It is a known fact that our history books contains massive gaps, focusing their narrative so narrowly that even if the book is full of words, there are pieces of history that ultimately go missing without a proper recording. For many, this means a one sided education, accepting what we are told rather than questioning what else there is to learn. It seems easier to tell a simple tale instead of delve into the details of large scale events. Especially during this summer of upheaval and unlearning, it is vital there is a period of re-learning, filling in the gaps of history books and, if possible, rewriting them to include the broad and complicated expanses of our past. This only prepares us better for our futures.
For Step Afrika! that missing history is told through dance. It was evident during their production of The Migration, an exodus of nearly six million African Americans from the South to the North between 1915-1970 in search of economic opportunity and escape prejudice, using dance as a means to teach. Drumfolk, which was set to come to Boston this summer, detailed the incredible story of the Stono Rebellion. While we cannot gather in person for Drumfolk just yet, we are thrilled to be partnering with Step Afrika! on their upcoming film Stono, premiering on WED. SEP 9 at 8 PM ET, the 281st anniversary of the Rebellion.
On the early morning of September 9th, 1739, around twenty slaves in the Carolina colonies organized a rebellion on the shores of the Stono River, ending with about eighty slaves demanding their freedom, thus starting the largest slave uprising in American history prior to the revolution. Calling for liberty with guns raised high and drums beating loud, the Stono Rebellion is a pinnacle moment in American history.
The rebellion was led by an Angolan slave by the name of Jemmy, otherwise known as Cato. In a retelling of the rebellion by his supposed great-great grandson George Cato, he reckons, “The first Cato take a darin’ chance on losin’ his life, not so much for his own benefit as it was to help others.” Of course, there are conflicting narratives as to how the rebellion was started and what instigated, including a supposed malaria outbreak. However, the ongoing enslavement of Africans and the brutal treatment was the long sustaining motivation to fight for freedom.
Unfortunately, the rebellion was unsuccessful and as George Cato recounts, “Commander Cato speak for de crowd. He say: ‘We don’t like slavery… We surrender but we not whipped yet and we is not converted.’ They was taken, unarmed, and hanged by de militia. Long befo’ dis uprisin’, de Cato slave wrote passes for slaves and do all he can to send them to freedom. He die but he die for doin’ de right, as he see it.”
After the Stono Rebellion, the South Carolina Assembly imposed stricter legislation on slaves, eventually passing the Negro Act of 1740. The Negro Act of 1840 barred Africans to move abroad, assemble in groups, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money, and learn to write. Furthermore, the use or ownership of drums, horns and other loud instruments by slaves were outlawed. Slowly, other southern colonies and states followed suit, legalizing slavery and enacting their own slaves codes until slavery was abolished in 1865.
Without drums, slaves used whatever was around to make beats: spoons, washboards, furniture, and their own bodies with hand-clapping, drumming on various surfaces of the body, foot-stomping and shuffling. Because of the ban of drumming, these new methods gave way to the development of traditions, like stepping, the ring shout, and tap.
In essence, they took away the drums, but they could not take away the beat. This story of perseverance and rebellion draws similar parallels to recent history and even today’s fights for liberation. Additionally, the music and dance forms created following the Negro Act inspired modern day hip-hop, jazz, blues, gospel, rock n’ roll, and into the very cultural threads of America.
Without the Stono Rebellion, our world would look incredibly different. Because of the named and unnamed slaves undeniable desire for freedom and liberty, we have history to look back on to propel us forward.
Join us for Stono from Step Afrika! on WED. SEP 9 at 8 PM ET. Free with an RSVP.