In January 1811, during the lull in work that followed Christmas and the new year, nearly 500 enslaved plantation workers in the River Parishes outside New Orleans mounted what remains today the largest ever revolt of enslaved people in United States history.
Because it was largely settled by German immigrants in the sugar boom that followed the American Revolutionary War, the region along the Mississippi River outside New Orleans where this uprising began was known as the “German Coast.” Marching downriver toward the city, rebels burned five plantation houses (destroying three completely), along with crops and sugarhouses. Two white men were killed along the way, including the son of a plantation owner. Three days after the uprising began, the rebels were met by a militia intent on suppressing their insurrection. Between those who died in this confrontation and those who were prosecuted and executed in the weeks that followed, nearly a hundred Black people were killed in the revolt’s aftermath.
In November 2019, over two-hundred years after the German Coast Uprising, artist Dread Scott initiated a large-scale restaging of the event under the moniker Slave Rebellion Reenactment. Working in partnership with New Orleans-based art nonprofit Antenna and with the aid of various foundations and private individuals, Scott pursued an ambitious agenda for the project, recruiting hundreds of people to play insurgent enslaved workers, hosting community sewing circles to create costumes, and partnering with artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah to document the reenactment.
As an editor, I hesitated to apply the standard critical approach to a project whose subject was so deep and detailed, its scale so vast, involving so many people. I wondered who the audience of the reenactment was intended to be or—given the project’s mobile, multifaceted nature—who it was even logistically possible for the audience to be. Was Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment directed at its Black participants? At the overwhelmingly white crowds who gathered along its route in November to witness hundreds of people pretending to be rebel slaves? At the film crew’s cameras?
In time, it became clear that telling this story most fully would require multiple narrators, voices, and perspectives. This week, Burnaway shares these stories in German Coast Uprising, 1811 / 2019, a series of essays responding to Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment and the many questions it raises.
In “Letter from New Orleans: Down River Road,” Kristina Kay Robinson, the magazine’s New Orleans editor-at-large, traces her own personal and artistic journeys alongside the path of the revolt reenactment toward the city. As a both a New Orleans native and an artist, she asks, What is the responsibility of a performance the size of Slave Rebellion Reenactment to the community whose history is its stage?
In “Dispatch from the German Coast: Marching with the Ancestors,” artist and Xavier University professor Ron Bechet recounts his experience as a member of the Army of the Enslaved and describes how he hopes the reenactment broadens and enriches historical memory.
In “Dispatch from the German Coast: Playing as Rebels,” Ra Malika Imhotep unpacks the ironies, limitations, and joys of playing a rebellious slave in the reenactment last fall. Enlivened by her fellow rebels, Imhotep locates spontaneous moments of communion and mourning, “necessary ruptures in the choreography of Dread Scott’s vision.”
While reading the essays comprising German Coast Uprising, 1811 / 2019, you may be jostled by instances of recognition and repetition, genuine opportunities to see the same events from different perspectives. Despite their being more the product of fortune than careful arrangement, this is, of course, the point.
Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment took place November 8 – 9, 2019, with reenactors marching between LaPlace and New Orleans, Louisiana.