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With a Slave Rebellion Re-enactment, an Artist Revives Forgotten History


Surfacing

Dread Scott is organizing a re-enactment in Louisiana that asks people to think about who the real heroes were in the 19th-Century South.

LaPLACE, La. — The New York artist Dread Scott was standing in a tiny traffic island in this working-class suburb west of New Orleans on a recent afternoon near the EZ Stop convenience store. He had come to point out a single sentence on a historical marker, one unheeded by the truck drivers barreling down Airline Highway: “Major 1811 slave uprising organized here.”

“That’s the only marker anywhere in the United States, as far as I know,” Mr. Scott said, that mentions the largest slave rebellion in United States history. He gestured toward one of the oncoming trucks, his voice shifting into a sardonic gear: “I’m pretty sure that guy didn’t read it.”

The remedy Mr. Scott is planning, for Nov. 8 and 9, is likely to be the most ambitious artwork thus far in his long career as a radical multidisciplinary artist: A large-scale re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, in which as many as 500 enslaved people of African descent marched toward New Orleans from the surrounding sugar plantations in an inspiring, but eventually doomed, effort to win their freedom.

“It was a really buried history that a lot of people didn’t know, and it needed to be known.” he said. “And these people were heroes.”

Mr. Scott, 54, first generated widespread notoriety in 1989 as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an installation that seemed to encourage viewers to tread on the American flag and led to efforts to amend federal law to make it a crime to display the flag on the ground. In his 27 years in New York he has become a fixture on the gallery scene with works that highlight the plight of the dispossessed and the injustices suffered by his fellow African-Americans.

Like the flag piece, which sent thousands of veterans and other protesters into the streets of Chicago, his planned Louisiana re-enactment, which will be documented by the British filmmaker John Akomfrah, has already managed to seep beyond the art world and into the broader public imagination. Organizers expect 300 or more people of color — teachers, lawyers, artists, students, activists — to participate. Over two days, they will march 26 miles in period costumes, armed with prop machetes and muskets and chanting for their freedom.

Some will be on horseback. Some will carry flags. They will pass near oil refineries and subdivisions and trailer homes along the Mississippi River, creating anachronistic tableaus that Mr. Scott hopes will spur meditations on the modern-day meanings of oppression and crisis.

He hopes it will force people to think about who the real heroes were in the 19th-century South and encourage participants to reflect on their forebears’ bravery and sacrifice.

It already has. “It’s about the way my ancestors were reared — I’d like to see the way they experienced it,” said a re-enactor, Jackie Patterson, 60, an elementary schoolteacher who was standing in the hectic fitting rooms of the project’s costuming department on a recent afternoon. The costuming team had just transformed Ms. Patterson into a plausible 19th-century rebel with a simple skirt, a floral-print shawl and a coppery red tignon, the headwrap women of color wore during that period.

The re-enactors’ triumphant final march through the French Quarter on Saturday will reimagine the outcome of the actual rebellion, which was viciously suppressed and ended with some of the rebels’ heads on pikes.

“It’s just good for us,” said Dorthy Ray, 26, the project coordinator. “Returning to a historical narrative but at the same time moving forward. You get to camp out with black people, and walk for miles with nothing but black people.

“And it’s not because somebody died,” she added, “I feel like that hardly ever happens. It’s like we always get together for tragedy, but never just for celebration.”

Organizers say funding for the re-enactment has come from the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, as well as other institutional and individual donors.

So far, their plan has generated little pushback or controversy, although they are taking security seriously and coordinating with law enforcement across three parishes. (Mr. Scott asked that the exact route not be published for security reasons.) Karen Kaia Livers, a New Orleans actress charged with community outreach for the project, said she has received “100 percent support” from Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a white Republican who is Louisiana’s chief tourism official.

Mr. Nungesser’s office declined to comment for this article, but his quiet support is emblematic of a complex moment in the South as it confronts and recalibrates the story of its brutal racist past. Mr. Nungesser was so opposed to the recent removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans that he wrote to President Trump, pleading for him to intervene. Yet his office is also in the process of planning a Civil Rights Trail across the state.

There is no question the re-enactment will contribute to the broader conversation about memorials and Southern history that was catalyzed by the 2015 massacre of nine African-American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. New Orleans removed some of its most high-profile Confederate monuments in 2017 after street protests in which hundreds of anti-racist activists confronted scores of alt-right defenders.

Today, the bases of a couple of statues remain — transformed, in a way, into knotty conceptual pieces themselves.

