Book review: ‘Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts’ By Rebecca Hall, ill. by Hugo Martínez
“Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” by Rebecca Hall and illustrated by Hugo Martínez, takes its name in part from the ritual of holding a wake when someone has passed away. Often called a “homegoing” in Black Christian circles, wakes are important community affairs meant to hold space for Black bodies in a way that society does not. Wakes in the Black community are a thing of beauty and often incorporate lavishly decorated open caskets, limousines and distant family members who haven’t seen each other since the last reunion — or wake. Wakes are an important way to celebrate the life of Black people, in a direct juxtaposition to the ways we are disrespected while alive.
Although wakes are unfortunately facing an uphill battle, due to the disappearance of Black-owned funeral parlors, it is with this reverence that Hall writes about the silenced heroes of slave revolts. Hall starts in New York City, where Martínez does an incredible job throwing historical and modern NYC in juxtaposition to each other.
As a reader accustomed to fully colored graphic novels, the black-and-white style of “Wake” took me a few panels to get into. But Martínez draws his settings spectacularly — details are highlighted by bold lines and stark use of negative space. “Wake” merits a second read to focus on the artwork alone. My particular favorite effect is how historical NYC was depicted in the puddles of modern NYC. This is meant to show, as Hall says, she is “haunted by history.”
Through the art, history follows Hall wherever she goes. In the New York City Municipal Archives, where she begins her research, Hall uncovers the story of a revolt of enslaved people that she realizes was led by women. The court documents list four women among the accused: Sarah, Abigail, Lily and Amba. The story is as much about the paper trail to try and find their fates as it is about the actuality of those fates.
Like Black Americans who try to research their own ancestry, the trail simply stops, and there is little else Hall can do about it. Their names may be recorded, but their own words weren’t deemed important enough. Instead, Hall fills in the gaps as best as she can, weaving a story of these four women that is based in the reality of people at the time and telling their stories.
As a country founded on the lie of white supremacy, America’s mythos depended on not admitting when they’d been bested. Because of that, there are very few records detailing revolts against enslavers, and Hall details how difficult it was to find any evidence of any of the women.
White supremacy still limits access to information: Tracking a revolt about a Black woman whose name the authorities deemed unworthy to record, Hall is kept from going into the Queens County Criminal Court because she has a laptop. Martínez shows the de facto segregation at the court, and how (typically white) lawyers are recognized and waved through, but community members stand in a separate line waiting to walk through a metal detector. After all her hard work, Hall is kept from going inside due to her laptop. Despite being a barred attorney and simply there for research, she never sets foot in the same room as those archives.
The art is striking, perfectly capturing microaggressions and the way white bystanders mock, laugh and hinder Hall in her research. Martínez’s depictions of Hall’s grief and frustrations are in stark contrast to the bystanders’ derision as she is forced to leave buildings empty-handed.
Through her research, Hall realizes something major: The more women who were on a ship with enslaved people, the more likely there was to be a revolt. Women were allowed access to the upper decks of the boat, because their white slavers and captors both underestimated them and wanted access to what they considered their entertainment; however, as Hall explains through detailed research, many women from West Africa were soldiers or otherwise on the same social footing as their male counterparts.
Martínez delivers bold renditions of what the events may have looked like, as Hall muses on why women on the boats were so resilient. They take us to the Gold Coast of Africa, where Hall decimates the myth that African people made a practice of selling their own people into slavery. When Europeans first arrived on the West African coast, captives from battles or criminals would at times be traded, but in the 15th century, the West Africans’ weapons excelled that of the Europeans. Their superior weapons meant the European desire for more Black bodies was held at bay. However, Hall shows that Europeans used their advancing technology to warp the relationship West Africans traditionally had toward the act of slavery; the white men made it clear it was “trade or be traded.” In this way, chattel slavery, as we now know it and as was practiced in the United States, was developed by slave traders from Europe.
The endurance of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had much to do with the profitability of insuring the ships. The manifests were ruthless and indifferent, documenting the loss of people as if they were spoiled cabbages tossed overboard instead of bodies. So many people were written off that some research shows that the migration pattern of sharks was changed to this day. Because enslaved people on ships were seen as cargo, and cargo was often “damaged” on the Trans-Atlantic voyage, there were different insurance codes. One code that stuck out was “Insurrection of Cargo.”
In London, Hall is again kept from seeing the records, this time of an insurance company’s historical practice of insuring slaves — as cargo. Hall details how she went to Lloyd’s of London to peruse their archives. Before her rude removal, she asked whether the answer would be different if she were researching the rise of insurance companies in the 20th century, for which there was no reply. It is easy to imagine why they would prefer to cover up their sins.
In a 2014 interview on NPR, esteemed actress Alfre Woodard said, “We were a slave economy longer than we have been anything else.” Even with the abolition of slavery, the ramifications have been felt for generations since. Hall herself is the granddaughter of slaves.
In “Wake,” Hall and Martínez show clearly what so many people feel — in the corners of our eyes, we see history. When I walk by another shuttered Black-owned business in the Central District, I see the ripples of the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years ago. Every state-sanctioned shooting is the evolution of slave-hunting patrolmen who became sheriffs. The migration of people of color down to South King County is a natural response to the redlining and gentrification that have plagued Seattle for decades.
Hall is honest about how the research weighed her down: the emotional stress of the microaggressions against her and the macroaggressions against ancestors. Simply living and looking her child in the eyes seems like an act of perseverance. History has become like a haint, a ghost who sits heavy on their victim’s chest and shoulders, trying to take their life energy.
Hall gives names to the nameless and stories to those who were forcibly silenced. She holds a wake for them.
The last wake I went to was for my grandmother, Willie Mae. She was born a sharecropper in Kentucky. I listened to stories from my dad about her and the life she built with my late grandfather. They lived in the Renton Highlands before Boeing, when it was primarily a Black farming community of Black veterans of the Korean War who had moved from the Jim Crow South. The neighborhood is now full of fancy businesses and apartments, but I hear the echo of their stories in the pine trees.
And that is what “Wake” is truly about. Holding space for the stories, good and bad. Reckoning with history and how it weighs on the present. This wake isn’t about mourning: It’s a celebration of strong women who resisted in the face of terror.
If you liked “Wake,” you may enjoy:
■ “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” by Dr. Joy DeGruy.
■ “Belle” dir. by Amma Asante.
■ “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi.
Leinani Lucas can be found on Twitter and Instagram @LeinaniLucas when she’s not telling stories or singing loudly in the car. Leinani is the granddaughter of sharecroppers and inherited their apple cheeks and side-eye.
Read more of the June 16-22, 2021 issue.