Over two days, men and women marched 26 miles to New Orleans to mark an overlooked uprising against slaverys brutality and pay tribute to those who fought for freedom

Ten years after police in Oakland killed his unarmed nephew Oscar Grant, Cephus Bobby Johnson put on a coarse cloth shirt and a red replica headpiece, clutched a machete and marched with 400 other re-enactors through the old plantation land of southern Louisiana.

Over two days, men and women marched 26 miles, through winding levee walkways, suburban sprawl and the historic streets of New Orleans, dressed as participants from a little-known slave rebellion that occurred here in 1811. The re-enactment was a piece of performance art by the New York artist Dread Scott.

For many taking part, it was an experience grounded in the trauma and complications of the present day.

Johnson thought about Grant. His 2009 shooting death became a focal point in the nationwide struggle for racial justice, well before the white officer who pulled the trigger was convicted of manslaughter.

Oscar didnt die in vain. And neither did our sisters and brothers that took the sword and took the cane machete to fight and die for freedom, Johnson said. They opened the door for us to be standing here today.

Re-enactors retrace the route of one of the largest slave rebellions in US history. Photograph: Marianna Massey/Getty Images

The 1811 revolt had been written out of formal history for much of the 20th century until, in 1996, a historian named Albert Thrasher published a book that re-examined its significance. It was the largest uprising of enslaved people in American history, and involved up to 500 rebels from across the west African diaspora and from multiple plantations, who rose up against planters in a region marked for its particular brutality against the enslaved. They planned to march on New Orleans.

Scotts re-enactment began on a cold, grey Friday morning outside a baptist church on the fringes of the small town of LaPlace, about 30 miles from New Orleans. Scott, 54, disembarked from a white coach holding a machete. As a small group of re-enactors followed in single file, holding replica muskets, pitchforks and sickles, he turned to them. Those who wish to die free, rise with me! he said.

The rebels chanted a chorus:

On to New Orleans!

Freedom or death!

Were going to end slavery!

Join us!

In an interview two weeks before the performance began, Scott said the idea of re-enacting a slave rebellion came to him six years ago. He was drawn to 1811 because of its explicitly political nature, the depth of its organization and the fact it has largely been overlooked by historians.

Within six months of deciding on the concept, he met the British artist Jeremy Deller in London. Deller, who won the Turner prize in 2004, had staged a re-enactment of a violent confrontation in 1984 between police and striking miners in Yorkshire named The Battle of Orgreave. Scott had been loosely aware of the work before but became more attuned to its relevance as he started to plan.

portrait + march 1

Artists are starting to use re-enactment to talk about this connection between past and present, he said. So its a tradition Im working in, but its also something thats a developing field.

It took years to raise the funds of over $1m, which included money from 500 individual donations, to pull off the spectacle. But as word of mouth about the project got out, African Americans from all over the country signed up.

Re-enactment culture in the US has largely been confined to white spaces and traditional history. Scott hoped from the outset that the piece would represent a transformative experience for all of those taking part. Many participants, like pastor Donald August, came from southern Louisiana and traced their ancestry back to slavery in this region.

My great-grandmother was a slave here, he said, holding a replica pistol. This is empowering, its enlightening. For years Ive tried to understand this 1811 revolt, to understand the mindset of the people participating who fought for freedom.

Others had travelled from Illinois, California and New York.

Some, like Betty Love, who recently moved to New Orleans from Seattle, knew nothing about the rebellion beforehand and used the experience to get closer to her roots.

Its hard to put this into words, Love said. I get overtaken by emotion. It gives me a piece of gratitude for what I have in my life, and what my ancestors experienced for me just to be here.

From the Baptist church, Scotts rebels marched in a tight, three-berth line, a few hundred yards to the Woodland plantation house. The former sugar plantation home, built in 1793, is still standing today and was where the rebellion began in January 1811.

According to recent histories, the small group of rebels waited until nightfall to storm the building, hacking the son of a planter to death, and badly injuring the homes owner. They were led by a slave driver named Charles Deslondes, and burned down a number of plantation homes as they marched towards the city, picking up more rebels along the way.

Dread Scott with a machete at the New Orleans jazz museum. Photograph: Anne Ponton


On the march, Scott assumed the role of Deslondes. Neighbors stood by their homes and peeked out of their windows, as about 60 re-enactors brandished their weapons and cheered as a white actor giving a particularly flamboyant performance was executed on the front porch.

As it wound along the sparse streets of LaPlace, the re-enactment drew a visceral reaction from a group of onlookers.

At an elementary school along the route, dozens of children had been brought outside to watch the marchers go by. Afterwards, Toni Robinette, the principal, wiped her eyes and asked them: Yall understand what slavery was?

Slavery was tragedy, she said. People were stolen, taken from their homeland. Taken here to do what?

Work, the students called. Robinette said later that the students are only beginning to study the history of enslavement in Louisiana.

Claudine Hebert, 64, stood outside in her house in her bathrobe, photographing the re-enactors on her phone.

It makes it real, Hebert said. You can see things or read things, but to actually see it live makes a difference. Im hoping white people will stop this thinking that theyre better than black people, because theyre not.

The marchers chanted Freedom or death! on the 26-mile march, which spanned old plantation land, suburban sprawl and New Orleans historic French Quarter. Photograph: Anne Ponton

But in this red state that voted overwhelmingly to elect Donald Trump in 2016 and in 1989 elected a former Klan wizard to the state house, racist criticism was not far away.

Kurt Falterman, 50, stood by his garage and watched, angry that the re-enactment caused traffic delays.

Thats history. Why dont they let that be? he said. I think its a bunch of bullcrap myself. We let them have what they want. They get their way.

Who did he mean by they?

The black folk.

Had anyone ever called him a racist?

Not to me personally. But I imagine a few of them probably would.

Scotts re-enactment stayed true to history. But the artist decided not to re-enact the rebellions brutal end, which resulted in the torture of Deslondes, who was burned alive, and the murder of dozens of his rebels by white captors who stopped them from reaching New Orleans.

Cephus Bobby Johnson and his wife Beatrice, from Oakland, whose nephew Oscar Grant was killed by police in 2009. Photograph: Anne Ponton

We are interrupting the historic timeline when we do this re-enactment, Scott said. We want to keep the focus on freedom and emancipation.

Even if you dont know much about this history, you know that white people did terrible things brutal, medieval torture of people during enslavement. That is not news. What is news is black people having agency within enslavement and, frankly, having the most radical ideas of freedom in the United States at the time.

The second day focused on this re-imagination. The rebels, now 400 in number, amassed in New Orleans under the afternoon sun. Storming into the citys French Quarter they marched through the crowded streets, drawing a mixture of bemusement and joy. Some in the re-enactment broke down in tears.

Scott, dead-eyed for much of the march, broke into a smile as he led the rebellion to Congo Square, the historic park in the centre of New Orleans, central to the creation of jazz and where, during slavery, the enslaved were sometimes allowed to congregate.

For Cephus Johnson, the conclusion of this march felt similar to the end of another he began five years ago when, to mark the anniversary of his nephews death, he retraced his final steps around the city of Oakland.

I sat there where he was murdered, and I was overcome with emotion, he said. It was electrifying. I remember that moment similar to now, because what came out of it was my energy to do this for the rest of my life. To focus on freedom, justice and equality.

Our ancestors have died for the simple cause of justice.

Lois Beckett contributed reporting

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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