Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
On November 8 and 9, costumed black people with replica guns will march across Louisiana reenacting one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history.
A recent report on attitudes toward racism in the South found that many white and even some Latino and African Americans in New Orleans said they were uninterested in dredging up the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial segregation. Nonetheless, that history will be confronting them this weekend, when hundreds of African Americans band together to reenact the German Coast Uprising of 1811, considered the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.
Under the direction of performance artist Dread Scott, the actors will walk the exact same route as the revolters of 1811, a 26-mile trek along the Mississippi River that will begin near LaPlace, Louisiana, in an area that was known as the “German Coast,” named for the German colonists who settled it in the 1700s. They will cross through parts of “Cancer Alley” and end in Congo Square in New Orleans. The actors will be costumed in 19th-century garb and armed with period-era machetes, muskets, and drums, like the enslaved revolters they’re emulating.
The optics will be “jarringly out of place,” reads the website slave-revolt.com, explaining their journey through the strip malls and oil refineries that stand in the places where sugar plantations and slave-labor camps existed in the 1800s.
The performance will disrupt current discussion of the South’s history of racism, which is usually detailed in terms of black oppression, Confederate monuments, and other symbols of white supremacy spread across the region. Instead, Scott’s slave rebellion reenactment commemorates African resistance and liberation, showing how the enslaved employed agency to bring down white supremacy on their own terms. The performance will take place on November 8 and 9.
CityLab spoke with Scott about what he hopes to stir up with the performance and how it might reshape the Southern landscape.
CityLab: Why did you choose to take this performance directly to public spaces and roads, as opposed to a more dedicated theater or performance space?
Dread Scott: I think it’s important for people to have access to contemporary art. But the main reason is that this is a community-engaged performance. There’s this history that’s there and it’s important for people to see freedom fighters from the past, or people in outdated clothing, but embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation in the spaces that have this particular history.
Is part of the mission for this performance to engage the new landscape of strip malls, oil refineries, and corporate spaces that once were labor camps for the enslaved?
Visually, yes, and with audio, yes, but not directly. It’s not a demonstration. We’re not going to be saying, ‘Well, this is Shell Oil, and it plowed under graves of black people,’ or anything like that. It’s not going to be confronting it that way. But there will be a jarring disconnect seeing hundreds of black people with machetes and muskets dressed in 19th-century clothing with a backdrop of a grain elevator, or with a backdrop of Bayou Steel, or with a backdrop of modern homes. People could do just the minimal amount of research and find that in the early 1800s, that this was all sugar plantations. In all of these towns, they reflect the fact that they were all plantations that needed access to the river. So the history of enslavement is very prevalent even in the landscape. And we are walking across it.
Why is it just as important to celebrate historical moments of African resistance as it is bringing down Confederate statues?
It’s a very good thing that activists in this city have shined a light on. These racist monuments that litter the South, and in some cases even the North, and the fact that people fought for years to get these monuments taken down, and launched a whole movement around that is great. TakeEmDownNOLA changed and re-centered a debate that wasn’t happening broadly, and then made it front and center.
This project is looking at black resistance. In 1811, the most radical ideas of freedom and emancipation existed in the heads of enslaved people, and they launched this rebellion to try and seize Orleans territory to try and create an African Republic in the new world, where slavery would have been eliminated. It would’ve been a sanctuary for Africans and people of African descent. That is very radical and bold and should be not only known about, but celebrated.
These people are heroes, and this artwork is highlighting and bringing that past back to life. It is also a project about the present. This project has taken place at a time when 1.1 million black people are in prison, where police, even on a welfare call, walk up to a black woman’s house in Texas and murder her. This is not directly responding to any of that, but it’s actually highlighting the spirit of resistance that existed in 1811 that many people could learn from and apply today in various ways.
