James Gill; Songwriter changes tune on plantation plans

Although singer-songwriter Ani Difranco has canceled her retreat at Nottoway Plantation, she is clearly inclined to pooh-pooh the hoo-ha.

Her plan, according to a massive online petition that helped change her mind, was “insulting to black feminists and black queer individuals,” which is evidently how some in the African-American gay community prefer to style themselves.

DiFranco, white and famously bisexual, did not see it that way. Announcing that she had yielded to the pressure and backed away from the retreat, she still struck a defiant tone, observing, “The history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country.”

That may be especially true around here. If we were to avoid all buildings with a taint of slavery, we’d never buy a beer at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter, for instance.

Nottoway, the largest antebellum mansion of them all, is now a resort, hotel and museum, owned since 1985 by Paul Ramsay, a health care mogul who is one of Australia’s richest men. A modern visitor might not regard the evils of long ago as any reason to deny himself Nottoway’s various splendors.

A look at its website, however, made it easier to understand the furor. Whoever wrote the history of the plantation is unknown, but we can be absolutely certain he or she was not black. The subject of slavery brought on an almost wistful tone.

In the past couple of days, however, it has dawned on Nottoway management that the time has come to acknowledge the Cause is Lost. An introductory paragraph titled “Nottoway Plantation’s Position on Slavery” has been added. That position can be revealed as anti.

Although slavery wasn’t our fault, it was “abhorrent.” Various other changes have been made to remove the Confederate edge in key parts of the text.

Praise for John Hampden Randolph, who completed construction of Nottoway a couple of years before the Civil War, remains unstinting. However, although the sanitized version retains a paragraph noting that he owned 155 slaves in 1860, it no longer adds “when most owners possessed fewer than 20 slaves.” Readers will now have to figure out for themselves what an admirable achievement that was.

Randolph had long outdone his rivals in the accumulation of slaves. As early as 1844 he put up 46, plus a house, as collateral for Iberville Parish’s first steam-powered sugar mill.

Randolph’s brilliance is the recurring theme of the website history of Nottoway, as, for instance, in this passage. “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 for especially productive.”

And, if that didn’t work, slaveholders could always resort to whips and chains.

The notion that slaves could constitute “a willing workforce” might ring true for Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty,” but someone must have told Nottoway management to quit joking. Now, the slaves are described as merely “compliant” — not that they had much choice in the matter.

Life was pretty tough for Confederates after the war, as the Nottoway website continues to remind us. “The abolition of slavery and a depressed economy took their toll. By 1875, Nottoway Plantation was reduced to 800 acres.” Be strong, reader! Dab away those tears.

Decent though it is of Nottoway to come out against slavery, its denunciation remains woefully feeble. And let nobody say it is unfair to judge Randolph by the standards of another age. The proposition that slavery is evil cannot have been unknown to Randolph.

DiFranco’s Nottoway plans caused all the more resentment because Ramsay is a major contributor to the Liberal Party of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose views on gay marriage do not endear him to “queer individuals.”

But Australian politics were an afterthought. The slave bell that still stands in the Nottoway courtyard was all that was required to put the kibosh on DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” songwriting workshop. She should have seen it coming.

James Gill’s email is jgill@theadvocate.com.