Examining “the cauldron of what is America”: An interview with Dread Scott

By Renée Ater

Dread Scott is the recipient of the 2021 Public Art Dialogue Award for achievement in the field of public art. To mark the occasion, in February 2021 PAD member and scholar Renée Ater conducted a broad-ranging interview with the artist about enslavement, resistance, and freedom. Topics covered included: Scott’s projects Slave Rebellion Reenactment (2019), Unchained at Järnvågsplatsen (2019), and Dread Scott: Decision (2013); the creation of living monuments; gender and revolutionary violence; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; plantation tourism; and the ghosts of America’s past. An excerpt of this interview appears below. The full interview will run in the Fall 2021 issue of Public Art Dialogue.

I thought we could talk about slavery and its relationship to your work. What I realized with your Slave Rebellion Reenactment in Louisiana is that you are trying to kind of flip the story of slavery and talk about freedom as well. I’m really interested in those two things. Last night I was reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, and it really resonated with me while thinking about not only your work but also artists who are engaged with trying to wrestle with slavery in the present. He writes, “Slavery here [in the United States] is a ghost, both the past and a living presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent that ghost, something that is and yet is not.” When I read that I thought that really gets at some of the core problems of the representation around slavery, that it has this specter-like presence, both in our contemporary lives and in the past. And then how do we wrestle with that specter-like quality?

When you were reading that quote, I was thinking of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is my favorite novel, and Toni Morrison is my favorite novelist. I thought writing the story of America as a ghost story was really profound in a certain sense, and how the ghost of America’s past of enslavement is completely contemporary and with us and haunting in a way. And the question of representing that: when large sections of American society don’t even want to acknowledge that enslavement existed, let alone that it has anything to do with the present, it makes it difficult to talk about in a certain sense, because you don’t have modern-day America or the modern-day world without slavery. It’s not just an American thing. I mean, all the wealth that is Europe. I mean, you don't have England, you don't have Spain and Portugal, you don’t have France, you don’t have the entire modern world, including even the presence of Black people. Some think Brazil is largely Black because it’s Brazil—well, it’s Black because Africans were stolen to do the labor there. The Native population was decimated. And much of the Americas and the people we think of as from Jamaica, they were enslaved people from Africa because of colonial powers. 

You don’t get America without slavery. And yet this country cannot acknowledge it, in part because the white supremacy that was developed and used to rationalize that exploitation is still present. This is unlike some countries for example, Germany: after fascism was defeated, they, by and large, came to a society-wide understanding that Nazism and fascism was bad and that they had to really reckon with that, including paying reparations. In America, the North basically said, “Hey, you racists in the south, we’re totally cool with you. We agree that Black people are less than white people. We just want to have a slightly different tweak on the economy. And so we’re perfectly happy continuing forms of enslavement, and we are perfectly happy having laws that treat Black people as less-than. We just can’t have large plantation agriculture and actual literal enslavement legally quite the way we did in the past. But we’re perfectly happy running governments with you.” 

It's ironic, the whole January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol, where they were referencing the disputed 1876 Presidential Election, when it was specifically like, “OK, here’s the deal: you Republicans get rid of Reconstruction, and you guys can have the presidency. Are we good?” And the deal was like, “OK, yeah, cool.” Which is kind of like now, it’s like, OK, the fascists who were around Trump are senators and congresspeople and they are still in office. And they couldn’t even convict the guy that was trying to kill the Vice President.

But you know, we had some sort of show trial. Moving on. This all gets back to this ghost that is both the past and a living presence. The statement is interesting, and just in terms of artistic representation, there’s a lot that could be unpacked there.

I’m really pleased to hear you talk about Toni Morrison because I’ve returned to her a lot in the last year, and during that time have reread Beloved twice, partly because of how, at the end of the novel, she talks about the power of naming. And I think it seems like that’s what you’re doing partly in your work: you’re naming this thing. Morrison talks about the power of naming, that we will forget Beloved because we have not called her name, we have not remembered her name, we have not inscribed her somehow into, let’s say, the archive or into history. And so she’ll become lost. And I’ve been really thinking about this idea of naming and the power of that name or presence to hold onto the past.

