‘A story about freedom’: artist set to re-enact largest slave revolt in US history

Hundreds of people dressed in costume will reconstruct the largely forgotten 1811 Louisiana slave uprising

In the middle of a grassy traffic island, adjacent to a nondescript strip mall in southern Louisiana, stands the only physical memorial to an event that rocked the racist foundations of the United States.

A brown plaque, erected to commemorate a plantation home, has one short, embossed aside: Major 1811 slave uprising organized here.

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It is an understatement that Dread Scott, the noted New York artist, finds infuriating. The 1811 slave rebellion, involving around 400 enslaved people rising up on their white captors and marching towards New Orleans, was the largest slave insurrection in American history. But this minimization is also an inspiration, and partly explains why he committed six years of his life to a mass re-enactment piece that starts on Friday and ends in New Orleans on Saturday evening.

Im glad that there is a sign that marks it, he said in an interview with the Guardian. But I also think that its pathetic. To mark this most magnificent event with a sign by the side of a highway? Thats crazy.

Artist
Artist Dread Scott, whose work focuses on racial injustice and oppression, discusses his upcoming re-enactment of a slave rebellion in New Orleans. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Scott, 54, who has spent much of his career producing provocative work examining race and oppression in contemporary America, has taken on one of his most ambitious pieces.

It will involve hundreds of re-enactors dressed in costume, some on horseback, others carrying replica muskets and machetes, singing in Creole, and marching to drumbeat in formation as they partially reconstruct the uprising that took place here over two centuries ago.

The 1811 revolt, often referred to as the German Coast Uprising, has been largely overlooked by historians.

Its leader, Charles Deslondes, a slave driver who organized hundreds of enslaved people from different plantations along a stretch of the Mississippi River now known as the River Parishes, remains a relatively anonymous figure compared to other rebel leaders like Nat Turner in Virginia and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina.

But recent revisionist accounts have sought to recapture some of its significance. The 1811 revolt was distinguished by a degree of military sophistication and political intent, that saw its participants burn down a number of plantation homes, kill a handful of owners and march towards New Orleans when the citys defences were weak.

It was a revolt that was planned for a year or more. And that planning, vision, boldness and courage of trying not just to strike back, but to actually get free, is something that is significant. People should really view these leaders as heroes and learn from this history, said Scott.

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The re-enactment, which will involve mostly African American performers, will see some of this brutal history reimagined.

The 1811 rebellion was violently suppressed by a militia of plantation owners before it made it to the city. Deslondes was captured during a skirmish, and brutally tortured before being burned alive. Other rebels were convicted in show trials, executed and had their heads impaled on spikes along the Mississippi River in a show of white supremacist power.

Scotts re-enactment will not involve this bloodshed, and will instead end in a public celebration at Congo Square in New Orleans, the historic park where, in the days of slavery, black people both slaves and free people of colour were allowed to congregate.

This city, and indeed the region as a whole, is still grappling with depictions of its racist past. In 2017 New Orleans removed four Confederate monuments from public spaces, the same year that riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of similar artefacts, led to the murder of an anti-fascist campaigner, Heather Heyer.

Many plantation museums in the American South continue to sanitize the brutal reality of slavery.

Scott is also keenly aware that the 26-mile performance route will weave between sites that were once plantations and are now petrochemical plants in a region known colloquially as Cancer Alley due to its air quality issues and high cancer risk rates in predominantly black communities.

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