A few days ago I went to see a slide presentation by performance and video artist Dread Scott; the event was part of a summer program curated by Olga Kopenkina at Station Independent Projects. The subject of the lecture was Scott’s new monumental project – the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising of 1811, the biggest slave rebellion in US history. The uprising took place in Louisiana, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, about 40 miles from New Orleans. According to various accounts, up to five hundred slaves took part in the insurrection, armed with hand tools and a limited number of guns. The insurgents marched twenty-six miles in the direction of New Orleans, burning crops and several plantation houses on their way. Their goal was to reach the city and put an end to slavery. Despite the scale of the uprising, the rebels killed only two white men; yet, the casualties among the slaves were enormous: almost a hundred people died fighting local militia or in summary executions.
Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment will re-stage the uprising with the help of five hundred volunteers; the black men and women wearing period specific clothing and uniforms will march twenty-six miles over two days, following the route taken by the insurgents in 1811. Although the history of the rebellion is poorly known and the existing accounts are controversial, the artist is not concerned with producing an accurate historical reconstruction of the event. His goal is to recreate the spirit of the uprising – the mixture of hope and exhilaration that forced the former slaves to leave their plantations and march toward New Orleans, risking their lives for the nonexistent chance of emancipation. Even though the re-enactors will be wearing 19th-century clothes, they will march through the outskirts of the present-day New Orleans, among the trailer parks, chemical factories and oil refineries that now stand in place of sugar plantations. The participants will be recruited through personal meetings and contacts at local colleges, just as the actual slave uprisings were organized by small groups of conspirators meeting clandestinely with trustworthy individuals.
The project builds upon the tradition of Civil War reenactments that are so popular in the South, some of them involving tens of thousands of participants. The sentiment behind these events is the mixture of historical nostalgia and the absurd hope that this time around the South might win. Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment also engages with “what if” of history. What if the German Coast Uprising had been successful? How would that have changed US history? But it also poses a much more important question: what if it is successful today? The difficulties that Slave Rebellion Reenactment may face are different from that of the 1811 uprising, but in today’s reality they are almost as formidable. Apart from obtaining multiple legal permits and raising funding necessary to organize an event of this scale, the project will have to fight a strong cultural opposition. Many people might find it difficult to imagine five hundred armed black men and women marching along the bank of the Mississippi River – especially in the area where so many “patriots” are fighting for the right to wave the Confederate flag at football games or display it on their license plates.
I love the hope and the splendid absurdity of this project. Somehow, it makes me think of General della Rovere – a 1959 film by Roberto Rossellini based on a novel by Indro Montanelli. The novel was inspired by the author’s real experience during World War II, when he was imprisoned by the Nazis for fighting in the resistance movement. While in a Milan prison, Montanelli met general della Rovere, a famous resistance leader. In fact, the man was a thief and a German spy named Giovanni Bertoni, who impersonated the general in order to win the trust of the inmates. Inhabiting the famous persona proved to be an overwhelming experience for Bertoni. Eventually the character took over his real identity, forcing him to refuse collaborating with the Nazis and to be executed as general della Rovere. Some stories are so powerful, that they shape reality according to their logic. The history of the German Coast Uprising may be one of those narratives, and even though its reenactment will not change the past, it has a chance of changing our present.
Article by Tatiana Istomina