Why Not a Slave Rebellion Reenactment?

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As a confirmed history junkie, I’ve attended several reenactment events over the years commemorating the United States’ participation in various wars. By far, the largest of these was the Mid Atlantic Air Museum’s annual “World War II Weekend” at the Reading Regional Airport in Pennsylvania, which is always scheduled in early June to coincide with the anniversary of D-Day. Hundreds of period reenactors show up for this event portraying soldiers, sailors and airmen from virtually every Allied and Axis nation that took part in the war. Also, on display are some of the iconic aircraft of WW II, like the P-51 Mustang (the “Cadillac of the Sky”), the Supermarine Spitfire, Stuka dive bomber and Mitsubishi Zero Sen fighter. The year I attended, one of the largest reenactor contingents were those portraying German soldiers with some even dressed as SS or Nazis, swastika armbands prominently displayed. A surprising number of women (to me at least) also turned out, some in military garb, though most clad in the classy looking dresses and hats of the 1940s. Reenactment events do bring history to life in a limited sense. You can at least get something of a feel for what things were like and reenactors often have a wealth of information to share on even the most minor details of a battle, uniform, armaments, equipment and what life was like for civilians on the home front as well.

But, when you really think about it a little more, it seems kind of crazy to commemorate the deadliest war in human history, one that was particularly hard on civilian populations (U.S. civilians excluded, of course) engendered the Holocaust and ushered in the era of nuclear weapons. Astute analysts of war like journalist and author, Chris Hedges would probably explain reenactment as a feature of his thesis that “war is a force that gives us meaning”. A World War II reenactor would probably tell you he (or she) was there to commemorate the “positive” aspects of the conflict: the undisputed power and unity of U.S. in this “simpler age,” the national commitment to defeat the dark forces of fascist and militarist tyranny, the camaraderie of the bands of brothers who fought alongside one another, and perhaps the hope for a better world after it was all over. Those portraying Germans would probably tell you: “Well, somebody’s got to play the heavy.”

By far the largest number of reenactor events in the U.S. revolve around the American Civil War. According to The History List’s top 31 historic battle reenactments for 2019, a full 15 were Civil War reenactments, mostly taking place in the South but also at Gettysburg, PA. But now, closing out the year on November 8–9, was the first historical reenactment of the largest slave uprising in U.S. history.

The reenactment is the brainchild of revolutionary artist, Dread Scott. Scott first acquired notoriety in 1989, when he created an artwork entitled, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? It was a participatory piece that invited viewers to write comments in guest book, mounted on a podium that stood on one end of an American flag spread on the floor. Above the book was a collage featuring photos of flag draped coffins and South Korean students burning the flag. Participants were seemingly directed to step on the flag while leaving their comments. Not surprisingly, the exhibit generated intense controversy and the Senate later voted 97–0 to outlaw the displaying of an American flag on the ground.

Scott first envisioned the reenactment about 8 years ago. He originally planned to restage Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising in Virginia but then a colleague told him about the much larger and better organized rebellion that took place in Louisiana from January 8–10, 1811. It is sometimes referred to as the “German Coast Uprising” because the region where it took place was settled by German immigrants in the 1720s. According to historian Daniel Rasmussen’s 2012 book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, the 1811 insurrection included an estimated 200 to 500 slaves, many of them dressed in military uniforms, armed with guns, cane knives and axes. Taking inspiration from the 1791–1804 Haitian Revolution, the only slave rising in history (we know of) that led to the foundation of a state both free from slavery and governed by non-white former slaves, the Louisiana slaves’ goal was the conquest of New Orleans and the establishment of a free republic. As Rasmussen tells us the response of federal troops, state militia and local planters, many of them French, was swift and brutal. The rebellious slaves were brought to battle on January 10 with 40 to 45 killed. The survivors were hunted down over the next two weeks, interrogated, tortured, tried, executed by hanging or firing squad, then decapitated, their heads displayed on pikes as a warning to other slaves.

Rassmussen notes further that after the rebellion, government officials and slave owners made sure the episode was downplayed, written out of the history books, the “bold actions of the slave army” dismissed as irrelevant and trivial. According to Rassmussen, the longest published scholarly account of the rebellion he could find prior to his own work, “runs a mere twenty-four pages.” That’s not entirely correct. Dread Scott cites, African-American Communist, Albert Thrasher’s 317 page, On to New Orleans: Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt, published in 1996, as one of his inspirations. In any event, Rassmussen’s more recent book cites the German Coast Uprising as a “central moment in our nation’s past — a story more Braveheart than Beloved.”

Dread Scott and all of those who helped to put together and participated in this reenactment have done a service to history by bringing to life an important, underexplored aspect of America’s past and provoking thought and discussion about it. As Scott himself recently said: “You can’t actually understand American society if you don’t understand slavery and you can’t understand slavery if you don’t understand slave revolts.” For a more information on both the original German Coast Uprising and the reenactment, including video clips, go to www.slave-revolt.com.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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