Rebelling against the whitewashing of history

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

Contemporary artist Dread Scott uses history as a medium to scrutinize ongoing systems of racial injustice. His work is largely performative and involves revisiting horrific moments in American history to shed light on racism and sociocultural injustice. In his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (October 7, 2014, produced by More Art), Scott referenced the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, where city agents used water cannons in an attempt to suppress activists who were organizing against the city’s racist segregation laws. In a feat of physical endurance and emotional fortitude, Scott attempted to cross from one side of a public plaza in Brooklyn to the other while being bombarded by a powerful stream of water shot from a fire hose.

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

In attendance, was a group of high school students from Brooklyn (Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant), who wrote eloquent, powerful and passionate responses to On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, and highlighted the myriad of social justice issues affecting their local community. Some of the students’ responses were published on More Art’s blog. Scott also visited the school and engaged in a discourse with the students in a “town hall” style meeting to address the epidemic of racial tension, police brutality and social inequity in New York City. In their classroom meetings, students discussed ways they could activate positive change within their communities. They created informative fliers and zines to display and handout in their school, and organized a student union, in order to speak out against the new Jim Crow (see: Alexander, 2010) and other issues affecting equality, equity and justice. The students’ involvement in civic engagement is a hopeful sign that current and future generations of youth are discerning the roles they have in reversing the whitewashed narrative of Western culture.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

Dread Scott’s latest project, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, which he presented in New Orleans on November 8th and 9th, was a reenactment of a slave rebellion in Louisiana called the German Coast Uprising of 1811. The German Coast, a 100 mile curvilinear stretch of high-yielding land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was settled by colonists in the 18th century and became the location of many plantations owned by planters and slave owners like Manuel Andry. The cash crop of the region was sugarcane, and its high demand resulted in very harsh and demoralizing conditions for the enslaved black individuals who were forced to cultivate it.

On January 8th of 1811, around 25 slaves from plantations along the German Coast rose up against their owners. In the dead of night, the group of slaves led by Charles Deslondes, killed Andry’s son Gilbert and chased a wounded Andry off his plantation. As Deslondes and his faction moved along the German Coast, the number of revolutionaries increased tenfold (although the exact number is debated among historians). Ultimately, the lack of combat training and tactical skills on behalf of Deslondes and his militia led to their defeat after just two days. The rebels caused severe damage to the plantations, but suffered far more casualties than their adversaries. In the aftermath of the event, the white majority used their wealth of resources and position of political power to further dehumanize and oppress the black population.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

The German Coast Uprising of 1811 was the largest slave rebellion in United States History, yet it is largely forgotten today apart from local culture (see: Oliver, 2019). While many U.S. history textbooks mention Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which happened 20 years later in Virginia, Charles Deslondes and his valiant uprising has received far less historical attention. Princeton professor and historian, Rhae Lynn Barnes, hypothesizes that the lack of knowledge around the German Coast Uprising might be due to the fact that Louisiana was a recent addition to the United States (via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) and “therefore still seen as untamed territory where violence and lawlessness could be anticipated” (Barnes, 2015). Another explanation is that some states are still struggling to come to terms with their white supremacist legacy and efforts to gloss over and cover up these narratives satisfies their cultural narrative far better than reconciling with centuries of gross racial injustice.

The idea of a slave rebellion reenactment had been a long-term artistic goal for Dread Scott. However, when planning the theme and other elements of such a project, Scott was initially unaware of the German Coast Uprising of 1811. Prior to learning about the uprising, he had planned to enact a conceptualized slave rebellion, featuring seminal revolutionaries like Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser (Smith, 2019). Since Scott’s artistic practice is rooted in historical analysis and research, he eventually came across accounts of the largest slave rebellion in the United States. Like a scholar of history, Dread scrutinized primary sources via archives and public records, as well as secondary sources from modern historians. While going through the process to plan the performance, he paid careful attention to details such as the costumes, weapons and logistical routes relating to the fateful 48+ hours of rebellion along the German Coast 208 years ago. Scott immersed himself within the local New Orleans communities where his performance took place. Part of the organizational planning included talks with local historians and students at local colleges. Scott wanted to make sure that he was representing the spirit of Charles Deslondes and his brave cohort of revolutionary minded individuals.  Due to the fact that the rebellion isn’t in many history books and that the written history coming from primary sources is murky (because records of the rebellion where kept by the same authority figures who sought to suppress it), Scott relied on educated hypotheses from local historians Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber. Although he wanted to present the event as authentically as possible, one alteration that Scott purposefully made to the historical account is the ending. Scott wanted to end the performance on an uplifting note and therefore he had the rebels force their oppressors to retreat. Scott’s utilization of artistic license does the narrative justice because it inspires hope and creates an open-ended dialogue regarding contemporary forms of social engagement.

