This book covers two specific slave revolts, one at sea and one in colonial New England. More interestingly, it also covers Dr. Rebecca Hall’s own odyssey tracking down that history as well as her motivation for doing the work in the first place.
The title of the book is a brilliant use of the multifaceted nature of the English language. Foremost, I think it is a call for all of us to wake up to the realities of the past. As the enslaved people in the book wake up to the fact that only an act of rebellion will free them, current generations need to understand how and why that would be their conclusions, and wake up to the fact that many people are still in circumstances that lead to that belief as well. A wake is also the visible trail of something moving through water. It was in the wake of slave ships that many captured Africans lost their lives, either as the ship went down due to inclement weather or inept seamanship, or more often, when they deliberately chose death over whatever cruel fate might await at their destination. A wake is also an informal remembrance of someone who has died. Because the information about these women is so fragmentary, it is hard to give a formal remembrance. But Dr. Hall knows enough about the conditions and situations of the period to be able to lay out a very informed story about what they went through, what might have motivated them, and how they were able to enact their rebellions.
Just as important as the revolts themselves, Wake chronicles Dr. Hall’s present-day struggle to unearth the truth about the lives and deaths of the people involved. With any deep dive into history, there is the struggle to find intact documents, primary sources and artifacts. This history has been tamped down since the beginning, as if the perpetrators themselves recognized the wrongness of their actions. Even private companies that kept meticulous records, like Lloyd's of London and other institutions that insured the “cargo” of slave ships, which have maintained the records of policies and claims further back than the trade itself, are unwilling to let even certified historians delve deeply into those records.
Dr. Hall’s personal journey is an integral part of the story. Not only does it frame her professional struggle, it connects to her family history as well. Her grandmother was born into slavery. Her family was forced by violence and threats to move farther north, generation after generation. It is in service to that personal history that Hall has worked so hard to uncover the truth about the lives of enslaved people of color.
The story works exquisitely as a graphic novel. Straight text could never weave the past and present together into this singular fabric. At first glance Hugo Martínez’s art style would seem to be on the naïve side, but looking more carefully, it is nuanced and very effective. Faces are often haunted or pleading. Drawn in black and white, pen and ink, it has the rough feel of work that might have been sketched out in secret, with limited resources. Part of that is because it often depicts people planning to risk everything to change their circumstances, quietly spreading the word in the course of everyday activities, or it illustrates Dr. Hall’s emotional recognition of deeply painful events and realities locked away in archives and vaults. Figures in the past reach out to her, begging to be acknowledged and understood and maybe even vindicated and absolved. Legal briefs and rulings, letters, manifests, newspapers, insurance claims, ship logs and other seemingly mundane documents explode into scenes of torture, family separation, degradation, murder, arson, drowning, combat and bereavement. The subject is harsh and there is no way to soften it with pretty pictures. While not hyper-realistic or garishly heroic, the art is as deeply layered as the title. The book is an amalgam of several non-fiction stories and answers gleaned from hard won, but patchy information. The art weaves history into the streets, the libraries, and the record halls. Martínez’s art (lettered by Sarula Bao) brings the ever-lurking shadows of the past into the light of the present. The art demonstrates that no matter how much we think we have gotten beyond or risen above it, history saturates the streets and buildings, the language, the outdated attitudes and mores that surround us today.
To further emphasize that fact, when I first came across the book, I wrongly assumed that these revolts would have taken place in the American South. Instead they were either on the ships crossing the Atlantic or in Colonial New England. My own assumption is a sign of how people in northern and western states have been able to feel absolved from the issue of slavery by ignoring how widely rooted it was in the founding of this nation.
The book opens with a revolt at sea. Ironically, it was the hubris of a combined racism and sexism that allowed many of these revolts to occur. Slaver crews often allowed women above decks because it, in the words of Captain James Barbot, “…afforded us an abundance of recreation.” That underestimation allowed the women to understand the lay of the ship, to access weapons, and organize revolts. It may also have been the aforementioned “abundance of recreation” that made the women keener to revolt in the first place.
Unfortunately that same level of racism and sexism crops up in Hall’s pursuit of the past. She recognizes how hard her ancestors had to fight not just for their dreams, but also for their lives. Her struggles may not be life threatening, but they are often things that a white man would be far less likely to encounter. Sometimes they are as small as security guards who don’t believe she is a lawyer and historian with reason to be accessing archives. Sometimes it is serious as career altering pushback from the halls of academia.
This book stands out in the arena of graphic depictions of African American history. Most books focus on better-known, well-chronicled stories. This does not make them less important or less interesting, just slightly more familiar. For my money Wake gives a rich, in depth look at the history itself as well as the process by which history has been repressed and how it is being painstakingly rediscovered.