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NEW ORLEANS—The process of retelling history must be handled with care. Something seemingly as innocent as sharing a story can be either a great accomplishment or an act of violence. The blazing fires of revolution can easily be watered down to embers and lost lives can go unfound when history is mishandled. We sculpt tomorrow by applying the lessons we’ve learned from those that came before us. This is why when I heard about Dread Scott’s “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” I approached it with caution, but kept an open mind because I really didn’t have any idea of what to expect.
Scott, an artist based in New York, tasked himself with reenacting the German Coast Uprising of 1811, orchestrating something major. For over six years he planned a 26 mile march that would pay historical homage to those, estimated to have been in the hundreds, that rejected their enslavement. The actual march ended in a slaughter, the evidence of which was left on display to strike fear into anyone else who might try to lead an uprising.
At Scott’s reenactment, many participants and viewers hoped the event would counter the stale, dwindling business of Civil War reenactment. There was hope that this could be something that at least presented a viable alternative to the predominantly white antebellum reenactments the nation is much more familiar with. By highlighting a neglected piece of history that struck fear in the hearts of white enslavers at the time, Scott was certainly making a statement. Even now, this tension over who gets to mine our history still feels palpable, exposing the reality of the white supremacist environment we live in. Ironically, the police — who in the South, find their earliest origins in slave patrols — escorted the reenactors, traveling alongside them from the moment it began.
Starting in LaPlace, Louisiana, the march remained somewhat mysterious as it started. Press wandered aimlessly around a trailer park where they and some observers had parked, waiting for the reenactment to start. When it did, journalists scrambled to and fro hoping to catch the best shots of the reenactors. Filmmaker John Akomfrah, who’s documenting everything for a film installation, had his own production crew that often had to wrangle press out of their way. As a member of the press myself, these moments seemed to reveal that capturing this march in a certain cinematic quality was a top priority, that process unfolding right before those watching the reenactors pass by.
For miles, reenactors marched periodically, stopping on occasion to take breaks, passing small clusters of onlookers along their way. On narrow streets in small town Louisiana, this meant lots of traffic and congestion. As I walked (and ran) alongside the reenactment’s procession I stopped regularly to interview people. One Black woman pulled up next to me frustrated, and asked if we were filming “that stupid ass movie” that was preventing her from picking up her kids from school. She made it clear she had things to do in a way that brought reality back to the forefront.
The truth of where we were, in “Cancer Alley,” proceeding through the River Parishes of Louisiana set in hard. Suzanna, a Black woman who traces her descendants back to St. Charles Parishes’s Waterford Plantation, made it clear she was very happy about the event. She learned about it from a passenger she picked up driving for Uber. She lamented that more people weren’t seeing it and wanted something more large scale, both in terms of audience and impact, saying “We need jobs and better education.” Michael, a man in his 60’s who accompanied her agreed, saying “Hope that y’all don’t get cancer while you’re out here.” He listed several people he knew who had died or were about to die from cancer before another man I encountered named Jimmie told me, “It’s from the plants,” speaking of the numerous industrial plants in the area.
By the time the march reached another parish I met a white man named Scott who told me he was “from the low class area.” He was there to see the march go by and when I asked him about his day to day he led me away from the crowds off into his neighborhood to show me the toxic runoff in his neighbor’s backyard. He made me aware of what we were marching next to and through, showing me an orangish, rusty liquid with a shiny film across the top of it. He thought the march was interesting, but he was concerned because it was blocking traffic into the neighborhood where he said ambulances traveled three to four times a week, ferrying people with serious illnesses.
I began to grow concerned that I was witnessing something much like the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration in Selma, Alabama. Every year, to reenact the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, tens of thousands of people descend upon the one of the poorest cities in the country, a place battling public health crises rarely seen outside the Global South, to cross a bridge and enjoy photo opportunities. Politicians, celebrities, activists, and artists all make their way there, spending millions but in a way that ultimately doesn’t serve the people of Selma nearly as much as it should. Walking through Cancer Alley seeing working class and poor people watching the march go by, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. Even though some may have participated, I wondered if this reenactment was really for them?
Complete with capital, funding, and merchandise itself Scott’s march cost over a million dollars. When I asked one of the reenactors how much she was getting paid, she told me minimum wage. I wondered where most of the money was going and thought about the irony of Black reenactors performing the ultimate labor exploitation while making meager earnings. When she smiled, telling me that she would have done it for free just to be a part, I thought of how liberal politics rely on inspiration, symbolism, and hope as currency. With these, labor can be extracted for purposes that fall short of even the most basic measures of impact.
While I didn’t necessarily expect Scott’s artistic endeavor to shoulder the weight of the needs of those it walked past, nor do I think that was his intention, it should be noted that these sorts of things often only walk past. The political reality of the age we’re living in begs us to stop, stay, and fight. I liked seeing the reenactors have so much fun being a part of something big and I loved seeing Black people teach our history to audiences in a unique way. I also think it’s fair to expect any artistic endeavor that takes up some of the most revolutionary moments of our history to also embrace those radical strategies as praxis. I hope that the opportunity to make a much needed impact will be grasped more in the future, much like the weapons rebelling enslaved people used in their fight for liberation. People deserve more than performances because frankly, many are used to that. When elections come or when people need something, politicians and do-gooders perform their own sorts of marches through exploited communities. They too, are followed by cameras and crews with big budgets, stopping to take pictures and spreading inspiration, often holding up traffic for people who don’t have the luxury of stopping what they’re doing.
Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment took place November 8-9, 2019, with reenactors marching between LaPlace and New Orleans, Louisiana. The event was presented by Antenna, with support from local organizations RicRACK, Tulane’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South,University of New Orleans School of the Arts, Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, Xavier University, Community Book Center, and Junebug Productions.