Political discourse around race in the United States can seem like a two-headed monster. On the one hand is an increasingly serious discussion about the importance of reparations, of accountability, and actually fulfilling the emancipation process that stalled so shamefully following the US Civil War. Yet at the same time, the white supremacist legislators of Republican-dominated US states seem determined to rekindle the flames of that civil war, eschewing reparations and accountability for a mad drive to disenfranchise Black Americans of their rights and citizenship at any cost.
Scholarship on slavery, meanwhile–a necessary foundation for these contemporary dialogues–is also expanding in interesting directions. No longer is the field rooted in that inaccurate stereotype, dominant for much of the 20th century, that slaves were emancipated by 18th-century British activists, or by Abraham Lincoln and Unionist armies. Instead, there’s a growing recognition that Black Americans emancipated themselves, taking a lead role in rendering slavery untenable through work stoppages and armed revolts.
Rebecca Hall’s scholarship not only builds on this foundation but also highlights the critical role of women in these revolts. Far from playing a marginal role, Hall’s work reveals women who were at the heart of organizing and leading revolts across the vast and pernicious expanse of the slave trade.
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts tells in graphic novel form the research that comprised Hall’s dissertation and subsequent academic work. It explores the role of women in leading slave revolts, from battling the crews of slaving ships to orchestrating uprisings in the heart of colonial-era settlements.
In telling these stories about which there are often gaps in the written record, the graphic component of the book becomes all the more important. Wake utilizes visuals–illustrated by comics artist Hugo Martinez–to full effect, and it behooves the reader to spend time studying what goes on in the background.
As Hall walks through present-day New York City narrating the story, the windows she passes are full of images: Black women being assaulted and raped by colonial-era white men; rebel women arming themselves, honing scythes, and lighting torches. Past and present intersect with visceral power: the skeletal arms of enslaved people rise from New York City pavement; bodies fill the harbour; enslaved work-gangs trudge in chains along the riverbanks. NYPD police vans drive by, nooses swinging ominously and hungrily within.
“We think of slavery as something that happened in the South, on cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations,” writes Hall. “But New York City was built on slavery and the slave trade. And as I dug into the history of my hometown, I began to see it everywhere.”
This ability to see the lingering impact of slavery today–from the financial power of the white corporate empires that were built on it, to the murderous violence the American justice system metes out to Black citizens–is central to understanding how it shaped present American society and to acknowledge the systemic injustices that urgently need correcting. The graphic novel format lends itself exceptionally well to conveying this intersection of past and present, enabling readers to see it visualized on the page.
Given the paucity of historical data (although she has meticulously extricated a remarkable amount of it, despite being denied access to key records by the present-day corporations borne from slave-profits), Hall gives life to history by alternating narrated accounts of the facts-as-we-know-them, with passages reconstructing how the stories may have played out. She puts flesh on the bones of history, bringing stilted historical legal language to life with narratives that are stirring, emotional, inspiring.
In conducting her research, from the archives of New York City to the mercantile towers of London, Hall had to grapple with the sexism of historical chroniclers and contemporary gatekeepers alike. Women are often ignored in the historical record, and this extends to accounts of slave rebellions. Contemporary researchers all too often accept the biases of yesteryear as fact and don’t bother looking beyond the surface. Yet Hall encounters tantalizing hints that several of the revolts in colonial-era America were in fact led by women.
Her analysis of slave revolts that took place at sea is even more revealing. Slave revolts were surprisingly common–it is estimated that one in ten ships experienced a revolt; some ships had multiple revolts during the same journey. Hall’s research shows a direct correlation between slave revolts and ships carrying large quantities of women.
Sexism may account in part for this too: once the ships were away from shore, men were kept chained below deck but women were often brought on deck, where they had easier access to weapons and were able to coordinate revolts. Women warriors were common in some of the African kingdoms from whence these prisoners came, so they would have been well trained and prepared to take advantage of opportunities to fight back.
The stories depicted in Wake are difficult ones–Hall reflects on the trauma that historians of the period often experience while studying it–and yet laying these truths bare, telling these stories with such pride and power produces a deeply inspirational effect. Slavery was a brutal, heinous evil, and yet it never succeeded in extinguishing the spirit of those it enchained.
Repeatedly–and often led by women–enslaved Africans and their descendants used every means at their disposal to fight the white supremacists who oppressed, abused, and murdered them, until they won their freedom. Their example is a vital one for the fraught present, and Hall and Martinez deserve tremendous credit for their work in making this research accessible. Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is a superb accomplishment on every level, and a book that every American needs to read.