Sims on Hall, 'Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts'

Rebecca Hall
Gaila Sims

Rebecca Hall. Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Illustrated by Hugo Martínez. Lettered by Sarula Bao. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021. Illustrations. 208 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-982115-18-0

Reviewed by Gaila Sims (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-War (October, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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In Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, historian Tiya Miles identifies fiction as one possible solution to the problem of historical silences in the archival record of American slavery: “It is my belief that imaginative reconstructions of the past, tightly wedded to historical knowledge, can aid us in our quest.... I believe that fiction, as its own form of truth, can bridge the gaps in our evidence and allow us access to the marrow of human feelings.”[1] Miles employs these “imaginative reconstructions” in several of her books, as does Toni Morrison (famously) in Beloved (1987) and Saidiya Hartman in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019). Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts joins this collection of illustrious publications, unveiling stories obscured in the historical record through what she calls “a measured use of historical imagination” (p. 166). While Miles, Morrison, and Hartman employ only text in their imaginings, Hall has collaborated with artist Hugo Martínez to incorporate illustrations alongside her writing to provide additional dimensions to the stories of those at the heart of her work: women involved in slave revolts. Hall’s graphic novel unveils the laborious process of archival research and the limitations of the archive while adding to scholarship about slave revolts, all while keeping the stories of the women she encounters at the forefront.

Described as “part graphic novel, part memoir,” Wake positions author and historian Hall as its narrator, following her from New York to Santa Cruz to London on an archival quest to uncover the history of women-led slave revolts. Careful to acknowledge the repositories she visits, including the New York Historical Society, the New York Municipal Archives, and the Maritime Archives in Liverpool, Hall uses her experiences to exhibit the arduous and emotionally difficult process of historical research. Frequently pictured crying and distraught after reading about the violence enacted on enslaved people, Hall demonstrates the passion and pain aroused by encounters with archival records, especially for those investigating the horrors of history. In addition to the emotional response engendered by her work, Hall recounts the obstacles with which she collides in archives and government buildings, including exclusion from a court building in Queens County, New York, interactions with cantankerous archivists, and even expulsion from the Lloyd’s of London company archive. Hall’s experiences reveal the continued gatekeeping employed by repositories invested in preserving certain historical narratives. These personal anecdotes afford a compelling introduction into the records of slave revolts Hall unearths.

Unraveling the stories of the women whose names surface in government records, letters, and personal accounts of slave revolts, Hall combines the scant evidence she finds in the archives with historical contextualization and her own imaginings. Martínez’s drawings punctuate Hall’s speculations on the lives of Sarah, Abigail, Amba, and Lily, the four women documented as participating in a 1712 revolt in New York; the woman identified only as “Negro Wench” or “Negro Fiend” involved in a 1708 uprising; and finally the African women responsible for an insurrection aboard a slave ship in 1770. While Hall’s dialogue provides entrance into the individual narratives, in depicting each revolt, Wake transitions almost entirely to images, capturing the violence, desperation, and physicality involved in the actual moments of insurrection. Directly confronting historians’ refusal to account for women’s participation in revolts, Hall presents evidence that women were instrumental in uprisings, especially aboard slave ships where gendered assumptions by crewmembers left them unchained and able to access weapons. Hall and Martínez fill gaps in the historical records while providing a deeply affecting glimpse into the lived experiences of enslaved women in the eighteenth century.

Readers interested in new and visually engaging forms of historical accounts will find Wake particularly appealing, especially those who enjoyed civil rights leader John Lewis’s March series (2013-16). Scholars of African American history and African American women’s history might select this volume for Hall’s intervention into the scholarship of slave revolts. Those familiar with or curious about archival research will appreciate Hall’s discussion of her own scholarly investigations in the vein of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) and Lonnie Bunch’s Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race and Museums (2010). While academics might observe Hall’s references to essential entries in the historiography of slavery, including allusions to Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from African to American Diaspora (2008), Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), citations in the form of footnotes or a bibliography would have provided clearer and more easily followed attribution.

As Hall notes in the concluding pages of Wake, “The story we are given of being Black in America is that we have no past, and we have no say in the future, the future that doesn’t contain us” (p. 198). Following in the footsteps of the esteemed Black women scholars who pioneered the use of imagination in filling historical gaps, Hall offers her own refutation of this untruth in Wake, sharing her story and the stories of the women she has uncovered in the hopes of creating a future that contains knowledge and understanding of the Black past and hopes for Black freedom.


[1]. Tiya Miles, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 60.

Citation: Gaila Sims. Review of Hall, Rebecca, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL:

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