I try to limit my rabbit holes to things I really care about. If I fall into them and they turn out to just be empty societal drivel, celebrity ogling, and clickbait disguised as trends everyone should know about, I feel cheap and used, by my own doing. And that’s just wrong. Twitter is where these things usually start, and this particular day, I fell down a racial literary rabbit hole. That’s always good because then I can pretend my empty social media interest actually has meaning. I follow authors! And I am woke, dammit.
OK, white Gen X lady, settle down.
This time I discovered a book that wasn’t out yet. I realized I get a cheap thrill from preordering books and then pretty much forgetting about them, only to be happily surprised when they show up at my door anywhere from 1 to 8 months later; it’s like a mini Christmas present. The book is Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by historian, Rebecca Hall; as soon as I read the description, let me tell you, this liberal snowflake was in. I clicked on the author’s site, then the book; I preordered, and sat happily shining up my halo.
When the book arrived several months later (Merry Christmas!), I saw a beautiful cover, and didn’t really pay attention to the line along the bottom, “Illustrated by Hugo Martinez.” I put it on my shelf, saving it for my vacation. Many weeks later, I finally got a chance to read it on a camping trip. I hopped into the hammock, cracked open the brand new spine, and realized, oh, shit, this is a graphic book.
It surprised me, and I was disappointed. I need words to live; visuals, I can take or leave. I wanted to read about these amazing women and drink in the words. Looking at just drawings seemed sort of like cheating. It was fine for my kid who was not a big reader. But what about for me? What about thoughtful commentary? Deep considerations? Oh, sure, people say a picture is worth a 1,000 words, but on a topic I don’t know anything about, I prefer the talented writer to supply them, rather than relying on my own suspect word factory of a brain.
I have committed to learning more about the Black experience and the systemic racism, and all that begins with human beings forced into a kind of slavery the world had not previously seen. And given all the previous forms of slavery in human history, that is saying something.
And so, I began to read and look. “Atlantic Ocean, 1770. They wait…” The black and white image is of a sailing ship plowing through rough seas. I turned the page.
“…for our signal.”
“Adona– you know we will die here.”
“We are dead already, Adele.”
“At least let us die together. In unity.” The two women embrace.
The images that follow are of the enslaved women who were often allowed to be up on deck during the voyage. They find and pass down tools to the men below to break their shackles. On the women’s signal of banging on the wood deck, the unchained men below push out of the hold and they and the women fight the white sailors who are much fewer in number. This is often a form of suicide for the enslaved people, and some land in the water after being shot or overcome. As a sinking woman reaches out her hand in the water, the image transitions Rebecca Hall, at a desk surrounded by library stacks of books.
“I am a historian, and I am haunted,”
And I am a previously reluctant graphic book reader who is hooked.
The book is about what Rebecca finds, what records are lost, and the layers of sexism intertwined with racism. Previously, all the information about revolts by enslaved people held that they were led solely by men. But that was a bias that resulted from male historians not looking deeply enough. It’s also about what information she is denied access to as a Black historian in the U.S., or as simply a person asking to see insurance records for slave ships in England. Lloyd’s of London got its start and built its empire by insuring slave ships. But those records are private, don’t you know. England likes to believe that because they abolished slavery in 1807, they are so different from the Americans who institutionalized slavery. But most of the world has a hand in this dirty business.
The book is also about the personal toll this research takes on Rebecca as a person of color. She relives this trauma, and this is an important part of the story. Her personal sacrifice enables me to be a witness to what was previously hidden. And I am grateful for her work.
And this reader, who had perhaps more than a tinge of words-only snobbery, learned that there is a place for graphic books and not just for people who prefer images to words. She wasn’t able to find enough information to fill the book I was expecting. The white world has efficiently seen to that. The images help enhance and bring to life the parts she is able to discover, such as this: of more than 36,000 slave ship voyages that took place over 400 years, on 1 in 10 of those ships the enslaved people revolted. And the more women who were on board, the more likely a revolt. Interesting to say the least.
So thank you, to Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez, for making this vital information accessible, visceral, and for teaching this dog a new trick.
You can find her book on Amazon, but you can help an independent bookstore by buying it locally or ordering it from the Bookshop.