'Freedom or death!': bringing America's largest slave revolt back to life
Performance artist Dread Scott recreates the the largely untold story of the 1811 slave rebellion in southern Louisiana. Winding through old plantation country, petrochemical plants and the city of New Orleans, the Guardian followed re-enactors along the route
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The state of Louisiana has memorialised the largest rebellion of enslaved people in US history with a road sign. I'm glad that there is a sign that marks it but I also think that to mark this most magnificent event with a sign in a traffic island, you know, by the side of a highway, that's crazy. Other people have tried to sort of mark this event often focusing on the brutality and the suppression of the rebellion and what I'm interested in is the liberatory aspects of the people who are fighting to free themselves. For me being born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, my whole experience in Louisiana has been learning more about my roots and about my family's experience before me, my ancestors … So just getting this opportunity here, is really powerful for me. I'm a heavy equipment operator for the city. I also work at carriages in the evening and I ride horses. That's the story of my life. This is going to be the most information I've ever had from the other end of it. Could they teach you what they want you to know in history, in schools, – Not this. Yeah, I ain't know anything. I was interested in horses and if I knew black people ride horses in the 1800s, I would have probably been a little bit more intrigued by that when I actually was being that I only knew black people were slaves in the 1800 as far as the books that I read. This is a new way in for people to look at this history and to say, well here's what's really been suppressed and something that should be celebrated, this is something that people should be truly proud of. It could have changed US and world history. Imagine if there were an African republic in modern day Louisiana but before westward expansion has really happened, so does Texas secede from Mexico? Does Los Angeles become part of California? Would enslave people all over the rest of the Lower South have decided, 'well, oh, we should rebel an escape there'. So it is, you know, a hugely significant event in US history and that history has been buried. We against slavery! We against slavery! We against slavery! We against slavery! Join us! – Join us! Join us! – Join us! On to New Orleans! – On to New Orleans! Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! I'm not acting, I'm having a whole experience with a bunch of other black people who have come to New Orleans for multiple different reasons to take part in this. Being around other black people, carrying weapons, embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation, I think that's really powerful. Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! Liberty! – Liberty! I imagine today will be very emotional, spiritual, as we are literally walking past oil refineries and street malls and other locations that were previously sugar plantations. I know this may not be the appropriate time but my family owns this land, I grew up here, my mother, my grandfather and just from me, from my family and my ancestors who may have been a part of this, I just want to say thank y'all for which y'all are doing because nothing like this has ever been done so thank you all are very much, I appreciate it. Well, a lot of my artwork looks at how the past not only sets the stage for the present, but how it sort of exists in the present in new form. In the early 1800s, slavery was the foundation of the economy in Louisiana. In the 1900s oil became the foundation of the world economy but centred here. There's a reason why that region is known as cancer alley. And so these petrochemical plants were put down literally on top of the graves of enslaved people that had died in that region. If you look at the woodlands, which is where this rebellion started, is a poor neighbourhood that people still living have memories of how their fathers or grandfathers worked in the fields. I mean, you can see quite literally the map of slavery right in that place. Those who wish to die free, rise with me! I mean, just … let's get along. Let it be! History is history, you can't remake history. A lot of us have nothing to do with it. Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! I think it's a bunch of bull crap, myself. I mean, we let them have what they want. They got their wage, they get their wage. – Who do you mean, they? I mean, the black folks. Has anybody ever said that you have racist views on this topic? Not to me personally, really, but I imagine I got a few of them who probably would. Perhaps the struggle for reparations or murder by police or, you know, the mass incarceration those are all questions that both have its origins and roots in enslavement but the people fighting to change that today are actually walking in the tradition of enslaved people who are fighting for freedom and emancipation. Liberty! - Liberty! We have lost a loved one to probably state violence, and murder. This is the life you live every single day, fighting for justice because you don't get it when the police murder your loved one. So, all of that embodied this walk that we took. Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! Freedom or death! – Freedom or death! I feel like for myself, like, if there's a stuck energy behind the slavery period of history, and us coming together to do this act is releasing energy and turning it into like a positive … These are the people that, you know, fought, in some cases with their lives, so others could be free. This is a project about rebellion, about freedom and emancipation and really black people having agency within enslavement and frankly having the most radical ideas of freedom in the United States at the time. Freedom! – Freedom! Freedom! – Freedom! Freedom! – Freedom! Join us! – Join us! Join us! – Join us! Join us! – Join us!