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Dread Scott’s “Slave Rebellion” Promises an Empowering Take on the Historical Reenactment Trope

In 1811, hundreds of enslaved people marched through Louisiana chanting “freedom or death.” While their oft-forgotten journey ended in massacre, artist Dread Scott spent six years organizing a reenactment to celebrate the legacy of their courage, to be staged November 8-9.

Costumes for the Slave Rebellion Reenactment were designed by Alison L. Parker (all images courtesy of the Slave Rebellion Reenactment)

In a large uprising less known to many than Nat Turner’s rebellion or the Amistad, hundreds of enslaved people in Louisiana took up arms. The event known as the German Coast Uprising took place in 1811, not long after the New Year had begun. As many as 500 enslaved people marched from LaPlace, Louisiana towards New Orleans with tools like sugar cane-harvesting knives, clubs, and guns in hand, chanting “freedom or death.” This is regarded by some as the largest revolutionary insurrection to be led by enslaved Africans in US history. Now, this historical event is being brought to life through reenactment.

This month, 500 people will take on the role of those who marched toward New Orleans demanding freedom. According to its website, the Slave Rebellion Reenactment is a “community-engaged artist performance and film production that […]  will reimagine the German Coast Uprising of 1811, which took place in the river parishes just outside of New Orleans.” The project is the brainchild of the artist Dread Scott, who’s been working on its development and planning it for six years. It will come to fruition on November 8 and 9, 2019.

Scott first came across the history of the German Coast Uprising while working on another project for the McColl Center, an artist residency in Charlotte, North Carolina. When Scott was there in 2013, the manager of the residency program became aware of the book On to New Orleans!: Louisiana’s heroic 1811 slave revolt by Robert Thrasher. This text would be a motivating factor in bringing this reenactment to life, but it took more than just inspiration.

Illustration by Dan Bejar for the Slave Rebellion Reenactment guidebook

Speaking to Hyperallergic, Dread Scott said for “a project of this scale and of this nature, there’s a lot of behind the scenes that’s a really important component of the project that will enable it to happen successfully.” Scott’s vision of his work is about drawing on the past to help people realize how it connects to the present. He spoke of reenactors — the makeup of which will be entirely “Black or indigenous,” according to Scott — feeling empowered and “forging a liberating army.” These hundreds of people will march some 26 miles, retracing lands where people once languished in bondage on plantations. This massive undertaking comes complete with a costume department, an “un-bibliography,” rebellion merch, and a walking training guide.

Antenna, a New Orleans based multi-arts organization, is producing the reenactment, which has a wide array of backers both big and small. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Ford Foundation, and Open Society Foundation are just a few of the bigger name supporters that have come together to fund what’s going to cost upwards of one million dollars to make happen. Not to mention, individual donors came together to contribute tens of thousands, too. Thanks to the efforts of reenactors, planners, and other artists that believe in the vision coming to life, it will play out on a grand scale.

An activist-oriented approach to recreating this revolt sets it apart from other reenactments like those that recreate Civil War Battles or otherwise. For Scott, this is the opportunity to raise awareness around an event that was not only suppressed through violence, but by white supremacist erasure from the pages of history as well. This is where he hopes to invite people to feel motivated. In addition to the march itself, filmmaker John Akomfrah will be documenting everything to give Scott’s artistic rebirth another extension through a film installation for others to bear witness. This multi-channel installation is a collaboration that will bring the two together for the first time after knowing one another for some 15 years. They’re anticipating it taking about a year to create, but no venue has committed to exhibiting the film at the moment.

Dread Scott is choosing not to reanimate or play out how the revolt ultimately ended, a massacre and gross atrocity. “The fact that white people and particularly enslavers did horrific things during the times of enslavement, that’s not news. What is news, is that Black people had self-determination and agency and were fighting to create a new world. That’s not well known,” Scott said. He wants to keep the focus there, saying, “When we get to Congo Square we’re going to flip from a military campaign to a cultural celebration.” Congo Square, a point of origin for Black music all across the United States, is where a historical intervention will occur to spare a recreation of the historical ending that was filled with terror.

Scott said he wanted people to walk away understanding “a liberating vision of enslaved people from the past that had self-determination and agency. And that can inspire us in the present.” The artist went on to say, “This is a project about freedom and emancipation and hopefully people will rethink the history of enslavement both looking at the horror and brutality, but even much more looking at the agency and self-determination and fighting spirit and resistance that happened all along the way.”

This article precedes a longer essay about Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment that will be released in the days following the performance. Check Hyperallergic’s Twitter and Instagram November 8 and 9 for firsthand footage and images of the experience.

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