Slave Rebellion Reenactment, a community engaged performance initiated by Dread Scott. Photographed by Soul Brother

Slave Rebellion Reenactment

On November 8 & 9, 2019, hundreds of re-enactors retraced the path of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in United States history, embodying a story of resistance, freedom and revolutionary action.

Slave Rebellion Reenactment, a community-engaged artist performance and film production, reimagined the German Coast Uprising of 1811, which took place in the river parishes just outside of New Orleans. The reenactment traced a 12-mile route through St John the Baptist Parish, traveling from La Place to Norco, LA following River Road.

Envisioned and organized by artist Dread Scott and documented by filmmaker John Akomfrah, Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR) animated a suppressed history of people with an audacious plan to organize and seize Orleans Territory, to fight not just for their own emancipation, but to end slavery. It is a project about freedom.

The artwork involved hundreds of reenactors in period specific clothing marching for two days covering 26 miles. The reenactment, the culmination of a period of organizing and preparation, took place upriver from New Orleans in the locations where the 1811 revolt occurred—with the exurban communities and industry that have replaced the sugar plantations as its backdrop. The reenactment was an impressive and startling sight—hundreds of Black re-enactors, many on horses, flags flying, in 19th-century French colonial garments, singing in Creole and English to African drumming.

Slave Rebellion Reenactment, a community engaged performance initiated by Dread Scott. Photographed by Soul Brother

A key element of slave revolts was the organizing of the uprising by small groups of trusted individuals, clandestinely plotting with others in small cells. Mirroring this structure, SRR initiated several recruitment and organizing meetings of multiple small groupings of people to prepare the reenacted uprising. Extending the artwork’s performative reenactment of history, the meetings took the form of conversations about why people chose to participate, about others they might involve, and why this history is important in contemporary society. The self-organization of the slave rebel reenactors was an essential part of the artwork.

There was limited fighting during the 1811 rebellion, so, in contrast to many war reenactments, much of SRR was a procession, with only occasional skirmishes. The procession was jarringly out of place as they advanced past neighborhoods, strip malls, and oil refineries. This historic anomaly formed a cognitive dissonance for viewers, opening space for people to rethink long held assumptions.

Charles Deslondes, Gilbert, Quamana, Jeesamine, and Marie Rose­–some of the leaders of the 1811 uprising–alongside the many enslaved people who were part of the revolt are unsung heroes: their vision, if known about more widely, would inspire many. Their rebellion is a profound “what if?” story. It had a small but real chance of succeeding—what would that have meant for US and world history? Understanding that the past was not predetermined opens the ability for people to dream “what if?” for the future. We hope that this project will help people of all races broaden their vision of what is possible.

SRR builds on Dread Scott’s performance, Dread Scott: Decision (2012) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Where Dread Scott: Decision looked at American democracy’s foundation in slavery, SRR shifted focus from the roots of America to the strivings of people fighting to be free of those roots. An army from the past, forged of descendants of enslaved Africans, collided with the present and the reverberations were felt by audiences and reenactors alike.

Map showing the route for the Slave Rebellion Reenactment.

The reenactment concluded in Congo Square, a location instrumental for preserving African culture in America, with a celebration—transforming the violent suppression of the freedom fighters into a celebration of their achievement. Slave Rebellion Reenactment continued the original rebels’ vision of emancipation that was embodied throughout the performance and opened the possibility for participants and audience members to imagine freedom.

According to American Uprising, a book written by Daniel Rasmussen, a group of around 500 enslaved men, dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes, rose up from the slave plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city.

Scott’s re-enactment stayed true to history. But the artist decided not to re-enact the rebellion’s brutal end, which resulted in the torture of Deslondes, who was burned alive, and the murder of dozens of his rebels by white captors who stopped them from reaching New Orleans.

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