The speech that Baby Suggs gives: “White people do not love you. You need to love yourself. You have to love your hands. They want to destroy you.” That very much relates to Slave Rebellion Reenactment. As you pointed out, it’s not actually a project about slavery. It’s a project about freedom and emancipation, particularly the end part of it. I set certain things in motion, but when we got to the U.S. Mint–historically, in 1811, New Orleans was a gated community. There was a fort. And there was an advanced detachment of enslaved people that were trying to seize this fort so that, when the larger number of enslaved people got out of the plantation fields into the city, they’d have weapons to be able to take over the city. And so when the reenactors got [to the Mint], many of whom didn’t even know that particular history, and through some accident started chanting “Ashe, Ashe, librite, librite,” that scene was one of so much joy, so much tremendous joy and presence. And it was so much about the presence and people of this liberating army liberating us in the present, not about the past in a certain sense—tied to the past, but drawing on what was a tremendous Black love. It was a really Black space. But it wasn’t just love in the abstract. It was actually very much in the sort of cauldron of what is America, including the present. 

That question of affirming not only our humanity but actually needing to find the ways for people in the face of terror to stand up to that: I think all Black people know we’re human. One of the things that I like about Toni Morrison is that the argument isn’t trying to prove we’re human to somebody else. It just accepts that we’re human, because we’re human. And then says, well, how do you deal with the political present where your humanity is assaulted and literally you are cut to pieces and thrown into fires? And having somebody say, “Look, you know, this is who you are, you need to love that, and it’s both an individual and a collective thing.”

Having watched the videos of the Slave Rebellion Reenactment, when they started singing “Ashe, librite,” I was really moved by that and the power and joy in that moment of liberation. I think there was a woman who said in one of the videos that there was a “stuck energy,” and the energy felt as if it was released. And I thought that was a really interesting metaphor about releasing energy but also not even knowing that’s inside you, that kind of anxiety or pain or trauma. And it came through her words. 

Betty was great. She was one of the seamstresses. People found different ways to the project and the project found people that it needed to find. This wasn’t fundamentally about hiring actors. It was a project where people found the people that needed to participate. We had a costume department. The costumes were sometimes made by people that were reenactors themselves. Sometimes they were made by people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t participate. And sometimes they were made by our professional costume department. Betty was in that professional department, and she made a lot of the costumes and taught people to sew in some cases. Initially, everybody just assumed she was just going to be a seamstress. And then somebody recruited her to be part of the project, and it was so great to see her out there. And the thing is, I knew a lot about it, but it was very intentionally set up so that there was no one person, including me, who knew everything about the project. I didn’t know all of the people that were going to be reenactors. And so when I saw her out there, I thought, “Oh, this is super cool. I’m so glad you’re here.”

I want to ask you this question, because it’s something that I have been wrestling with, and it’s about reenactment: the difference between remembrance and imagining and how those two things come together in reenactment. I think what you’re doing is quite different, for example, from Civil War reenactments at Gettysburg. You’re not doing that. Or at Bull Run, where people are in full uniform and doing this thing. I want you to talk about that relationship—imagining as an artist and act of creativity aligned with remembrance as part of a historical act.

I didn’t know anything about reenactment until I decided to do this project. And then I wanted to learn what I could about it. I knew that it was a vehicle to talk about some things that I wanted to talk about. I started initially thinking it was more a project about slavery, then I came to understand that, no, it’s actually a project about freedom and emancipation. I then went to the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was intense and crazy. There were all these people that were very, very interested in history. And I actually, on a certain level, respect some of that. But as you probably are well aware, it’s a Southern tradition. The people who do it are white and often racist. And in their view of the Confederacy, many of them think they were the good guys. And they think if they reenact that history just one more time, the good guys will win.

