American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

For the most part I neglected non-fiction in 2010, but I did spend time reading some about Rosa Parks in At The Dark End of the Street, by Danielle McGuire. Rosa Parks’ life was surprisingly more radical and awesome (to me anyway), than the life that has been historically accorded to her. It has me thinking more about the voice of history, how little can be definitively known and how much of it is at the discretion of whomever is in power at the time. None of this is surprising, and all of this is known in that vague and abstract way in which we know a lot of things, but recently I have had the concrete examples that are bringing this home to me in a much stronger fashion.

American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Daniel Rasmussen is one of those books that once again brings into sharp relief just how much the stories we accept as history are crafted for the benefit of whomever is doing the telling, and that they have an intended audience.  History is not innocent, it is served up with a particular purpose in mind.  American Uprising focuses on a slave revolt planned by Akan warriors Kook and Quamana, and biracial slave driver Charles Deslondes which took place January 1811 just outside of New Orleans.  Despite the unprecedented magnitude of the revolt and evidence that the organizers intended for it to have far-reaching political consequences, the uprising was purposefully classed as run of the mill criminal activity, defanged and largely forgotten for two hundred years.  The much smaller, and in some ways less scary rebellions, of Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and John Brown  are widely  known, their details widely studied and disseminated.

Uncovering the voices of people who historically were denied the means of recording their thoughts or of even speaking freely is not and easy process, as was intended.  Guerilla research into the archives has to be conducted and found in wills, records of death and birth, bills of lading, ship manifests and inventories.  You have to read between the lines and subtract out the most likely possibility from the “official” record of the day, but still not make things up.  Rasmussen does all of that and has framed this story beautifully, with details of similar uprisings in the Carribbean that may have inspired this one, a first hand account of a slave taken from his village, the particular brutality of sugar plantations that made them exponentially more susceptible to violent uprising and the expansionist nature of a young nation needing  to control the strategically situated Louisiana.  And once again, I learn that there is always a big picture in the creation of historical events.

Rasmsussen’s narrative is wholly engaging and compelling.  It was easy for me to get through this book in just a few short sittings over a couple of days and not so easy to forget its contents, nor his speculations on the effects of this stories’ purposeful elimination from the record.  Although by the nature of giving voice to the voiceless, some parts of this book made me call out for more information, it is thrilling to see this account of revolution restored with more accuracy.  It’s always interesting to read history and to see the different “sides”, because although you might want the “right” thing to happen, there are all of these grey areas, and the outcome has already been determined.

As evidenced by the new edition of Huckleberry Finn, which is just a travesty, and even teachers being uncomfortable teaching Huckleberry Finn, we have issues talking about the violent origins of this country, the vile subjugation and exploitation of one group and the extermination of another.  These things still have implications today, and in big ways and small ways they shape perception and experience here.  It is a fact that civilizations are created in violence, ugliness and one vision and way of life dominating another. We are not unique in that way.  To speak honestly of uncomfortable history can inform better understanding and real healing that we still seem to be dodging.  American Uprising makes a valuable contribution in opening up that conversation.

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