This new graphic novel and memoir charts historian Rebecca Hall’s search for women rebel slave leaders in archives in the UK and US. It is gripping, moving, and compelling.
Formerly a social justice lawyer, Hall’s work starts in New York in 1999, and Hugo Martínez’s illustrations show the slaving past literally reflected in the city as Hall walks through it. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the past is inescapable in the present. The graphic novel format lends itself to this so well, literally illustrating the similarities in some behaviour and surroundings between then and now. A smartly dressed white man barges into Hall without seeing her, and in a window reflection a white man in a tricorn hat pushes past another Black woman.
There are newly found stories of women-led revolts here, showing that her exhaustive work has paid off, and they are told with deep humanity.
As with Saidiya Hartman’s work on transforming and disrupting the archive, Hall does the work of interrogating why archives are as they are (anyone who loved Wayward Lives and Lose Your Mother will find this essential reading). The realisation that current racism and sexism have some of their roots in slavery is manifest. The historian as human is very present – “This work I’m doing is hard, and it hurts.”
Wake gives a vivid account of the difficulty of finding people in official archives when their voices are not recorded, being considered of no importance, or when their only seeming presence is as property. She is also explicit about the UK archives which barred her from access, and those which felt they held nothing about slavery.
Hall describes herself as being haunted by slavery. This really is a haunting book, necessarily violent and painful, showing that hard and committed work by historians can be revolutionary.