A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
Excerpted from "Freedom’s Plow," by Langston Hughes
A marvel of Black revolutionary artistry took place in southern Louisiana last autumn—a reenactment of the largest slave rebellion in the United States, the German Coast Uprising of 1811.
Held on November 8 and 9, 2019, the Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR) was six years in the dreaming, conceptualizing and planning, two days in the execution, and an as-of-yet-to-be-determined duration of continuing impacts and resonances.
The 350 participants in period costumes traveled on foot and horseback over two days along the 26 mile route of the original rebels. (Watch video here.) The creation of the revolt spectacle was guided in large part by the text, maps, news accounts, song lyrics, gravestone markers, letters and images collected in On to New Orleans!, Albert Thrasher and Leon Waters’ monograph about the uprising published in 1996 by Cypress Press. In artist Dread Scott’s hands, assisted by Antenna, the small New Orleans-based nonprofit that led the organizing, On to New Orleans! became the spark for a blazing meteor of transference of historical knowledge.
For Scott, the primary vision-holder of the reenactment journey, recuperation of the history of armed Black revolutionary struggle in America is a necessary element of contemporary community self-defense, and not just for Black people.
“I think the world, including the Black diaspora, is facing a world of shit,” Scott told Scalawag. “One possible future is a more consolidated fascism that causes tremendous suffering throughout the world. And another possibility is what was embodied in Slave Rebellion Reenactment—a vision of the complete overthrow of systems of oppression, with the potential for that to be armed rebellion. It’s important that that possibility be put back into the conversation.”
For the reenactment, participants had their choice of weapons—rifles, pistols, muskets, machetes, farm implements or flag.
“One thing that Dread would say, is that our costumes weren’t complete until we had chosen our weapons,“ explained Chicago-based filmmaker Jordan Rome who was one of the rehearsal trainers for the reenactment. An artist in her own right, Rome is currently working on a film about police brutality called 365 Ways to Kill an American.
“A lot of woman-identified folks chose the rifles and pistols and found the very act of holding a weapon to be its own kind of freedom,” Rome explained. “They opted for the more destructive weapons as a form of reclaiming power. Some people were hesitant to carry a weapon at all and didn’t want to be responsible for that. The majority went for a machete.”
Recuperation of the history of armed Black revolutionary struggle in America is a necessary element of contemporary community self-defense, and not just for Black people.
Gianna Chachare, founder and executive director of The New Quorum Artist Residency, found the rehearsals “very intense and beautiful because of the way everybody was working together—and seeing everyday people holding weapons for long periods of time as a way to properly embody the spirit.” Though white people could not participate in the reenactment, many came as volunteers to support the Black and Indigenous participants. “Seeing white folks cleaning the bathrooms, the toilets, the optics of that, was just remarkable,” she said.
As important as revelations in self-perception were for her personally, Chachare says she’s even more grateful that the story of the 1811 Revolt is out there in the discourse far more widely than ever before.
“There’s no school that can now not share the history in their curriculum; they can’t deny it as they did when I was a kid,” she said. “That’s because of Dread Scott and the power of the people.”
Denise Frazier, a writer on The Uninvited and a participant in SRR, tallied in an email the rewards of being there.
“The act of walking was a cathartic, embodied experience that allowed me a brief glimpse into what their journey must have been. As a cultural studies scholar of the African diaspora and as assistant director at the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, I constantly think about this place, this region and its challenges; from planetary health to cultural legacies past and future. I frequently think about enslavement of African peoples and how capitalism and our various institutions of white supremacy, and subtle and covert racialized violence, have permeated the Gulf South landscape, and our country. I always feel like these distances are very close. It is visible in all of our lived experiences, and walking with so many people, indigenous and African-descended from various states, gave me the much-needed pause to understand these connections in my body and spirit.”
Artist Ron Bechet had a similar experience.
There were times in the actual walk, he said, that he wondered what the hell he was doing. The first day was windy, cold, spitting rain and miserable.
“But when we got onto the levee road it was different; we met up with the group on horses with the banners, and it became more substantial. We had the group flag, and one of the women said ‘we really need to talk to the ancestors about this.’ We got into a circle and fell into a sort of spontaneous ceremony; it was just beautiful. We burned sage, it was a special moment—we realized we needed to get permission from the ancestors.”
