An image of the potential costumes for “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” to be staged in November 2018 by Dread Scott (all images courtesy the artist)

For almost three decades, the artist Dread Scott has relentlessly interrogated issues of ideology and power, often in terms of how they are experienced through the prisms of nationalism, race, and violence. He has recently undertaken one of his most ambitious projects to date, proposing to reenact  the 1811 German Coast Uprising — the largest slave revolt in North American history — which took place outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. In partnership with the organization Antenna, which supports visual and literary arts projects relevant to its local New Orleans communities, Scott plans to employ more than 500 reenactors in period costumes (some on horses, others on foot) marching along the route taken by those involved in the original revolt. The participants will be armed with machetes, knives, and muskets, and accompanied by Creole singing and African drumming as they process 24 miles over the course of two days. The project, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, is partially funded by several organizations along with Antenna:  A Blade of Grass, Fractured Atlas, Kindle Project, the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Smack Mellon, and Map Fund. To complete the necessary funding Scott has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $40,000 by December 8. I spoke with him about what this project aims to do and why now seems like the right time to stage it.

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Seph Rodney: From what I understand, you have started this Kickstarter campaign to fund a reenactment of a slave revolt.

Dread Scott: We’ve got funding from other foundations and individuals, but yeah, this is to fund a reenactment of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in North America history. It’s a rebellion that happened in 1811 outside of New Orleans. And one of the things that’s actually exciting about this particular rebellion is that people had a plan to free themselves the only way they could, and that was by taking up arms to end slavery. They wanted to seize all of the New Orleans territory, which was about the size of Louisiana as a whole, and they were going to end slavery, which was an audacious plan. We’re going to reenact this with 500 people in period-specific costumes with musket and machetes and cane knives and sickles and sabers and horses and flags flying, marching for 24 miles, saying, “On to New Orleans. Freedom or Death. We’re going to end slavery.”

SR: And this will take place when and where if all the funding comes through and everything comes together?

DS: In November of 2018, and it’s going to take place in the regions where the rebellion originally happened. So what was sugar plantations is now a town named La Place; going down to a town named Kenner and then also taking place in New Orleans. What was sugar plantations is now oil refineries, chemical production, big box stores, gated communities, strip malls, trailer parks, a whole hodgepodge. We’re going to march in those areas, and go into the city of New Orleans and culminate there.

An historic sign of the Andry Plantation designating the area as where the 1811 slave revolt began.

SR: So there are two questions: One is how you got the idea for this or what prompted the project; and two, why is now the right time to do this project?

DS: The idea came to me about seven years ago. I thought, “Hey, I’d like to see a slave rebellion reenactment.” A lot of times when I work I try to think of what doesn’t exist, what needs to be created. And then it just sort of sat on the shelf.

Then, about 4 years ago, I was invited to the McColl Center to have a residency, and they said, “Hey, what would you like to do?” And I just told them, “I’d like to do a slave rebellion reenactment,” thinking there’s no way they’d accept it. And they said, “Yes.” So then I had to figure out well what rebellion. Is it going to be Nat Turner? Is it going to be Gabriel Prosser? Is it going to be something that’s kind of like a generic rebellion? Then the person who was the interim gallery director at the time had heard about this 1811 rebellion, and I started reading about it and was like, “This is amazing.” It’s a suppressed history, and it actually could have changed U.S. and world history: if enslaved people were able to set up a new African republic in the New World that would have changed the course of U.S. and world history. So I’m like, “That’s the one I want to do.” And then the why now is, this would have been a timely project 20 years ago, 40 years ago, and 10 years from now. The stars are, however, aligning. The question of the conditions and position of black people in American society is being thought about in a way that it hasn’t for years, and particularly with the coming of Donald Trump, and an outspoken fascist and white supremacist movement that’s now driving their cars in the demonstrations of anti-fascist protestors. This project now will deeply resonate with people that want to be free of [this] legacy of slavery as well as those who are trying to reinforce those shackles.

SR: In what way do you imagine a reenactment moving toward getting people free of those ideological shackles?

Slave Rebellion Reenactment prototype costume worn by the artist Dread Scott

DS: Well, I think that the main thing is that the most radical position of freedom on the North American continent existed in the heads of enslaved people. It wasn’t French colonists who, while they had their rights of man, enslaved people. It wasn’t the Americans with their US Constitution proclaiming freedom, whose freedom was based on owning other human beings. It was enslaved people who wanted to be free of each of those systems. And so that radical and bold thinking is at the heart of this project. This is a project that is going back to excavate and mine the thinking of the enslaved people who wanted freedom by any means necessary and took up a plan to do that. They identified the problem was that they were enslaved. They didn’t say, “Well, alright. Let’s see if we can get some legislation passed that will mean that we get whipped only on Monday through Friday.” They didn’t form a super PAC. They said, “We have to figure out all the things necessary to end slavery. That’s the solution. The problem is we’re enslaved. The solution is to end slavery.”

I think that thinking could really change people’s understanding in the present. A lot of my work deals with how the past not only sets the stage for the present but exists in the present in new forms. If we had people, hundreds of people really thinking — not what we think is possible to achieve for freedom, but what do we think is necessary — and then working out the plans of how to get free from there. That would actually be profound. I think of bringing that radical thinking, of not looking at your conditions and making a compromise from the start, but actually looking at your conditions and saying, “What is going to bring a world we really want to live in?” That’s why I think that this project is going to matter. It’s a project about freedom and emancipation. Some people think that it’s a project about slavery. It’s not. It’s a project about freedom.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...