoples. I know this and yet I remove the buildings, which I admire, from their historical context. As much as I would like to pretend I would have been more aware than DiFranco, it is only a delusion based on the theory that I can’t possibly be personally responsible for replicating the White Supremacy.
I attended a conference on Holocaust Studies in Krakow many, many moons ago. Part of the conference was a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau given by women survivors. Auschwitz is the general name given to a large complex which includes 3 large concentration camps: Auschwitz 1 for men, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) which functioned as the women’s concentration camp and a death camp, and Auschwitz III (Monowitz) which was the slave labour camp. Auschwitz was surrounded by over a hundred smaller satellite slave labour camps in which conditions differed. As part of the tour, we were allowed access to areas of Birkenau which are generally closed to the public, including the brothel. To say the tour was harrowing would be a gross understatement. Whilst I was there, a school group of Polish children around 12-13 were also touring the facility. Their tour ended with a group photo in front of the Polish Martyrs wall, where Polish fighters were executed. The children were pushing and shoving and laughing. The photo itself involved the children sticking out their tongues, doing bunny ears and attempting to pose like rappers. It was completely inappropriate and made Birkenau feel like an amusement park rather than the mass grave of more than one million people.
So, why do I feel that plantations are different? Hundreds of thousands of slaves were tortured, torn from their families, subject to inhumane physical and sexual abuse and were murdered in them (and because of them). Yet, because I class the buildings as architecturally significant and beautiful, somehow they are exempt of representing the mass graves of slaves.
Obviously, this comes down to my unexamined white privilege but it’s made me think of all the historical sites I love visiting whose histories are rooted in violence, racism and xenophobia that I don’t even think about. Although, I did once have a spectacular tantrum in the Tower of London who have managed to neglect to mention the whole issue of opium in the “Chinese Wars of the 1850s” in which Britain fought China to open it up to international trade for tea without mentioning pesky issues like colonialisation, racism or morphine addiction. By the time we got to the “Hammer of the Scots” being referred to as an excellent general with no mention of mass murder, I was set for spontaneous combustion. This memory is vivid only because it’s the first time I’ve ever questioned the value of visiting sites of extreme violence.
In Ani DiFranco’s place, I doubt it would have occurred to me that a former plantation was an inappropriate place for a retreat. I would hope that my apology for being called on this would have been less, shall we say, whiny but would it?
I’m left with some incredibly uncomfortable feelings about how I view history and historical sites.