The brainchild of performance artist Dread Scott, a two-day reenactment of the 1811 slave rebellion culminates in a march through the French Quarter - and a contemporary victory in Armstrong Park.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
- photos by Ellis Anderson
As performance art goes, it was a break-the-bank, cue-the-horses, Ben-Hur-style production. In the works for six years and costing over $1 million, this reenactment of the country’s largest slave uprising in 1811 was the brainchild of New York performance artist Dread Scott.
This time the rebel slaves wore sneakers and won. They marched 26 miles from the German Coast plantation land of Louisiana, took over New Orleans and thereby the Louisiana Territory to create an African-run state. The new state would, of course, outlaw slavery and change U.S. and world history for the better.
In 1811 it didn’t end that way. At a plantation near present-day LaPlace, enslaved overseer Charles Deslondes led the revolt, marching from plantation to plantation with guns and sugar cane machetes, recruiting rebels and harvesting more weapons. Destination: New Orleans.
On the third day the ad hoc army was stopped by federal troops, which tortured and killed Deslondes. His slave recruits were chased into the swamp or captured and tried. Their decapitated heads were displayed on spikes as a warning to other slaves who might seek freedom. You can read about the so-called trials at a LaPlace plantation called Destrehan.
In the French Quarter on a blue bird Saturday, at least 300 carefully-costumed slave reenactors marched from the old U.S. Mint Building to Congo Square brandishing realistic weapons and shouting, “Freedom or death! On to New Orleans!” and other slogans. It was the second day of the reenactment, which began upriver Friday, November 8.
Participants charged through narrow streets so used to raucous parades. At several intersections, the revolutionaries paused and raised their weapons for effect. Scott marched at the head of the reenactors, in the role of Deslondes. The London-based, Ghanian-born artist John Akomfrah followed the procession with cameras and giant feathery dust mop microphones.
Puzzled tourists kept their distance. Photographers ran alongside. Well-oiled bar denizens and college football fans left off watching LSU pummel Alabama long enough to see what the commotion was about. Some clueless bystanders didn’t know whether to say, “Throw me something, mister, “or “Take cover!”
There was a legitimate celebration at march’s end in Congo Square. After all the planning, dress rehearsals and walking, the mood among reenactors and spectators at the park appeared to be generally one of triumph tempered by reverence.
A Tulane public health student who said his preferred name was Harmony enjoyed being a reenactor. “It felt victorious,” he said, “but I was also thinking about the real slaves who were not.”
When asked if the performance felt “real,” a woman wearing a turban and holding a sugar cane scythe replied: “As real as we can get it.”
George Anders, a bystander wearing a “Will Trade Racists for Refugees” shirt said “this reminder” of the evils of slavery was needed.
Sitting astride the baby blue rental bikes that tourists often pedal, young visitors from Argentina, Francisco and Rosario, asked what was happening, what it all meant.
A giant drone buzzed overhead. Spectators and reenactors alike held up phones to record the event. Vendors sold On to New Orleans t-shirts and African art. Altars honoring the dead circled the trunk of an oak.
“You can hear them breathing from miles away,” poet Sunni Patterson recited from the stage. Dread Scott, actor Grace Gibson and musicians, including Delfeayo Marsalis, were onstage beside her to lead the Congo Square finale.
“Something about suffering that makes men mad and others rebel...” Patterson continued.
Reenactors on horseback gathered on the edge of the park, tired from their long two-day ride from Norco and its endless oil refineries. They got a second wind when CCH Pounder from “CSI New Orleans” approached them, this time on the scene as an appreciative spectator rather than an actor.
Afterward, back in the French Quarter, a homeless man named Billy who uses sidewalk chalk to write out quotes he admires, had perhaps the most accurate critique of the reenactment: awesome.
One is left to hope that Scott’s goal of raising awareness was achieved on this crisp fall day, leaving observers to ponder this important question:
How would we all be different if slavery had ended in 1811?
Want to know more? Check out the SRR website.
Upcoming events include:
Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 7:30pm
Kendall Cram room, Lavin Bernick Center, Tulane Uptown campus
A public conversation with Dread Scott, ARC seminar participant Kira Akerman and NOCGS assistant director Denise Frazier that will explore two major works of art that unfold in our river region, Slave Rebellion Reenactment and Hollow Tree. Slave Rebellion Reenactment was instigated by artist Dread Scott, developed in community over the past five years, which took place November 8-9, 2019. Hollow Tree (work-in-progress) tells the stories of three teenagers coming of age in Southeast Louisiana; a parable of climate adaptation worldwide.
Wednesday, November 13, 6-8pm
University of New Orleans Performing Arts Center – Recital Hall
(Re)presenting History: Reflections on the 1811 Slave Rebellion & Its Afterlife, a talk with organizers and reenactors Ron Bechet, Gianna Chachere, Karen-Kaia Livers and Dread Scott. Moderated by Lolis Elie.