By Rachel Cargle
Photography Clifford Prince King
Dread Scott contemplated the idea of reenacting a slave rebellion for a while. Such a performance would be in line with his revolutionary work that, time and time again, challenges us to reconsider our ideas of America and society. His 1989 artwork What Is The Proper Way To Display A U.S. Flag, which gave its audience an opportunity to stand atop a 3-by-5-foot U.S. flag, was called “disgraceful” by President Bush—and that was just the beginning of a more national scope of controversy surrounding his work.
When Scott came across the history of Charles Deslondes and the German Coast uprising, he found the story of rebellion he wanted to tell. In 2019, the artist organized over 300 performers—many with their own history tied to enslavement on Louisiana land—in reenacting the 1811 revolt where over 500 enslaved people advanced on New Orleans. Marching over 20 miles in colonial-era clothing, some on horse, many carrying weapons or holding handmade flags, and chanting in English and Creole, the performers provided a startling contrast against the shopping plazas, parking lots, and oil refineries of modern-day America.
Scott’s current exhibition, entitled “We’re Going to End Slavery. Join Us!” at Cristin Tierney Gallery, includes six large photographs documenting the performance and three of the five hand-sewn flags carried as banners. I spoke with Scott over Zoom on opening day. Our conversation explores the inception of his compelling project, the “hidden art” that exists within such a dynamic exhibition, and what he thinks are the most radical ideas about freedom now.
RACHEL CARGLE: How did this slave rebellion reenactment come about?
DREAD SCOTT: A couple of years before, I had an idea: I want to do a slave rebellion reenactment. That’s how I work; I’m always thinking. The McColl Center said, “We want you to come down to New Orleans and tell us what you want to do.” I thought, there’s no way they’re going to go for it, but they said sure. I thought, I’m probably going to do Nat Turner. Maybe I’ll do it in the Dismal Swamp, a couple of hours outside of Charlotte. Maybe it’ll be an amalgam of different rebellions.
It just coincidentally happened that the interim director of the McColl’s residency program had heard of this revolt in 1811. I wasn’t so sure about that, because I know a fair amount about African and African American history and about slavery and slave revolts. I think I would have known about it. What had happened was this Harvard-undergrad white dude came out with a book, a New York Times bestseller. He was on NPR talking about it, and I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting.” It was the largest rebellion of enslaved people. It was a hidden history. The rebellion had a chance to succeed, which would have meant seizing all of Orleans Territory and setting up an African Republic that outlawed slavery.
The book talks about Leon Waters, who’s the real expert on it. He and Albert Thrasher wrote the original source material in a book called On to New Orleans! (1996). The book that came out in 2011 just stole their scholarship. But that’s how I found out about it. I knew about Nat Turner, I knew about Gabriel Prosser, I knew about Denmark Vesey, and I knew about Stono, but the German Coast revolt—the largest one—was buried in history.
CARGLE: It’s incredible that you didn’t know about it either. No one did, and I was like, “Why isn’t anyone asking if you knew about it?” It’s very cool to think that this artwork reflects you processing new information. The fact that you are so studied yet you hadn’t come across it speaks to the central issue.
I’m wondering what your mental or emotional preparation looked like leading up to the reenactment. Was it important for you and the team you brought on to help carry out this vision?
SCOTT: Well, the first thing was for me to learn as much about this particular rebellion as possible. In talking with Leon and some of his people, one of the things that became clear is that he had a cousin who was a couple of generations older. She told Leon when he was a 10-year-old boy that their ancestors fought against slavery.
When he gets older, Leon becomes a revolutionary, meets other revolutionaries, and they find all this information. One of the things that stood out for me is that the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history is only known today because of some dude’s family history. There could be others that are equally large or of similar size.
They got newspapers from as far away as London, Philadelphia, and New York. Anybody who’s a serious scholar of slavery and slave rebellions could have found this information. You’d have to dig and you’d have to get lucky because it’s not in the scholarship from the mid-1900s. You’d actually have to find primary material.