Mr. Scott’s idea for the project predates the Trump presidency; he has been planning it for more than six years. The re-enactment, he said, is not about slavery, but self-emancipation — “and people who had the boldest and most radical idea of freedom in the United States at that time.” Some believe the rebels wanted to seize all of Orleans Territory, which includes present-day New Orleans, and establish a state where human bondage was abolished. Mr. Scott said he wanted to show how everyday people had “resisted a brutal system of enslavement that everybody would think was unjust, and see this was the only way they could get free —- and then they could draw conclusions about how people need to get free today.”

With a wide mohawk and spectacles, Mr. Scott, who was born Scott Tyler, speaks quickly and precisely, with a hint of accent from his native Chicago, where he grew up on the punk rock of the Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys, and found art-school inspiration in the original Dadaists and contemporary conceptual artists like Hans Haacke.

His previous pieces have addressed the victims of United States bombings abroad and police violence against people of color at home. As a self-proclaimed communist, he hopes his slave revolt re-enactment will show what radical solutions look like at a time when he believes the country, and the planet, need more than just incremental change.

“Their solution was to end slavery,” he said of the original rebels, “not to form a super PAC and see only if they could get whipped Monday through Friday.”

For the revolt project, he said, he found inspiration in the Soviets’ 1920 re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, which took place three years after the actual event, and “The Battle of Orgreave,” a film by the British artist Jeremy Deller that re-created a clash between striking miners and the police in 1984. He also looked to the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence and his depictions of heroes of the Haitian Revolution, which was a likely influence on the Louisiana rebels.

Not everyone is on board with the project. Malcolm Suber, a New Orleans activist who helped lead the movement to take down the Confederate statues, backed out of the re-enactment project, saying that the emphasis is too much of an “art piece” and “not on the organizing of the black community to resist ongoing racism and oppression.”

But Mr. Scott’s vision is being realized with the help of a small army of creative local citizens. Luther Gray, 67, a well-known drummer here, has been working out rhythms to accompany the re-enactors in battle formation. At a recent rehearsal, he and others hammered out a 6/8 beat on log drums inspired by the Haitian yanvalou rhythm. “It sounded like war, man,” Mr. Gray said.

The costume designer is Alison Parker, who has outfitted large Hollywood productions. Ms. Parker said she first looked to American art of the period but found it to be untrustworthy, slanted toward “propaganda” about “happy” people in bondage. She ended up relying on detailed descriptions of clothing culled from advertisements seeking the return of runaway slaves.

The story of the uprising had not been completely hidden. An activist named Albert Thrasher wrote a book on the topic that was locally published in 1995. Daniel Rasmussen wrote his Harvard undergraduate thesis about the revolt and turned it into the 2011 book “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”

Still, Ms. Livers, the actress, said that she remembers finding “one little paragraph” about the uprising in a history book, and was inspired to write a play about it. In the late 1990s, she took the play to a majority-black summer camp in central Louisiana. When the camp’s black organizers learned about the nature of the play, she said, they were “shocked.” That, in turn, shocked her.

“To talk about the fact of being enslaved is uncomfortable,” she said.

But in recent months, Ms. Livers found a more enthusiastic buy-in as she introduced the idea to officials and community leaders in St. John the Baptist Parish, home of LaPlace, and St. Charles Parish, where much of the march will take place.

She found an ally in the Rev. Donald R. August Sr., 62, whose Rising Star Baptist Church is on land that was once the Andry plantation, where the revolt began. “There is a sense of uneasiness that can be felt by those who feel that this may stir some of the wrong emotions, and may stir some of the wrong responses,” said Mr. August, who plans to join the march, along with some church members. He felt it was more important to recover a history that many knew very little about. “We do Confederate re-enactments all the time,” he said.

The old plantation house is still intact and a short walk away from Mr. August’s church. It was recently purchased and restored, and will soon be the home of a museum that will honor the 1811 uprising, the Reconstruction era and the Creole jazz trombonist Edward Ory, known as Kid, who was born on the plantation in 1886 to mixed-race parents.

John McCusker, 56, Mr. Ory’s biographer, is leading the museum plan, part of a growing movement that seeks to use the old plantation homes along the River Road to tell the unvarnished truth about the African-American experience, rather than the moonlight-and-magnolias myth, as they have for many years.

Mr. McCusker, who is white, said that he has volunteered to play Manuel Andry, the plantation owner, who survived an ax attack at the beginning of the uprising. “I’ll be taking an ax for the team,” he said, grinning.

But Mr. McCusker was mostly serious about the playacting to come. His ancestors were sugar planters near the town of Donaldsonville, La., who once owned hundreds of slaves, a fact that he finds appalling.

“I told Dread,” he said, “that from my point of view, this is going to re-sanctify and cleanse the land.”


Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life. Photography produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

Wayne Lawrence is a New York-based photographer.


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