LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Decades before the Civil War, there was a revolt in Louisiana. A group of enslaved people on a plantation rose up, armed themselves and marched toward New Orleans. Hundreds more joined the group along the way. It became known as the German Coast uprising or the 1811 slave revolt and is thought to be the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.
DREAD SCOTT: They had this bold vision of actually getting down out of the plantations, going down river towards the city itself and seizing all of Orleans territory and setting up an African Republic in what is now Louisiana.
FADEL: That’s Dread Scott, an artist from New York who named himself after the slave whose legal petition for freedom was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857. Scott, the artist, is currently in Louisiana, where he’s preparing a large-scale reenactment of the 1811 slave rebellion there.
SCOTT: We’re actually going to have hundreds of reenactors in period costumes with machetes and muskets and sickles and sabers, marching for 26 miles over the course of two days from November 8 to November 9 in the locations that were sugar plantations and are now grain elevators and oil refineries and big-box stores and gated communities and trailer parks. We’re going to march, chanting, onto New Orleans. Freedom or death, we’re going to end slavery. Join us.
FADEL: The German Coast uprising did not succeed. The marchers were turned back by authorities, and roughly a fifth of those who revolted were killed. But Dread Scott has decided to reimagine the outcome. What if it had been victorious? Participants in next week’s reenactment will end their 26-mile march at Congo Square in New Orleans.
SCOTT: Congo Square laid the foundation for jazz but also blues, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, disco, funk, trap, trans. And so we’re going to flip from a military campaign when we get there to a cultural celebration, both lifting up the names of the rebels that were part of this rebellion that people should know and should really view as heroes. But, also, we’re going to, you know, have a musical celebration of all the music that is popular because of Congo Square.
FADEL: I asked Scott if, in preparing to reenact the 1811 slave revolt, he had referenced the Civil War reenactments that are popular in many states. He’d seen a few of those but wanted his reenactment to have a very different viewpoint.
SCOTT: The thing that we’re really focusing on is freedom and emancipation, which is sort of why we’re ending up in Congo Square and keeping the focus on freedom and emancipation as opposed to the brutality of white people putting down a slave revolt, you know?
All sorts of people have come together to decide and have conversations about, you know, why for 21st century people does this 19th century history of freedom and emancipation – why does it matter? Why should we walk for 26 miles with machetes and muskets in regions of the country that, in some cases, have, you know, a lot of racism. I mean, this is an area where the effort to take down Confederate monuments was met with people that, you know, firebombed somebody’s car who was just a contractor.
And so, you know, this is – you know? It’s a situation where we really wanted to center on these social questions and actually make the focus why liberation matters. And how can we draw on the lessons of these heroes from 1811 to actually embody that now and actually reimagine how we get free today?
FADEL: That’s artist Dread Scott. He and hundreds of volunteers are preparing to reenact the 1811 slave revolt in Louisiana next weekend. And who knows? It may be the first of many such reenactments.
SCOTT: The people in this region are very proud of this history, and they want to do an annual commemoration. And I know they’re trying to plan that. And I hope that they do. And the reenactors in the area – many of them will be keeping their costumes. And so it could become an annual thing, but I – as an artist, I’m doing one. And if it becomes an annual thing, it will be because the idea has resonated with people, and they take it up and make it their own. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.