On to New Orleans! Freedom or death! We’re going to end slavery! Join Us!
Hundreds of reenactors echoed these chants of self-liberated, formerly enslaved people as they marched to seize Orleans territory in 1811. We were performing Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR), a community engaged performance spanning 24 miles over two days, through the River Parishes outside New Orleans and culminating in the city itself.
Charles Deslondes, Gilbert, Quamana, Marie Rose and the many enslaved people who were part of the 1811 revolt are unsung heroes: their vision, if known, can inspire many. Their rebellion is a profound “what if?” story. It had a small but real chance of succeeding — what would that have meant for U.S. and world history? Understanding that the past was not predetermined opens the ability for people to dream “what if?” for the future.
Our reenactment restaged and reinterpreted Deslondes’ German Coast Uprising of 1811 — the largest rebellion of enslaved people in United States history, which took place upriver from New Orleans. SRR animated a suppressed history of people with an audacious plan to organize, take up arms and seize Orleans Territory, to fight not just for their own individual emancipation, but to end slavery. It was a project about freedom.
More than 300 Black and Indigenous people, many on horses, armed with prop machetes, sickles and muskets, flags flying, in 19th century garments, singing in English and Creole to African drumming, marched downriver in formation. Alon marche pron libérte.
The procession was jarringly out of place as we advanced past the gated communities, mobile homes, fast food joints, grain elevators and oil refineries along the Mississippi, which have replaced the slave labor camps (aka sugar plantations) of 200 years ago. This historic anomaly formed a cognitive dissonance for viewers, opening space for people to rethink long held assumptions.
We concluded in Congo Square — instrumental for preserving African culture in America — with a celebration, transforming the violent suppression of the freedom fighters into a joyous recognition of their courage and achievement. One by one, reenactors came to the stage and chanted the names of the participants of the 1811 revolt, to an updated version of the Janelle Monáe anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” which recognized the names Black people killed by police.
I conceived of Slave Rebellion Reenactment six years ago at a time of increasing awareness of the systemic oppression of Black people in the United States. Movements had begun to arise that challenged the epidemic of police killings (over 1,100 per year), mass incarceration of 2.3 million people, income inequality and the global climate crisis and its connection to the fossil fuel industry.
Since then, white supremacists, with the approval of the U.S. president, paraded through Charlottesville and drove a car into peaceful demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer. Racists have conducted several mass shootings and have marched through the streets of Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; and Detroit, Michigan. Reminiscent of slavery days, parents at the border have been separated from their children and there is discussion of changing citizenship laws in ways that would overrule the 14th Amendment.
My art frequently looks at how the past sets the stage for the present and how this past exists within the present in a new form. SRR was simultaneously about history, and about now. What can we learn from a slave rebellion today? In 1811, the most radical ideas of freedom were in the heads of the enslaved, not in the ideals of America’s Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other Framers were enslavers and friends of enslavers and the U.S. constitution enshrined slavery and gave disproportionate federal representation to states that enslaved many people.
The 1811 rebels wanted to set up an African Republic in what was then Orleans Territory that would likely have abolished slavery, like the Haitian Revolution before it. Their freedom required the overthrow of the slave system. This was not the easy road, and it perhaps seemed impossible to many, but it was the only one that would have actually led to absolute freedom. The rebels’ willingness to confront the direness of their situation and make radical plans, and their courage to implement those plans, holds much we can learn from.
The idea of SRR resonated deeply with people who collaborated to bring it to life — from local residents to those who boarded airplanes to take part.
I was honored to march in the performance with church and civic leaders from LaPlace and Reserve LA (Rev. Donald August, Rev. Perrilloux, Larry Sorapuru and others), seeking to resurrect their parishes’ erased history, and activists such as Rev. Gregory Manning, who are fighting the toxic petrochemical corporations that are poisoning people in Cancer Alley through which we marched.
Local Black horse riders participated alongside students, faculty and alumni from Xavier University, a historically Black university. A man recently freed from 10 years in prison marched, embodying freedom. The aunt and uncle of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police in 2009, flew from Oakland and performed together with Sammi Ross, who drove nine hours each way to a rehearsal — her great great grandmother participated in 1811 and she wanted to honor that legacy.
For over a year, volunteers joined sewing circles to create costumes, others met to discuss plans and the team at Antenna, the NOLA based arts organization that produced SRR, strategized logistics and reached out to invite participants across New Orleans and the River Parishes. As the performance proceeded downriver, local elementary school students came out to watch as we passed, and many onlookers gathered at key points.
It was a truly beautiful sight to see hundreds of Black people, armed with prop weapons, forming a liberating army, marching through exurban New Orleans and getting to the city. In a society where police and racists “mistake” Black people holding wallets, house keys, toy guns and cigarettes as armed predators, SRR was exhilarating. The performance used the specter of violence to challenge real violence.
When we arrived in the outskirts of the French Quarter at the Old U.S. Mint, the location where a fort stood that a detachment of rebels was trying to seize in 1811, the reenactors spontaneously broke into chants of Ashe, Ashe, Liberte! — “The power to make things happen and produce change! Liberty!” Dancing with machetes, fierce and determined young women led in this outbreak of Black Joy. We embodied what a successful rebellion could have been. It was one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve been in.
“We’re going to end slavery. Join us!” echoed off the walls of the French Quarter. We said it and we meant both things. “We’re going to end slavery!” And we hope you will “Join Us!”
____Dread Scott is an American artist who describes his work as “revolutionary art to propel history forward.” His work is exhibited across the U.S. and internationally. In November 2019, he led a reenactment of the German Coast Uprising, the largest rebellion of enslaved people in U.S. history. To learn more visit, www.slave-revolt.com.