That’s what makes Leon and his people revolutionary. They thought about oral history in a way that a lot of Harvard and Yale and Princeton types don’t. They went to people who do genealogy and met people who could run down their family history based on grave markers. These genealogists have spent decades researching name-telling, and it can just rattle off: my father’s father’s father’s father was buried here, as told to me by so-and-so.
CARGLE: They probably would record it down more accurately than a Harvard anthropologist would.
SCOTT: There needs to be a synthesis of academic research methods and people’s history methods, including their knowledge of oral history. I hoped that the project would do that, but I was trying to learn. I very quickly realized you can’t understand the history of this country if you don’t know about slave rebellions. These were rebels and revolutionary leaders who were farsighted in their vision. They had a plan that was the only way to actually get free.
Yes, many people have endured slavery. My ancestors did. I don’t know if I have people who were slave rebel leaders in my family, but my people survived. If you escaped or set up a maroon colony, slavery still would have been all around you. You would have had to negotiate that constantly. The only way to really get free was to end the system of slavery, which meant seizing all of Orleans Territory.
That’s something that people in the modern era need to understand about the past, and then we need to apply it to our present. They didn’t say, “Hey man, let’s form a Super PAC and see if we can only get whipped on Monday through Friday.” It was like, “Let’s end this, that’s how we are free.”
If people apply that thinking today, you’d have a whole different approach. We can be self-determined, we can run the world differently.
CARGLE: I’m a Black girl who grew up in the Midwest. Sitting in history class when we were going over the slavery period—it was the worst days of my academic life. I’m considering how we were fed this idea of the docile, helpless, happy slave.
I want to know, how does learning about slave revolts—and witnessing them in the reenactment you did—how does that shift the truth of that time? What does it inform us of, remind us of?
SCOTT: Boots Riley, who many people know as the writer and director of Sorry to Bother You (2018), said in a Coup lyric, “The people only bound back when they pound back.” I think there’s a lot to that.
I do a lot of talks on university campuses, including HBCUs. In building up to this project, students were assigned to come. They were like, “We didn’t want to hear any more crap about slavery, and then we saw that this was about slave rebellion.”
Together we lifted this whole weight of, like: Why are Black people messed up? Why are we the ones in the projects? Why are we drug dealers? Why are we the ones in prison? Why do we have broken homes? Why are we the hustlers? Why are we the thugs? Why are we the ones that don’t get a job? Why aren’t we CEOs?
To realize, “Ah, damn, they did this to us, and yet our ancestors fought against it”—I want to know more about that. I want to tell people about that.
When we did the reenactment, people felt that in their bodies. The project followed the methods of Charles Deslondes, one of the leaders. He had freedom of movement to go to different plantations, and used it to recruit his lieutenants, who then recruited other people. That’s how we built these reenactments. I talked with a few people, and they talked with other people who needed to be involved. I didn’t know everybody who was going to participate.
During the reenactment, I met this one guy who came up to me and said, “Thank you for allowing me to do this.” I was like, “Of course, why wouldn’t I?” He was like, “Well, a lot of people wouldn’t. I was in prison for 10 years.” “Okay.” He says, “You don’t understand, a lot of people don’t want to have anything to do with me.”
What I told them is, “Look, if you want to embody this history of freedom and emancipation, then you are welcome.” You could see that it was the freest, most radical, most liberated, Blackest space I’ve ever been in. We basically brought armed Black and Indigenous people into a major metropolitan city. None of us got shot.
CARGLE: Your reenactment had a different ending than the historical uprising.
SCOTT: We interrupted the historic timeline. In 1811, there were two detachments from the rebellion. An advanced detachment tried to seize Fort St. Charles and obtain more weapons for the second detachment to seize the city. For a variety of complicated reasons, that didn’t happen.
