wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts

While I was in Las Vegas this last week with my sister, we chatted about our most recent reads, and which ones stood out weeks and months after the reading. For me, one of those reads was Dr. Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez's graphic novel memoir-slash-academic history Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. I picked this title up at my local library after seeing it mentioned in a newsletter from the publisher, and found it haunting and important.

wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts by rebecca hall, illustrated by hugo martinez
Women warriors planned and led revolts on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

Wake tells the “riveting” (Angela Y. Davis) story of Dr. Rebecca Hall, a historian, granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy of slavery. The accepted history of slave revolts has always told her that enslaved women took a back seat. But Rebecca decides to look deeper, and her journey takes her through old court records, slave ship captain’s logs, crumbling correspondence, and even the forensic evidence from the bones of enslaved women from the “negro burying ground” uncovered in Manhattan. She finds women warriors everywhere.

Using a “remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection” (NPR), Rebecca constructs the likely pasts of Adono and Alele, women rebels who fought for freedom during the Middle Passage, as well as the stories of women who led slave revolts in Colonial New York. We also follow Rebecca’s own story as the legacy of slavery shapes her life, both during her time as a successful attorney and later as a historian seeking the past that haunts her.

Illustrated beautifully in black and white, Wake will take its place alongside classics of the graphic novel genre, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This story of a personal and national legacy is a powerful reminder that while the past is gone, we still live in its wake.

In Wake, Dr. Hall weaves together the process of historical discovery – detailing time spent in archives, attempting to cross-reference what fragments of source documents still exist, and the frustrations of accessing both – with the riveting histories of women-led slave revolts both on the Atlantic and in America. She combines a clear (and fascinating!) approach to the historical record with interpretation of what may have happened in the gaps – the untold stories – and her own experiences in academia as a Black woman investigating the horrific acts and legacies of slavery. Then she mixes in what she knows about her own ancestry. The resulting narrative is a fascinating intertwining of research and personal memoir that speaks directly to today’s issues of police brutality, protest, and white supremacy. 

“While the past is gone, we still live in its wake.”

What stood out most? I loved the insider's view of how anyone can go about “finding” women’s history. We are often told (or simply assume) that women were not instrumental in history because they are not mentioned in the historical record. But Hall breaks down that fallacy beautifully, showing that if you know how to search, if you look in the absences and margins, and dig, you can indeed find histories of women who changed the world, even in the driest and most difficult of documents. Her topic, of course, is women who led slave revolts. She refused to accept that it was always men who led slave revolts, and she was able to find evidence to support her hunch. 

One of the moments when I felt the most indignant about the content of this book (which after all would not exist without the inhumanity and banal evil of slavery) was when Dr. Hall was turned away from the archive at Lloyd’s of London. This former insurer of slave ship cargo (and now, just plain bank & insurer) cared (cares?) more about protecting its reputation than about the truth of the historical record. On their website they now claim to have taken responsibility and apologize for their part in the transatlantic slave trade in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but Hall points out that they care about profit and reputation than possibly connecting people who were forcibly stripped of their histories, culture, and lives with (any) closure. Hall is right to call them out, and I could feel the intensity of the moment when she recounted being escorted out of the Lloyd’s building by security deep in my chest. What cowards! 

Beyond the electrifying content, much of the success of a graphic novel depends on the interconnection of text and art. Hall and Martínez are a talented team – this story jumps off the page and into the light. The no-nonsense, realistic art style, in black pen on white background, puts the emphasis of the book on the very important content. That isn’t to say the art is neglected, no! There are feelings that are too much for words, and Martínez skillfully illustrates emotional, fraught, and frustrating moments so that the reader feels as if they are in them with the women of the story. The dust jacket is also gorgeous – with embossed layers, interesting fonts and illustration, and vivid color. 

In all, Wake is a powerful, instructive, and merciless look at the way history is made, recorded, found, and interpreted, and it is at the same time a very personal, familial story and a call to action. I felt deeply moved by this work, and I hope many will read and learn from it. 

Recommended for: fans of historical nonfiction and graphic novel memoirs, anyone interested in books that tie-in history and current issues for young readers (Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, for instance), and those looking for beautifully-constructed narratives that challenge them as readers, and challenge accepted history!

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