Karen-Kaia Livers was charged with community engagement in the parishes, a role for which she was uniquely qualified. As a living history actor for 25 years, she was already presenting on the 1811 Revolt based on Leon Waters’ scholarship. Livers has written a children’s play on the subject. In the course of her assignment for SRR, she met with a pastor in St. John’s Parish who’s been one of the few people keeping the whispers of this history alive by commemorating the anniversary of the revolt annually in his church. Livers attended this year’s ceremony.
Three historic Black churches were burned to the ground in nearby St. Landry Parish last Spring and the 22-year-old white man who did it was convicted on February 10.
“There weren’t a lot of participants at the commemoration. It’s talked about, but it’s not talked about,” Livers explained. “There are family members still in the area. The story is passed down but as something shameful. There’s a lot of fear; they can burn that church whenever they want to if he’s being too rebellious.”
Three historic Black churches were burned to the ground in nearby St. Landry Parish last Spring, and the 22-year-old white man who did it was convicted on February 10. He’ll be sentenced on May 22 to 10-70 years in prison.
This kind of unprovoked hatred and white supremacist violence is not new and has been facing Black folks in the region from before the country’s inception. Its continued threat in 2020, illustrates the need for the SRR’s remembrance and enactment of armed resistance.
Thirty years ago, the War Resistor's League, a global network of grassroots antimilitarist and pacifist groups, issued a statement about the legitimate role of armed struggle in liberation movements:
"... it is understandable that some movements reach a point of desperation at which they see no choice but to enter into armed struggle. Sometimes a movement's credibility among its own people may seem to depend on its military capacity to offer at least some protection to communities or popular organizations.
Nobody outside the situation is in a position to condemn a genuine popular movement for resorting to armed self-defense in those extreme circumstances. Even though we question the use of violence, we respect the refusal to submit to oppression and recognize that the primary cause of violence lies in the system of domination.”
This sentiment—a refusal to submit to oppression—no doubt undergirded the original freedom fighters in the German Coast Uprising of 1811.
“Because of the lies that are told about enslavement, many people don’t know about the resistance and they feel a sense of shame,” Scott said. “That shame undermines peoples’ capacity to think about how we can get free.
As this year’s re-enactors retraced their ancestors' steps, the route of the revolt took them by Destrehan Plantation, which was coincidentally having their Heritage Day on the same day. When built in 1783, ten adults and two children were enslaved on the plantation; this number grew to over 200 persons by the time it was captured by Union soldiers in 1863. Livers said she offered the folks at Destrehan a chance to engage with SRR but was told no thanks. “Y’all just keep on going,” she remembers them telling her. “No stopping!”
“We were passing a school in one of the river parishes, and the principal allowed some of the older kids to watch us as we passed. One white boy looked at us with utter disgust; he was maybe in the 6th grade. And when we were at Armstrong Park at the end celebrating, one white woman’s face was twisted with hate as if to say ‘how dare you!’”
Nonetheless, the participants were undeterred, even more energized on the second day. In 1811 the rebels were stopped before making it to the French Quarter where they’d planned to lay siege to the weapons stored at Fort St. Charles. For Scott, Bechet, Livers and others it remains a tantalizing what if…?
“There was a feeling that no matter how hard it was, we were marching in—FOR the ancestors, we were celebrating them,” Livers said. “People were chanting: Liberteé, Ashé (the Yoruba word for yes). On to New Orleans! Freedom or Death! and the chants were echoing.”
Black pride was both the seed and the flower of Slave Rebellion Reenactment. The SRR successfully reimagined and revitalized this long-buried historic event of valorous Black liberation, submitting it as a cogent entry in the collective Louisiana consciousness.
“Because of the lies that are told about enslavement, many people don’t know about the resistance and they feel a sense of shame,” Scott said. “That shame undermines peoples’ capacity to think about how we can get free. In lifting up the past, in learning from the past, we’re trying to have a different destiny.”
A documentary film by director John Akomfrah with Smoking Dogs Film is in post-production, to be released in October 2020.