The reenactment got to New Orleans and ended in Congo Square, a place where Africans and Afro-descendant people were allowed to gather on Sundays for much of the late 1700s and early 1800s. They could dress however they wanted and do rituals and things like that. Actually, Congo Square helped lay the foundation for contemporary Western music—specifically rhythm, the foundation for jazz, blues, hip-hop, bounce, trap, trance, rock-and-roll. Also, what became modern theater owes its roots to Congo Square.
So we flipped from a military campaign to a cultural celebration. There was music, there was jazz, there was rock-and-roll, there was R&B, there was hip-hop.
CARGLE: To speak to the current exhibition, what was the process for selecting the photographs in the gallery? What were you looking to make sure was seen?
SCOTT: My work exists in a lot of different media, but I do a fair amount of performance. There are a couple issues with that. You have to honor and respect the live performance. That is, for me, the most important thing. Even if I didn’t record the reenactment in any way, the work would be valid and important. In this case, the experience of the reenactors was primary.
The question is, how do you draw on that experience? There’s a tension when you see something live. Like, “Oh, are they going to kill that white guy? Are they going to get to the city? Are their ranks going to grow? How are they going to walk all that distance?” Video can flatten that out. Photography, for me, is often a better way to look at the performance, to allow the audience to bring themselves and their questions to it.
On view are six performance stills. They try to be representative of the project as a whole. A lot of reenactment photography tries to cut all the modern stuff out, but that’s not what this is. This reenactment took place in the present—these reenactors were freedom fighters embodying themselves, just with some outdated clothing. One of the photos has oil refineries in the background; another has modern power lines and a train trestle. Part of it takes place in the French Quarter, and you see cars and all this modern traffic. I have these same eyeglasses on. I wasn’t trying to pretend this was Hollywood, even if we were historically accurate in our costumes.
CARGLE: What are some aspects of “hidden art” that existed within this work?. There must be details that viewers, both of the live performance and the gallery stills, might have missed out on appreciating.
SCOTT: Well, the flags. During the rebellion, General Wade Hampton wrote to Governor Claiborne, “There are 500 brigands in the field, they’re marching in formation under flags.” That simple statement tells us the size of the rebel army, and it tells that they were organized in regiments. But he didn’t write down what the flags looked like.
So I had to imagine what flags they would have made, and how they would have made them. Our flags were all made with materials and processes that would have been available to enslaved people in 1811. Today, people aren’t going to know all that detail when they see the photographs. People seeing it live didn’t know.
There were a couple practicing Yorubas who were really excited that I had Ṣàngó’s double-headed axe on one flag, whereas most people had no clue what they were marching under. But that’s okay. I imagine that in 1811, there would’ve been similar conversations going on. Something like: Teach me that song. What does this symbol mean?
CARGLE: That’s really dope to think about the similarities between people coming together and figuring out how to approach this incredible joint mission. My last question for you is, what are you most proud of about this particular work?
SCOTT: This is the best work I’ve ever done. I hope that in 20 or 30 years, if people still know I exist [laughs] and they write about me as an artist, that this will be the main work they focus on and that they really dig into it. The visible part of the reenactment happened over the course of two days, and that was epic and really cool. But the project really was a 6-and-a-half-year process of recruiting people to be part of the army of the enslaved. Some of the reenactors were connected four or five years before.
As I said, it was composed of one-on-one conversations with people I didn’t know. I would talk with somebody and then they would get their friends or colleagues or others they thought should participate. That was part of the artwork. It forged networks and communities that still function and exist in meaningful ways that I don’t know about and I love.
Published: October 01, 2021
Corrections: Several factual corrections were implemented on October 08, 2021
“Dread Scott: We're Going to End Slavery. Join Us!” is on view at Cristin Tierney Gallery through December 18, 2021. The gallery also co-organized, with Christie’s, the sale of Scott’s first NFT artwork, White Male for Sale (2021), on October 01, 2021.