Back in January, I pre-ordered Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts for reasons that will be clear to anyone who has followed this blog for a while. (Hint: Women warriors!)
It came in the mail last week on its publication date.* I started reading it that afternoon. I was caught immediately and had every intention of staying up as long as it took to finish it. Then I decided that I really needed to slow down and savor it. I must admit–I savored very quickly. Wow, what a book!
Wake is not an easy book to categorize. It is based on Hall’s dissertation on women who led slave revolts, but it is like no other book based on a dissertation that I have ever seen. (Or even imagined.) It is a graphic work of historical non-fiction. It is also a graphic memoir of a historian’s experience of researching a subject that has been erased, and in some ways is still being erased, at many levels. Both the non-fiction and the memoir are enriched by what I would described as informed historical imagining—something that all historians do on occasion, though most of us are not as direct about it. Or as skilled at it.
The book opens with a revolt on the slave ship Unity in 1770: a powerful visual narration that uses only a few words. The revolt is followed by a panel of Hall, with two sentences: “I am a historian. And I am haunted.” I was hooked.
From there, Wake is the story of Hall’s experiences dealing with “the erased, the unspoken, the black spaces in the documents.” It is historical research in the form of a classic quest, complete with unexpected journeys, gatekeepers, monsters, and tests of character, strength and skills. She interweaves her experience of historical and present-day sexism and racism, with the stories she uncovers, and the holes that the nature of record keeping has left in those stories.
Usually this is the point where I share some of my take aways with you: but I don’t want to blunt the impact of her moments of discovery for you. Over and over, she left me stunned by her experiences and her conclusisons.
Hugo Martínez’s illustrations are as important to Wake’s impact as Hall’s narrative, referring past to present in each panel to illustrate what Hall calls “ancestry in progress.”
This is an amazing, important book.
*One of the advantages of pre-ordering a book you’re excited about. One of the disadvantages is I tried to pre-order it again every time the book caught my attention. Luckily the places I buy books all have a “hey, dum-dum, you bought this before” function.** Otherwise, everyone I know might be getting a copy of Christmas. Now that I think about it, that’s not a bad idea…..
**Which does not explain why I recently checked out a book from the library only to discover that I own two copies of it. This is a serious case of inventory fail.