The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
A Best Book of 2021 by NPR and The Washington Post
Part graphic novel, part memoir, Wake is an imaginative tour de force that tells the “powerful” (The New York Times Book Review) story of women-led slave revolts and chronicles scholar Rebecca Hall’s efforts to uncover the truth about these women warriors who, until now, have been left out of the historical record.
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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
This groundbreaking graphic novel makes visible the unseen history of the Black women who rose up to fight slavery. Dr. Rebecca Hall wasn’t always a historian, but when her work as a lawyer led her to examine the racist underpinnings of inequity in American society, she delved into its roots. With grit and determination, she crisscrossed the Atlantic, uncovering tales from 400 years of slavery—and learning about the critical role that Black women played in fighting back. Digging into the stories of uprisings on those cruel ocean crossings (where women often led revolts) and to crucial uprisings in 1708, 1712, and beyond, Hall becomes a character in her own book, tracing her journey to historian. Hugo Martínez’s gorgeous illustrations make these women’s struggles and bravery jump off the page. The names of so many of these heroes have been lost to history, but this courageous book brings their spirit and daring back to life. Wake inspires us to know more about our own history, and to take action.
Hall's nuanced and affecting debut graphic narrative uncovers history that has either been assumed non-existent or rendered violently so by its almost complete erasure from official record. Blending present-day memoir and historical reconstruction, the story follows Hall as she strives to write her dissertation on women-led slave revolts, only to discover a handful of examples and obstructions from institutions seemingly invested in keeping these stories buried (such as being barred from accessing an insurance company's slave ship records). Hall must imagine how these enslaved women rose against their dire straits, filling in scenes such as one where a woman may have burned her enslaver's house down following the death of her friend, then attempted a mass escape. Hall's singular look at these women, along with her own experiences and resilience, highlight how entwined the past and present really are. Mart nez's resonant black-and-white art cleverly integrates historical scenes into the present-day narrative. Plus, his roomy panels and full pages leave space to breathe, and to reflect. Readers will be left with plenty to think about.