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

American Uprising

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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Review copy.

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  1. My daughter is a History major set on becoming a High School History teacher. She learned her love of history from my husband who could talk history forever and I grew up with a father who’s idea of a fun Saturday afternoon was hanging out at various Civil War battlefields near our home in Virginia. So, we talk a lot about history and how there is no black and white, there is no definitive history, and the best we can do is get all the information possible and keep an open mind. I can’t wait to get this book, it’s going to be a family read.

    1. It’s great that she knows so much about how it can be as she is experiencing history. We learn it in such an interesting way because we are told one story for twenty years and then all of a sudden its something totally different. I fell like there is a lot mythology parading around as history.

  2. This is an excellent review, Nicole. I didn’t know Rosa Parks was such a revolutionary, nor did I have any knowledge about this uprising at all. I completely agree about history being molded into what people want us to hear. This book sounds great. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  3. This does sound fascinating. I’m like you – I can’t help but wonder how much of the history I’ve been taught is accurate. I’m with you on the new Huckleberry Finn, but having lived in the part of the country it’s coming from for 8 years, I’m not really surprised.

    1. I didn’t know that, but since this started as his thesis, I figured he was on the young side. Quite an accomplishment no matter what age.

  4. revisionista history does no one a service– we can’t whitewash our history. expurgating book content, rewriting history to suit an agenda, and all the other ploys do little to help future generations. i teach high school english in a private high school, and my students often complain that they learn more history in my english class than in history class. the bottom line is that political, social, and religious issues found their way into most literature. for me to avoid discussing and showing my students images of what life was like in birmingham, al (and many other regions) during the 50s and 60s when i’m pre-teaching ‘a raisin in the sun’ hinders their understanding and ability to relate and *feel* for the younger family. though the images and footage i show are difficult to watch, it would be more difficult to sweep it under the rug. my students are always outraged by the rampant persecution, hatred, and bigotry and it enables them to connect with literature on a different level.
    sorry if i went off a bit on a tear, i just get a bit worked up when i see things like banned books and revised editions. american uprising sounds like a book i’d really enjoy and use in the classroom. thanks for pointing me in the direction–i love nonfiction.

    1. They are lucky. At least they are getting that history somewhere. its unfortunate, because when we are not honest about past events we are denied the opportunity to put people and their experiences in the proper context, and as far as revising books, I would rather them just not be taught at all because it misses the point to eliminate issues rather than discuss them.

  5. The War Through The Generations Challenge is focusing on the American Civil War this year and I had thought it would be a good time for me to branch out from there and find out about the experience of the slaves and what happened to them afterwards. This is going on the list!

  6. We have to look at the past (good, bad, and ugly) and not rewrite to suit our current needs. I studied history in college and never came across the story of this slave revolt and what a shame that is. I’m sure if I read this it would have me running to the library to do further research.

    1. And of course I don’t think any of expect to know everything about everything, but then you come across these stories that are so at odds with the history that you have learned. I am glad to have this new perspective.