Marchers, including Dread Scott (right), arrive in New Orleans. Photo by Anne Ponton. Front photo by William Anderson
Chanting "Liberté Ou la Mort!" - Freedom Or Death! - riding horses, flying flags, wearing 19th-century militia uniforms, singing Creole songs to African drumming and armed with muskets, pitchforks, sickles, cane knives, over 500 black people marched 26 miles through the former plantations of Louisiana toward New Orleans this weekend to recreate this country's largest but long-overlooked slave rebellion, the German Coast Uprising of 1811, in which hundreds of the enslaved fought not just for their own emancipation but to end slavery. The reenactment, part performance art and part redemptive history lesson, was created by New York-based artist Dread Scott, who changed his name to honor the 19th-century slave who famously, unsuccessfully sued the US for his freedom. With a mission of making radical art "to propel history forward," Scott spent six years developing the project through workshops, sewing circles, and public forums at churches, museums and universities across the country, en route raising over a million dollars from arts organizations and individual donations. The process, he says, "has been like building a movement." Its goal: "To encourage people from all races to broaden their view of what is possible."
One of over 250 slave revolts, the German Coast Uprising began in January 1811, when slaves from a plantation on the outskirts of New Orleans rose up, armed themselves and began a long march to the city. According to history books, they were led by one Charles Deslondes; as they marched, they chanted “Allez, Allez, Allez! Rejoignez nous!” Along the way, they burned down a number of plantation homes, killed several white men who tried to stop them, and picked up hundreds more slaves who wanted to join them. Their dream was to free every slave they found, and seize the city. To Scott, who consulted local historians throughout the project, the drama of the slaves' story lies not in the brutality of their enslavement, but in their agency and their improbable ability to have "the most radical ideas of freedom in the United States at the time.” He has thus sought to focus not on their oppression but on their emancipation: "This is a freedom march...These people were heroes." “The lesson here is that black people never accepted their own enslavement,” says retired history professor Lawrence Powell. He cites the collective action of a multi-ethnic group who didn’t even speak the same language as powerful proof of their “black humanity, black valor (and) black self-dignity.”
Scott's march began on a cold, grey morning outside a church on the fringes of the small town of LaPlace, about 30 miles from New Orleans. Taking the part of Deslondes, Scott led a small band of re-enactors with, “Those who wish to die free, rise with me!” Many had come from around the country in honor of the still-real trauma of their history. Some traced their ancestry back to slaves in a red state that once elected a former KKK wizard to the State House, overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and has sometimes violently fought the removal of Confederate statues. As they marched through former sugar plantations that are now a bleak landscape of trailer parks and chemical refineries so deadly they've created the country's most toxic environment, known as Cancer Valley, people came out to watch. At an elementary school, a tearful principal asked the wide-eyed kids, “Y’all understand what slavery was?” Kurt Falterman, 50, stood by his garage and watched, angry about the traffic delays caused by history. "Why don’t they let that be?” he said. “I think it’s a bunch of bullcrap myself. We let them have what they want. They get their way.” But for now, they won't let it be: The two-day event was being filmed by Ghanian-born, London-based artist John Akomfrah, with a subsequent documentary expected to debut at museums in 2020.
In his planning, Scott sought to accurately portray the rebels' story. But in keeping with his focus on their yearning for freedom, he decided to re-imagine their real and brutal end - the burning alive of Deslondes and the murder of over a fifth of his followers, with their heads put on display to discourage future uprisings. In Scott's version, the rebels marched triumphantly through the crowded streets of the French Quarter, some in tears, and held a raucous celebration in Congo Square, where slaves were once occasionally allowed to gather. Among the celebrants was Cephus “Bobby” Johnson, who wore a red turban and clutched a machete. Ten years ago, Oakland police murdered his unarmed nephew Oscar Grant, whose death became a rallying cry for the fight for racial justice years before the birth of Black Lives Matter. Johnson joined Scott's slave rebellion, he said, because since Oscar's death he has vowed "to do this for the rest of my life - to focus on freedom, justice and equality." “Oscar didn’t die in vain. And neither did our sisters and brothers that took the sword and took the cane machete to fight and die for freedom,” he said. “They opened the door for us to be standing here today... Our ancestors have died for the simple cause of justice."
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Marchers on the route to New Orleans. Photograph: Marianna Massey/Getty Images
Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP
Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP
Cephus ‘Bobby’ Johnson and his wife Beatrice from Oakland. Anne Ponton photo.