The largest revolt of enslaved Africans in American history took place on January 8th, 1811 in Louisiana, about 30 miles north of New Orleans. I spent the better part of two hours reading articles and clicking on related links, letting the history sink in, while also allowing it to connect a series of dots for me as an educator. Not unlike reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, there was an eerie recognition of the racial dynamics that shaped the event, and its aftermath, that seem so present to me today.
I never learned about the 1811 Revolt in school, but then again, the only Black heroes we learned about growing up were humble, God-fearing figures, boxed up neatly for us in packaging marked “NONVIOLENT.”
And as someone who cares deeply about nonviolence this isn’t meant to be a put down.
I have unwavering reverence for Dr. King and his movement. I also find myself thinking that a return to the study of the great nonviolent movements will soon be more urgent than ever, as the threat of war becomes increasingly nuclear and we face the reality that the weapons we possess have the potential to destroy the planet and all of its inhabitants multiple times over.
However, I’ve learned over the years to recognize that anything looked at through the lens of Whiteness, even a concept as pure as nonviolence, will be grossly distorted. And an untold history like that of an enslaved man named Charles and the nearly successful rebellion he plotted and executed in 1811 in Louisiana helps us see our ahistorical educations for the funhouse mirrors they have actually been.
I started my investigation into the 1811 Revolt (on Khalilah’s recommendation- shout out to my favorite historian) with an article from the Zinn Ed project, which aims to tell a People’s History of the US (as Howard Zinn did with his book of the same title) within a pedagogical context.
I also read the Smithsonian’s article on the Revolt published in 2011 for the 200th anniversary.
Reading and investigating through the lens of an educator as well as a learner, I finished my night unable to sleep and inspired to take this history into a learning context. I think if I were crafting a unit around the event, I might open with a “Silent Conversation”- a gallery walk where I might include these 7 facts about the event on 7 different pieces of chart paper. I’d invite us to move in groups of four, responding to these facts with markers on the paper, and move through each paper in a “conversation” with our classmates or colleagues to draw out connections, noticings and responses:
- Charles was a ‘driver’ on the Deslonde plantation, meaning he had been granted some level of assimilation and was charged with overseeing other enslaved laborers. Charles used that status to gain the trust of his oppressors and plot against them.
- The Deslonde family had fled Haiti in the midst of the successful Haitian Revolution (1790-1802) and the revolution itself was the inspiration for the revolt.
- Charles led an initial revolt on the plantation and then began the 30 mile march towards New Orleans, with the intention of building an army en route and taking the city as an autonomous, free Black republic. The army’s slogans were “Freedom or death” and “On to New Orleans”.
- Over 500 enslaved Africans participated in the revolt, hailing from 50 different nations and speaking 50 different languages and dialects. Many were trained soldiers.
- Organizational leadership within the rebel army included women as well as men.
- Militias and U.S. Federal troops ended the rebellion in a massively violent display. Dozens of rebels were slaughtered, some were tried and killed via firing squad. Many rebels were dismembered and their heads were posted on poles along the Mississippi to threaten and intimidate other enslaved people.
- The revolt was a massive inspiration to enslaved Africans and had a huge impact on Louisiana’s participation in the Civil War. “The children and the grandchildren of the rebels of 1811 finished the job in the Civil War. Louisiana contributed more soldiers—over 28,000—to the Union Army than any other state.”-Leon A. Waters
The dynamics that first stood out so clearly to me in my reading, (what I would comment on as a part of the “Silent Conversation”) were the infinite resilience, strategy, bravery and sacrifice that permeate movements of Black resistance. I could trace these qualities from the 1811 revolt through decades directly to the Black Lives Matter movement and the pedagogy of protest taking root in so many of our schools and communities today.
As I learned, the 1811 revolt was a movement of diasporic people- a truly pan-African uprising, representing over 50 nations and languages. Organizing for and with this kind of diversity towards the cause of Black liberation is a value I see unfold in conversations and direct action all the time.
I was moved to feel that connection.
More hauntingly, there were also the dynamics of deep, corrosive fear on the part of the Whites; fear of Blackness and Black rebellion, transformed into hypervigilance, brutal policing and murderous rage.
These are dynamics I see every day as well. I get chills thinking about all the ways I have experienced the reenacting of this fear, hypervigilance, policing and rage in our schools. The profound mistrust of young people of color, the incessant demand of proof that permission has been granted by some authority for them to freely move their bodies in public spaces. The overwhelming force enacted when they are seen as being out of line. These connections left me feeling cold. Which is probably one of the many reasons we don’t learn about these histories.
I’ve written before about fear of Black rebellion and how it manifests in our schools. The knowing, or NOT knowing about the 1811 Slave Revolt (as it is commonly known) is directly related to this reality in our work as educators. Plantation mentality, hyper-vigilance of Black and Brown bodies, police presence and the school to prison pipeline, coupled with a masterfully curated history curriculum designed to reproduce the idea that Black resistance is peaceful, forgiving, non-threatening and, even in civil disobedience, obedient, all serve a greater purpose in our schools. A purpose inherited from the militias, federal troops and plantation owners that crushed the uprising of 1811.
If we have been dedicated in our evolution as anti-racists, we understand this inheritance conceptually, but reading and learning about historical events like the 1811 Slave Revolt does something to us. Firstly, it is practically an act of rebellion to learn about it. The scholarship around the event includes evidence that the rebellion was intentionally obscured. We didn’t learn about it because the White men who ended the rebellion didn’t want us to.
Secondly, as James Baldwin says, White America is trapped in a history it cannot understand, and until we understand it, we cannot be released from it. As White folks, to study the righteous and heroic revolts of enslaved Africans is an act of release. An act that releases us from a false history that prevents us from sharing in the full and sacred humanity of our Black neighbors, colleagues, students, friends, and loved ones.
What would it mean for White educators to see their students of color as the very recent ancestors of fearless warriors for human freedom and dignity- men and women who sacrificed their lives and inspired the largest state-wide inscription into the war that abolished slavery?
How would conversations about “grit” and “resilience” change in the context of histories like these?
What would happen to the racially charged sympathy and chronically low expectations in our classrooms?
What happens to us if we allow the connections to be made in a way that truly transforms our practice as educators?