Artworks like On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide and Slave Rebellion Reenactment, re-present history by illuminating marginalized and underrepresented sociocultural events that we all should be aware of. Although it is undeniably a part of our history, the topic of slavery and its legacy is still a contentious subject among factions of the United States population. Some states and white authority figures have taken issue with acknowledging their predecessor’s roles in the slavery and genocide of African-Americans. Most recently, communities in the South were divided by the movement to remove monuments of Civil War era figures who were influential in the spreading of the Confederate agenda. In an effort to revise the heroic treatment bestowed upon racist and treasonous figures of the Confederacy, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed from public spaces. Opponents say that the removal of statues negates the cultural heritage of the South. The issue with that statement is that displaying the likeness of these figures reinforces ideals and practices of white supremacy. The Confederate monuments were realized in correlation with the Jim Crow laws (1877-1964), which were meant to intimidate and repress black citizens’ access to equal, equitable and social justice rights. The argument that removing these nefariously realized monuments would eradicate Southern culture is ethically devoid. As Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum specializing in Civil-War era culture states: “If white nationalists and Neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again” (Brown, 2017).

What about the erasure of African-Americans whose contributions and narratives were never acknowledged? What about the fact that sacred land, such as their burial grounds, have been buried under concrete and steel elements of modern urban architecture? If celebrating Southern culture is of deep concern, then statues of Charles Deslondes, Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner would be better options to be displayed in Southern parks, plazas and civic buildings, than the white Confederate generals who fought to uphold slavery and genocide.

The artistic interventions of Dread Scott are the history lessons we all need. Their beneficial impact is in the pedagogical framework of re-presenting history in a non-white and non-colonialist manner. We are granted with the experiences and voices of the oppressed and marginalized, which revokes the traditional practice of historical accounting in service of the victors. The artful visualization of the performers symbolizing the audacity and struggles of the rebel slaves, inspires empathy and understanding for those who were and are currently affected by racial injustice. Although the rebellions of Deslondes, Turner and Prosser were physically thwarted, the social and emotional impact of their actions could not be erased by white supremacy.

With a generation of students, such as those at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, who are learning to be acutely aware and actively attentive to important facts and issues surrounding racial and social justice, it is hopeful that near future societies will continue to foster empathetic solutions to whatever social problems arise. When that happens, the history books and lessons will reflect the valiance of the marginalized and the oppressed rebels, while admonishing the systemic oppression of racial, ethnic and religious groups that has been the status quo of American society since its colonial foundation.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Barnes, Rhae Lynn. “America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” US History Scene, 10 Apr. 2015. ushistoryscene.com/article/german-coast-uprising/.

Brown, Rachel. “Why the U.S. Capitol Still Hosts Confederate Monuments,” news.nationalgeographic.com, 17 Aug. 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/charlottesville-confederate-memorials-civil-war-racism-history.

Laughland, Oliver. “First slavery, then a chemical plant and cancer deaths: one town’s brutal history,” The Guardian, 6 May 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisiana-reserve-history-slavery

Smith, Melissa. “Here’s How the Artist Dread Scott Pulled Off an Epic Reenactment of the Largest Slave Rebellion in American History,” artnetnews, 21 Nov. 2019. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/dread-scotts-epic-reenactment-rebellion-1700433?fbclid=IwAR19DLG6JwO-81nENl_VmXNRb7EbJUwJEJUxBoFoKthvB_s2vpwdAX5IaV4

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