This essay is part of German Coast Uprising, 1811 / 2019, a series of stories responding to the Slave Rebellion Reenactment initiated by artist Dread Scott outside New Orleans last November. Read the letter from the editor introducing the series here.
Embodiment is a call to re-member. To re-member slavery in the twenty-first century is to collapse the polite teleological distance between one’s contemporary Black self and the too often anonymous figures of the enslaved past. My decision to “enlist” in Dread Scott’s “Army of the Enslaved” was a decision to cast myself in the role of an imagined and unnamed ancestor—an ancestor in the biggest, Blackest sense of the word. Despite my claim to be descended from those who survived enslavement in the US South, I have no natal connection to the German Coast Uprising of 1811. For some critics, this fact alone is enough to disqualify my perspective on what it was we gathered to do that first weekend of November 2019. That critique is valid. The cultural context of New Orleans is oversaturated by the demands of a tourist economy that spectacularizes twentieth-century social codes in which Black folks perform the labor that creates the conditions for white folks’ enjoyment. After the storm, the city was seized by numerous non-profits—some benevolent and some parasitic—many of which invested in the arts as one major avenue of the city’s cultural renewal.
In light of this history, a project coming to New Orleans from the outside (New York, no less!), attracting a lot of attention and even more funding, warrants its share of cynicism and rigorous critique. Against this backdrop, the Slave Rebellion Reenactment was initially articulated as a community-engaged performance project that reimagined the 1811 German Coast Uprising and forced a living juxtaposition of the past against the present realities of the River Parishes just outside of New Orleans, where several once-upon-a-time plantations have become tourist destinations and petrochemical plants that put residents, many of whom were likely genealogically linked to the 1811 rebels, at high risk for cancer, asthma, and other ailments. What does it mean to play a rebellious slave at the site of such ongoing racialized inequity?
My background as a scholar in the field of Black Studies shades my intellectual and creative response to this question. In one sense, I understand the ways what Saidiya Hartman has termed “the afterlife of slavery” positions the entire world in a field of play in which Black people are always already conscripted into a social, political, and economic narrative that mandates our perpetual hardship. I understand, following Hartman, that the relationship between “the Black body” and “public space” has always been marked by violence. I understand that even performances of joy and levity (the type of which New Orleans is known for) can be coerced by capitalism and its bevy of oppressive social structures. But, as beautifully rendered in In the Wake, Christina Sharpe’s watershed text on Black living and dying, this knowing opens me up to “particular ways of re/seeing, re/inhabiting, and re/imagining the world.”
And so, as a Black feminist writer and performance artist invested in the ways Black femininity emerges from an instrumentalized body to effectively alter all the space around it, I entered the Army of the Enslaved with a curious taste for subversion. Ghanaian-British filmmaker and artist John Akomfrah and Black cinematographer Bradford Young were brought on to document the performance, which took place over two days and a combined twenty-six miles of marching. As a performer, the inclusion of these prominent Black filmmakers and artists immediately made me wonder how Scott and the rest of the production team were going to toe the line between communal performance art and high-art film production. The former—the project I was anticipating—would be an act of presence and endurance during which Black folks could experience some sort of creative communion with each other and these riotous and vengeful ancestors of 1811. When I reported to our meeting site under the Claiborne Bridge early on the first morning of the reenactment, this all still felt possible. But once we gathered on-site in LaPlace, Louisiana, it began to feel more like a film production.
In the character of enslaved rebels, we shamelessly broke form, slowed down, sped up, joked, laughed, politicized each other, and did what we wanted to do.
In the midst of the discomfort and shock of being left to figure out for ourselves how we were going to transform from feeling like a group of extras in nineteenth-century costumes to a group of reenactors empowered by the spirits of those who walked before us, I sat with a group of Black women to vent and strategize. At one point we decided we would not just wait idly for direction. We looked into each other’s eyes, gathered our tools and weapons, and walked outside where we joined a “regiment.” Before long there was prayer and song. Someone passed around a burning bundle of sage. The sun came out for a little while as we got into formation. I remember one woman—I think her name was Tina—who led us with care and wielded a revolver so expertly I fully trusted her to guide me towards this imagined new freedom.
The first day was cold and uncomfortable. As we moved from point to point with little direction, often stopping so the film crew could get in place, there was an air of confusion and discontent. Assistant producer Shana M. Griffin, social media coordinator Renee Royale, recruitment coordinator Ifátùmínínú Bamgbàlà Arẹ̀sà, and others whose names I cannot recall went beyond their specific duties to make sure our most urgent needs were met. Toward the end of the first day, while the majority of the production staff was focused on the battle scene, a group of us walked back and forth across the Bonnet-Carre Spillway. An Indigenous brother called our attention to small paper signs that had been staked into the ground. The land where we hurriedly sought out refuge and warmth, where we moaned out our exhaustion and discontent, was formerly a “persons of color burial plot” holding the remains of those enslaved in Norco, Louisiana, and their descendants. Along with several of the Black women around me, I immediately fell to my knees, holding a moment of silence and giving what offerings we could.
This moment and others—spontaneous outbursts of dancing and ring shouts, the improvised songs of the “Slave Rebellion Freedom Choir”—were necessary ruptures in the choreography of Dread Scott’s vision. I was pleasantly surprised to note how many of our number were Black queer artists and cultural workers with varying levels of local political consciousness and relationships to regional political organizations such as Southerners on New Ground. In the character of enslaved rebels, we shamelessly broke form, slowed down, sped up, joked, laughed, politicized each other, and did what we wanted to do. The fact that these moments were sometimes rapidly intercepted by the gaze of the camera crew is annoying and disappointing—simply rehashing oppressive dynamics—but it does not exhaust or negate the deep spiritual, creative, and political work we were moved to do outside the frame.
Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment took place November 8 – 9, 2019, with reenactors marching between LaPlace and New Orleans, Louisiana.