Glamming Up Slavery: Ani DiFranco’s Plantation Paradise

slave-family-350Feminist folk singer Ani Difranco has enraged fans by hosting her upcoming “Righteous Retreat” at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

As someone who grew up in Georgia, I’ve seen that a lot of White southerners and northerners view plantations as glamorous vacation hubs. For many, plantations are serene settings for family gatherings, weddings and retreats. There are even housing communities that are presented as high class by adding “plantation” to the name.

The gruesome realities of plantations are almost non-existent in their minds because the pain is not tied to their historical framework. There is almost always a careful removal of a realistic identity of masters, their descendants and the privilege that comes along with the erasure of history. So when people like Thomas Jefferson are discussed, the excuse for his participation as a slaver owner/rapist is, “He was a man of his time.”

The focus now turns to his legacy as a founding father rather than as a racist, enslaver and sexual abuser. This history is often avoided or shunned, which leads to the cloaking of actual events. It allows for privileged groups to remain unbothered by very meaningful lived experiences on terror filled plantations.

The focus on the lavish and decadent lifestyles of the plantation owners trumps the fact that patrons are directly basking in the riches accumulated from the mass enslavement of African American people. Some would like to think that times weren’t so hard for “the slaves”. The Nottoway Plantation’s website specifically states, “It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time. “

What records? John Randolph owned 155 slaves. How many of them were allowed to submit recommendations or file police reports?

ani-difranco-350Nottoway’s website continues, camouflaging the horrors of slavery:

Considering his slaves to be valuable tools in the operation of his business, Randolph provided the necessary care to keep them in good health. He understood the importance of hygiene in controlling the spread of illnesses and disease, so he provided a bathhouse where slaves could bathe daily if they wished. He also had a slave hospital; he paid a local physician to make weekly visits and trained one of the slaves as a nurse to care for his slaves.

Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.

Their site basically states, he owned and controlled the entire lives of other human beings but he bathed them, gave them ham and they danced. How differently would this story have been if the formally enslaved wrote it?

nottoway-350Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is like to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. – Harriet Ann Jacobs

While  Nottoway Plantation’s website claims New Year’s day joyous, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the author of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” says otherwise:

But to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns.

jessica-ann-mitchellThis is the story we know. For many African Americans, we don’t have the privilege of forgetting. We don’t have the privilege of causal plantation dining and retreats. It wasn’t fun or luxurious for us. To disregard this fact, is to disregard our humanity. No matter how it’s glammed up, we don’t want to go back.

Jessica Ann Mitchell


  1. Dick Price says

    A year or so ago, my wife and I visited Mount Vernon, with Sharon’s granddaughter Rosemary. I recalled visiting it in my childhood, but had very few actual memories from more than 50 years ago, other than that my family and I had visited.

    I enjoyed generally — meaning “tepidly” — viewing the architecture and imaging myself living in the mansion, out in the Virginia countryside. The guides were most informative, and between changing diapers and feeding Rosemary, I learned a thing or two.

    But then I saw the impact the tour of the slave quarters had on Sharon, and the general description of George Washington’s family lived in high style on the backs of the several hundred slaves who did all the work on the plantation. Her shoulders literally drooped and her tread grew heavy.

    In much the way the solemn, subdued Vietnam Memorial acts as a counterpoint to the monuments to wartime victory — all the statues of generals dotting town squares and traffic circles across the county — perhaps we ought to have a national monument to the millions of slaves who over 400 years did so much to make this country what it is.

    You can’t imagine us not honoring our “Founding Fathers” but you can imagine us also honoring the generations of black slaves who made that “founding” possible.

  2. BBunsen says

    I admit to being conflicted over this issue. On the one hand, yes, Nottoway Plantation was built on the sweat and blood of slaves. On the other hand, how can we best honor their work and suffering? Slaves built Nottoway, and isn’t appreciating the beauty of the place also a way of appreciating the sacrifices they made to get it built? If it were to be razed and plowed under, wouldn’t that somehow negate their work, and encourage us to forget?

    I’m a white male, and I don’t have the answers to those questions, and perhaps have no right to join this conversation. I just wonder if there is any way that sites such as this can be cleansed, rehabilitated, and sanctified, and used as places of honor and respect for those who suffered there – much as the Nazi concentration camps have been turned into memorials.

  3. jackrabbit says

    Ms. Mitchell, Thank you for this splendid piece — short and to the point. Another person has commented that Ms. Difranco has cancelled this event and that is good news on New Year Day. My family came to this continent as indentured . workers, not comparable to slavery, but bad. No one ever speaks to the accumulation of wealth that came from slavery that is the backbone of the growth of this country nor of the wealth the indentured created through their work all for the enrichment of the slave owner or the contract holder of the indentured. Back then as now poorer people were played off against each other for the enrichment of the wealthy class that now includes some “minorities” and women who are just as ruthless. One day we the people have to become a united “we the people” and take the wealth that we created away from the wealthy classes and use it for our betterment, call it settling old debts.

  4. jane says

    Ms. Mitchell is exactly right. Plantations are not just pretty places. They are the principal sites where people of one race practiced the systematic dehumanization of many more people of another race. Plantations hold a long history of evil acts that can never be erased or denied; their far-reaching consequences live on in American culture today.

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