‘Freedom or Death!’: In the Deep South, a reenactment of a forgotten slave rebellion

LaPlace: First came the SUVs and golf carts. Then came the men on horseback.

People participate in a performance artwork reenacting the largest slave rebellion in US history in LaPlace, Louisiana.Credit:AP

Behind them, a small band of black men and women, dressed in early 1800s field pants and waistcoats, long flowing skirts and turbans, marched in tight military columns, wielding rakes, sickles and cane knives.

"On to New Orleans!" they chanted, thrusting their weapons high.

"Freedom or Death!"

They were marching on Friday through a tiny, mostly black neighbourhood in LaPlace, a small city about 50 km west of New Orleans, where 208 years ago enslaved blacks rose up against their plantation master to challenge the institution of slavery.

Slaves attack a slave owner during a performance reenacting the largest slave rebellion in US history.Credit:AP

Part radical history lesson, part visual spectacle, part documentary film shoot, Slave Rebellion Reenactment was conceived by New York-based artist Dread Scott, as a roving 32-km, two-day journey that tells the little-known story of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, in which hundreds of field hands, slave drivers and house servants organised the largest slave rebellion in US history.

A popularising artist who has won widespread acclaim – and notoriety – for his work on racial justice, Scott was born Scott Tyler, but goes by Dread Scott in tribute to Dred Scott, the 19th century slave who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom. His goal in reenacting the rebellion was not just to reimagine a bold but ephemeral moment in US history, but to critique how the nation memorialises slavery.

"It's a project about freedom and emancipation," he said in an interview before the march. "People study George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were enslavers. Why are their ideas of democracy studied, instead of these people who were trying to get to a society that didn't have slavery at its foundation? … These people were heroes."

The rebellion began on the night of January 8, 1811, when Charles Deslondes, a mulatto slave overseer who was born in Haiti and brought to Louisiana by his French owners, led about two dozen slaves out of their small cabins on the Andry plantation.

The reenactment was conceived by Dread Scott, an artist who often tackles issues of racial oppression and injustice. Credit:AP

The slave cabins are gone now, but the community is still home to mostly black residents.

On Friday morning, Scott performed the role of Deslondes as he stood outside Rising Star Baptist Church in the heart of Woodland Quarters, surrounded by two dozen reenactors and a scrum of documentary filmmakers, photographers, reporters and academics.

"The day we've been waiting for is here," he bellowed. "Those who wish to die free, rise with me!"

As the group set off through the neighbourhood, Donald August Sr., the church's 62-year-old pastor who was dressed in salmon-coloured field pants and a striped turban, hoped the spectacle would inspire pride in the community.

Artist Dread Scott, whose work focuses on racial injustice and oppression.Credit:AP

Many residents, he said, were not aware that the "quarters" in their neighbourhood's name derived from its history as a slave quarters, or that enslaved blacks struggled for freedom more than a century before the first modern-day civil rights march.

"It's not in our history books," he said. "This is a way to bring some kind of reflection to people's minds."

Up and down the quarters, residents peered from the doorways of their bungalows and rusty mobile homes. Some came out to lean against chain-link fences and shoot footage from pickup trucks.

Erica Nicholas Cola, 56, who was bundled up in a black winter coat and hat, beamed as she held up her cellphone to shoot a video of the parade as it passed her mother Geneva's house.

"It's a long time coming," she said.

But as the rebels cried "Join us!" the event organisers were swift to stop the public from taking part in the procession.

The sprawling mass media project, which took six years to organise, was not a conventional march or commemoration. Captured on film by Ghanaian-born British video artist John Akomfrah, the reenactment was a tightly choreographed undertaking involving a core of local pastors, students, teachers and community activists, with reinforcements of background extras and reenactors from New York and New Orleans.

Some of the most avid local champions of the 1811 uprising did not take part in the spectacle, complaining that the $US1-million project funded by a string of arts organisations, was primarily a vehicle for a documentary film shoot rather than a serious attempt to inform and engage local communities.

Leon A. Waters, a descendant of the 1811 rebels who in 1996 published the first lengthy account of the uprising, On to New Orleans!: Louisiana's Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt, pulled out of the march because he thought organisers missed an opportunity to engage with the descendants.

The event's former community outreach director, Malcolm Suber, a labor activist who led the successful campaign to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans, also backed out earlier this year, objecting to the reenactment's focus on filmmaking.

"He is staging a film and doesn't want anyone to be on the sidelines," he said of Scott.

As the reenactors marched toward a Mississippi River levee, where they were met by more performers waving machetes and axes, viewers were instructed to remain behind a white picket fence as the rebels stormed the slave master's white French Creole home.

From a distance, the spectacle disappeared and all that could be heard were chants and screams. Then a white man playing Andry stumbled out of the house and was trapped on the porch by the rebels.

"Why are you doing this?" he yelled. "Haven't I treated you with a master's love and kindness?"

A black man plunged an ax into his body, again and again, and he fell to the ground.

Throughout, there was little vocal opposition to the march. And while some onlookers were thrilled to see the procession come through their neighbourhood, most were just bemused.

A few stood silently, their arms crossed around their chest.

"I don't know what they're doing here," a white woman said sharply as the army of the enslaved turned left to enter her community of two-story homes with manicured lawns. "This place didn't exist in 1811!"

The biggest outrage was the road closures that stretched for blocks along the two-lane highway.

"What's going on?" an elderly white woman asked as she rolled down the passenger window.

"Not a good day to do it, with all this traffic!" her husband fumed.

TNS

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