It is completely historically accurate because the costumes are immaculate and the troop movements are very detailed, but it’s a 100% historically accurate reenactment of a fiction. While they get the troop movements and costumes right, they get the fundamental question of the Civil War wrong. It’s evident in the fact that, by and large, Civil War reenactment doesn’t have Black people in it. In the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, if you wanted to move cannons in 1863, you moved them by mules. And the people who wrangled mules were teamsters, many of whom were Black. It was a good job. The North did not allow Black people to fight in the federal troops, and so at that point, they weren’t in battle but there would have been a lot of Black people on the Northern side actually doing roles, moving heavy equipment, and other things like that. And on the Southern side, they weren’t going to go to war without their servants. Let’s be real: they enslaved people. It wasn’t like “Y’all stay back at the plantation and pick some crops. We’re going to go fight.” It was like, “No, boy, come on, you gotta shine my shoes.” And so, when you see a Civil War reenactment, first of all, just historically, it’s inaccurate because a lot of people who would have been there weren’t there. But then there’s all this other stuff, like at the end, the North and the South get together and they kind of hug it out. And, no, that’s not what would have happened. It’s a very weird thing. But at the same time, these people are putting on these amazing spectacles. But really what it serves is that it’s projecting and reinforcing white supremacy. That’s what these things do. And a white supremacist understanding of history. And that has implications in the present. 

There are all these people, many of whom are probably OK people on a certain level, but who are getting trained to think that, at a minimum, the South was noble and gallant and, at worst, that horrible people from the North were trying to impose their will on the South and crush a beautiful society. And no, that’s not what happened. It’s just not what happened. And you’re trying to project that into the present. Over half the people that are high school educated and above [in the U.S.] cannot identify slavery as the root cause of the Civil War. And so how does having all of these people traipse around in old clothing and look back to “exactly how it was in 1860” or something like that, how does that break with an understanding that, no, the fundamental question then was are you going to own human beings or not? And was your economy going to be based on owning human beings or were you going to rent them later on? 

Realizing that troop movements were accurate but the social questions were wrong really helped me hone in on what I was doing that was different. We put a lot of effort into getting, say, costuming right but because we wanted to give slaves back their humanity and change how people saw enslaved people. What we were trying to do was to actually get the social question right: that the most radical ideas of freedom and emancipation in the United States, or what became the United States in 1811, were within the heads of enslaved people. It wasn’t the Founding Fathers writing “We, the people,” and all that bullshit. Yes, that’s a break from English feudalism and there were some ideals of democracy that are important. But the Founding Fathers, or so-called Founding Fathers, which apparently didn’t have Founding Mothers, their conception of freedom was predicated on owning human beings. The French colonial society that the rebels in 1811 were fighting against, even though it had the Declaration of the Rights of Man [and of the Citizen], France was a slaving empire. That’s what it was. These rebellions, whether it’s the Haitian Revolution or the 1811 revolt or other slave revolts, were actually more democratic than the democracies which they were fighting against. 

But just in terms of the conception of freedom: if you’re conceiving of freedom as the ability to produce wealth by owning people, that’s a very different view of freedom than “we need to end the system of enslavement.” That’s the big impediment to people actually being free and building an economy where slavery is outlawed but it’s actually a productive economy. It’s much more forward-looking. Charles Deslondes, Gilbert, Quamana, Marie Rose, the leaders of this rebellion in 1811: even though we don’t have writings to support it, we do know their basic aim was to overthrow the system of enslavement. And that’s a very radical idea. And that’s what the Slave Rebellion Reenactment project was trying to foreground and embed into people, both in terms of understanding that history and also for those people to be ambassadors for freedom in the present. It was a project that was about reenactment and trying to get this 1811 history right, but it existed in the present. And so this ghost slave army in outdated French colonial clothing with muskets and sickles marching past an oil refinery or marching past cars, that clash of this out-of-time thing, that’s what was important. They are these freedom fighters fighting in the present saying, “On to New Orleans. Freedom or death. We’re going to end slavery. Join us.” That was a chant that was said in 1811, but it actually had a resonance in the present. If you’re going home from work or going shopping and you see these 350 Black and Indigenous people and they’re saying, “We’re going to end slavery. Join us,” it’s like: What are they talking about? Is this just about the past or is this about now? And how do I position myself in relation to that?

Spring 2021 | Volume 13, Issue 2
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