The city of New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates in a state that has had the highest incarceration rate in the world [Although by some counts, in 2018, Oklahoma unseated Louisiana as world incarceration capital]. Do you think there’s a direct connection between that and the 1811 revolt, the largest slave rebellion in the nation’s history?
You don’t get a modern-day America without slavery. And one of the legacies of slavery is how it both criminalized black people and also literally built a prison system to to warehouse us. A lot of the carceral controls were set up around the time of slavery and after slavery was legally abolished. Here, Angola in particular, is a place where 75 percent, I believe, of the people that are incarcerated there will die there. And it also had some really important resistance fighters, like the Angola Three: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were symbols of the resistance to the new Jim Crow.
And so this project does actually talk about people fighting to get free from enslavement. It’s not about mass incarceration, but mass incarceration is part of a society that for hundreds of years profited off extracting the labor of Africans and people of African descent.
A recent report found that many people throughout the South aren’t interested in dredging up these historical events concerning racism. What do you hope this performance conveys to them?
Well, I think how people see the past affects how they see themselves in the present and how they look into the future. I think it’s important for people to know the history of slavery, but this is actually not a project about slavery. This is a project about freedom and emancipation. People should look back at people like Harriet Tubman or Toussaint L’Overture who fought slavery in different ways. People should be like Charles Deslondes who was one of the key leaders of this rebellion. There’s a lot to learn from that as opposed to just learning from the horrors and brutality of slavery— how people actually had a vision of getting free from it.
In 1811, people had a vision for abolishing, not just escaping, but actually abolishing enslavement by setting up an African Republic. That’s something that should be celebrated. And then how people move in the present, you know, how do people look at ending mass incarceration? How do they look at ending murder by police? Or how do they look at changing the profound disparities in wealth and thinking about the reparations of extracted labor.
Those are important questions. How do people get to a world where people are not held down and degraded from the time they were born, or a situation where now one in three black men will spend some time of their life in prison? How can we get to a world where that’s not the defining nature of existence for millions and millions of people. And how people look at this past has a lot to do with how people think about that question.
Explain the connection between these rebellions and Second Line culture in New Orleans today.
Well, I mean, as far as Second Line culture, this is a very different, dynamic, exciting type of Second Line. It is like a parade and it will be kind of amazing for people to rethink what Second Lines and what parades are in that context, and how people follow along them. We are ending in Congo Square, and without Congo Square, and a couple of places like it, you don’t get modern American culture. You don’t get modern American music. You don’t get jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, bounce, R&B, trap, trance disco, funk.
This is the reason why we’re ending there. In 1811, there was an advanced detachment of enslaved people who were trying to seize Fort St. Charles, which is where the U.S. Mint was, or I mean, where the U.S. Mint is. And so that’s why we’re sort of coming to the city, almost as if the rebellion was victorious. But then we’re ending up in Congo Square to both lift up the name of the rebels that participated, as well as to celebrate the culture that is preserved in places like Congo Square. And we hope that that connection to the history of both Africans and resistance is something that is brought out in this reenactment, so that people can flip the military campaign into a cultural celebration, and place this culture in the context of people who were trying to be free.
When the Lee Circle Confederate monument was being taken down, people—both black and white—lined up and armed up around it in defense, to uphold it. How do you think your performance will be received, especially given it will feature hundreds of armed black people?
Well, I think that we’re using the specter of violence to take on real violence. There is real violence being done to the black community. The weapons that we’re using are prop machetes and prop muskets, and it is not actual violence. But I do think that the vision of black people armed in a military sort of campaign, for some people that will be really inspiring and liberating, and for other people that would be challenging.
For those who are challenged by this, why is it that they don’t raise these questions when there are white Civil War re-enactors who do this all the time? Why is that not threatening? Why is it that the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the people who were in New Orleans walking around with their guns out, intimidating people trying to take down racist monuments—why aren’t people challenging that? This should be inspiring because it is about people who were fighting to abolish enslavement. Why shouldn’t that be something that people view as amazing?