Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ani DiFranco's Antebellum Change of Heart

Singer Ani DiFranco
As 2013 comes to a close it's interesting to observe the growing power of social media tools like Twitter and online platforms like Change.org to generate change and magnify public response to a variety of issues.

In some cases it's kind of like Democracy on steroids, unfiltered raw public opinion directed at specific issues with an immediacy and speed that's unprecedented.

It's an important barometer of the cultural mindset as well that doesn't require focus groups, pricey surveys or a bunch of bean counters to sift through reams of data; a quick digital snapshot rather than a sketch.

Case in point, a story posted yesterday on The Root.com by Stephen Crockett about singer Ani DiFranco's recent announcement on her blog that she's canceling a planned four-day creative writing retreat that was to have taken place at Nottoway Plantation Resort located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The problem for poor Ani is that Nottoway is an actual former slave plantation owned by (drum roll please) a conservative organization known as the Paul Ramsay Group headed by a Rupert Murdoch-ish figure named Paul Ramsay.

The PRG Website page for this former forced labor agricultural facility and place of human bondage describes Nottoway as "...the South's largest remaining antebellum mansion...a dramatic, multi-million dollar renovation has restored this historic plantation to her days of glory as well as adding luxury resort amenities and corporate and social event venues."

Obviously they're talking about the meticulously-designed mansion itself but "days of glory" probably isn't the way many Americans would want to remember that period in American history.

The 53,000 square foot house has 64 rooms, seven different staircases and five galleries. It was designed by New Orleans architect Henry Howard and  built by slaves in 1858 by owner John Hampden Randolph on a nearly 7,000 acre sugarcane plantation worked by hundreds of slaves during it's 'heyday'.

Does it deserve to be on the national list of registered historic sites so that its legacy can serve as an opportunity to educate people about an important period in American history?

Most definitely. But is Nottoway really the kind of place people should gather for social events? That's a tougher question I'm not qualified to answer. 

Progressive feminist singer DiFranco, who wrote on her blog that she had no idea where her retreat had been scheduled and wasn't aware of the implications of the event being held there, was surprised by the intensity of the Twitter response criticizing her holding an event on a former slave plantation.

After more than 2,500 people signed a Change.org petition, DiFranco canceled the event and to her credit, the voter rights advocate recognized why many were offended by the venue choice.

What's interesting about the speed of this campaign is that it's really not something that got a whole lot of publicity from mainstream media and it's one of many examples of Americans (of all backgrounds) making clear choices on where they stand about racially sensitive topics - such as using a former slave plantation as an entertainment venue.

It's also interesting that no one waited around for politicians to take the lead on this; people just did it.

It was generated and supported by average people around the country (and world) who brought their voices together for a specific goal; and achieved it with the help of a well-known singer who showed the presence of mind and maturity to listen and be an agent of change. DiFranco deserves props for that.

Will petitions like this become a new kind of activism that completely skirts the dysfunctional nature of politics today? Time will tell. It certainly worked in this case, as it did in the recent renaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School Jacksonville.

I suspect it can work on a range of issues on much larger scales - and I'm sure I'm not the only one curious to see how it will impact the coming 2016 presidential elections.

Perhaps the time of mass demonstrations on the streets is over and the dawn of mass demonstrations online is upon us? We'll see, but regardless the potential is limitless and that's a pretty positive note to close out the year on.

Anyway, here's to better things for all of us in the new year; hope to see you back here in 2014!  -CG

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