New graphic novel reveals Black women’s hidden role in slave revolts

Rebecca Hall’s research learned, despite dominant narratives, that women were firmly involved in slave revolts. The findings are documented in her graphic novel, “Wake.”

Rebecca Hall's debut graphic novel, “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” illustrated by Hugo Martínez.Simon & Schuster

When Rebecca Hall began researching the roles of enslaved African women in leading revolts against their enslavers while she was pursuing her doctorate in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the early 2000s, she found a recurring argument in many of her sources: Enslaved women didn’t revolt. 

The narrative persisted among historians even as evidence proved it to be false. Around the time Hall was conducting her research, a group of historians analyzed more than 27,000 slave ship voyages that took place over centuries and discovered that there were revolts on at least 1 in 10 of the voyages they analyzed — and that the more enslaved women who were on a ship, the more likely a revolt was to have occurred. 

But the researchers questioned their own findings about the role women played in revolts, calling them “counterintuitive” and noting that “women are rarely mentioned as leading violent resistance” in historical documents. 

Hall’s research unearthed a different conclusion: “I was finding women all over the sources,” she said.

Rebecca Hall.Cat Palmer

With her debut graphic novel, “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” illustrated by Hugo Martínez and published in June, Hall has translated her academic research to a medium meant to reach the masses. She resurrects the stories of enslaved women whose resistance has long been excluded from history with the goal of inspiring activists fighting anti-Black racism today.

“When you create a situation where a people’s history is erased, then that is an extreme form of violence,” Hall said. “That history of resistance is a threat to existing political order, and so it needs to be actively reclaimed.” 

The book tells the previously untold stories of female leaders of slave revolts — which occurred in West African villages before people were kidnapped and enslaved, on slave ships traveling from Africa to the Americas, and on plantations in the Americas, Hall said. Revolts included physical fights — in which enslaved people sometimes killed their enslavers — and other forms of resistance; sometimes people jumped off slave ships to drown themselves before the ships reached land.

On slave ships, enslaved women were kept “mostly unchained, on-deck, and near the weapons,” Hall writes in “Wake.” While this proximity to the crew allowed for sexual abuse, it also created opportunities for women to initiate revolts. Hall says “the slave ship crews remained oblivious to the agency of the enslaved women,” who they didn’t believe would fight back against their enslavement. But “the women used their relative mobility and access to weapons to plan and initiate revolt after revolt after revolt,” Hall writes. 

On land, enslaved women also resisted their enslavers, such as in a 1708 revolt in Queens, New York, where an enslaved woman and man killed their enslaver and his family, a story Hall recounts in “Wake.” But because a woman led it, the incident hadn’t been historically classified as a revolt against enslavement, and “Historians would have seen ‘woman’ and ‘murdered her master’ and immediately dismissed it as some kind of individual household violence,” Hall writes, noting that such characterizations rely on gender-based stereotypes.

"Wake."Simon & Schuster

“Wake” also brings readers into Hall’s research process, highlighting the challenges she faced as a Black woman bringing these dormant histories to light. Some of the challenges were logistical: At least one company blocked Hall from gaining access to historical documents to keep its involvement in the slave trade hidden, according to Hall. Other challenges were emotional, as Hall forced herself to confront “some of the most disturbing material a historian of slavery has to think through,” she writes, including slave ship records chronicling daily deaths of unnamed enslaved children and adults. 

Incorporating her emotional responses to the histories she uncovered was crucial to Hall’s storytelling. “I needed to tell my truth about the research process and how painful and difficult it was,” she said.

Hall summoned the strength to push through her grief and continue the research by recalling the legacy of her paternal grandmother, Harriet Thorpe, who was born enslaved and whose story is featured in “Wake.”

“That she was able to survive slavery — or that people were able to survive slavery in general — made me feel like I can at least research it,” Hall said. 

That connection between the past and the present is one of the many that manifests through Martínez’s illustrations, which include drawings of modern-day New York City — where Hall conducted much of her research — alongside sketches of enslaved people chained and marching through the streets centuries earlier. For parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, New York City was home to the largest urban slave population in mainland North America, according to The New York Times. In 1712, a group of enslaved people in the city staged a revolt, including at least four enslaved women — Sarah, Abigail, Lily and Amba, known only by their first names — a history Hall excavates in “Wake.”

Hall said the previously untold stories of enslaved women’s resistance, coupled with examples of how the legacies of slavery persist, show readers the power and possibilities of defying contemporary oppression: “That knowledge can empower people to understand that we can make the change we need to make.” 

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