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Ani DiFranco, Slavery and the Subsidy of History

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco recently cancelled her “Righteous Retreat in the Big Easy,” a song-writing retreat hosted at the Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation in Louisiana. The venue choice provoked well-deserved outrage, prompting DiFranco to cancel. DiFranco issued what Callie Beusman at Jezebel called “a remarkably unapologetic ‘apology,’” defending her actions more than apologizing for them.

The Nottoway Plantation and Resort doesn’t illuminate the brutal history of slavery; it whitewashes and glorifies slavery. The resort’s website claims that ”Randolph [Nottoway] 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.”  Rather than highlighting the rights violations inherent in enslaving human beings, the resort euphemistically calls slaves a “willing workforce” and advertises the supposed benefits slaves received.

The site also brags that “A dramatic, multi-million-dollar renovation has restored this historic plantation to her days of glory.” I wouldn’t call days of slavery, abuse, and exploitation “days of glory.”

The problem here goes beyond sanitizing the history of slavery. We should ask ourselves why this plantation still exists at all. We should ask why wealthy white people still own it. The slaves mixed their labor with the soil, developing it. They, not the slave-owning criminals who retained title after the Civil War, worked and toiled on the land. As libertarian economist Murray Rothbard wrote,

“elementary libertarian justice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, of the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated.”

But this justice was denied. Black freedmen did not own their own land, and were instead forced to work for those who had unjustly monopolized the land. Slavery gave way to sharecropping, exploitative wage labor, unemployment, and other forms of exploitation of structural poverty. The ongoing structural poverty that plagues communities of color can largely be traced to slavery and the related land monopoly. This is a good example of what Kevin Carson calls “the subsidy of history,” in which historical violence and plunder plays a critical role in the modern economic order.

The plantation lands remained in the hands of slave owners, eventually passing into the hands of wealthy capitalists. Currently, the Nottoway Plantation is owned by the Paul Ramsay Group investment firm. The firm’s owner, Paul Ramsay, is one of the largest political donors in Australia, donating handsome sums to the right-wing, homophobic, misogynistic politicians of Australia’s Liberal Party.

This ongoing legacy of slavery isn’t just apparent in land monopolization and the ruling class’s profit from “plantation resorts.” The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” So after slavery’s formal abolition, Southern states passed Black Codes, effectively criminalizing black people. This enabled Southerners to continue enslaving blacks, using the so-called the “convict lease system.” Some plantations were converted to prisons. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, is a converted slave plantation where blacks are still exploited for their agricultural labor. The racism of slavery persists; 60% of prisoners are people of color.

From criminal punishment to economic order, our society is pervasively shaped by slavery. This is upheld through an ideology and structure of racism. Kylie Brooks, an activist who organized against holding the retreat at the plantation, put it well:

“The Ani DiFranco debacle is one in a pattern of many, many daily experiences of anti-blackness — a global phenomenon — that Black folks have to struggle through daily. Anti-blackness in particular refers back to the ancestral experiences of enslavement and ongoing current experiences of the prison system, both as genocidal phenomenons.”

Resisting anti-black racism means standing against the land monopoly, the prison system and all other systems of oppression.

Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been involved in LGBT, feminist, anti-war, and prisoner solidarity organizing. Goodman is the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS.org). In addition to writing at C4SS, he blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

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Nathan Goodman is the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS.org). He blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

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