In 1712, New York City witnessed a dramatic uprising when over 20 black slaves, fighting against their unjust conditions, set fire to several houses of white slaveowners and fatally shot nine. Known today as the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, the insurgence resulted in the conviction and public execution of 21 slaves, as well as more severe slave codes. While sources often state that these rebels were all men, the historian Dr. Rebecca Hall has identified four women who were captured during the clashing and were tried. Their names were Amba, Lilly, Sarah, and Abigail.
Erased from history books, their stories will now be told in vivid form by Hall, who has devoted much of her career to unearthing the roles of African-American women in slave revolts. Hall is currently working on her first graphic novel, which will highlight female rebels in various 18th-century uprisings, from three in New York to those that broke out on slave ships. Titled Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, the 150-page work emerges out of Hall’s 2004 dissertation on the same topic. She is now collaborating with independent comic artist Hugo Martinez to produce the storyboards and, through Friday, May 4, is raising $5,900 on Kickstarter to realize it for submission to publishers.
“The way the history of slave resistance has been written, this very gendered narrative developed about how manly and masculine enslaved men actually were, which served to elide the role that women played,” Hall told Hyperallergic. “I was going against everything being taught in women’s roles in slave resistance by insisting that, if I looked, I bet I would find these women.” She recalled how her dissertation advisor had told her that she wouldn’t find any sources to realize her chosen topic; how one archive claimed that it had no related material.
“Finding African-American history, in general, is about reading sources against the grain,” Hall said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m more so describing the shape of an absence.”
Once she started looking, she did begin to find women pretty quickly. Her intention to write a graphic novel now is twofold: make her academic work more accessible to educate a wider audience, and explore the narrative and emotional possibilities of this visual medium. In Wake, Hall also tells the story of how she, as an African-American woman, struggled to uncover overlooked or forgotten black women. She, too, is a hero in this novel, shown digging through archives and described as “haunted by the past”; Hall’s grandmother was born a slave in Missouri in 1860, and this drives her to keep digging.
The historical record is sparse — as Hall said, “enslaved women didn’t leave diaries!” — leaving her to parse through documents such as insurance policies, ships’ logs, and court records. She also relied on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which holds information on nearly 36,000 slaving voyages. While she found the names of some women, such as those four from the 1712 revolt, many were identified only as numbers. In one case, she read about a slave in New York City described in the news as a “Negro fiend.” This woman was involved in a little-known incident that occurred just four years before the 1712 rebellion; with her husband, she killed their owner, his pregnant wife, and their five offspring.
While grounded in research, Wake will feature pages that are more akin to historical, or, at times, speculative fiction. Hall would trace where individuals were picked up from the West African coast to learn about their past lives, then extrapolate her findings to provide fuller pictures for her novel, as well as evocative dialogue. Part of the graphic novel will explicitly explain this process.
“I give them a backstory that could very well be possible but we’ll never know,” Hall said. “I don’t feel like this is made up. It’s a way of conceptualizing our relationships with our ancestors, with our past.” Her characters who wreak havoc on slave ships, for instance, are weapon-wielding warriors, based on the all-female marshall traditions in some West African nations, such as the Ahosi of Dahomey (which might have inspired the Dora Milaje in Black Panther).
How the past is tied to the present is vital to Hall’s vision for Wake. The graphic novel explores the history of slave revolts through an Afrofuturist lens, allowing her to consider time in a way no academic book can. In one poignant panel, a woman from the slave ship known as The Unity contacts Hall when she is in the archives, and points to where the historian can find her story, lost in thousands of captain’s logs, until this moment.
“The way in which we understand race and gender — that was formed in slavery, and it still impacts us today,” Hall said. “Being able to revisit my research and put it in this other form gives me insight into the way resistance works, in terms of how our past history influences and shapes our present and gives us the energy to continue in impossible times.”
As a black woman in academia, Hall has experienced her own share of injustices. After attending Berkeley Law in the ’80s, she went back to school to get her PhD. She dealt constantly with racism from institutions at which she sought out teaching positions. She also encountered barriers to access in archives that refused to acknowledge racist histories. British insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, which insured slave voyages centuries ago, rejected her request to access its historic archives. Officials at the House of Lords Record Office insisted that they had no documents on slavery, and, when Hall visited anyway, they confiscated her passport and followed her as she ferreted out “tons of stuff on the slave trade,” she said. All these scenes, too, will feature in Wake.
“I’m focusing on this project because I’ve stopped trying to work in institutions that are informed by white supremacy,” Hall said.
If realized, Wake can serve as a tool for another revolt of sorts, to confront and combat the racism in the archives. Hall especially wants her book to be taught in high schools, where, as a former high school teacher, she has seen how the history of slavery has been presented. What students are taught “is almost nothing,” she says. “And when they are taught something, it’s usually distorted.” Hall hopes that Wake will intervene and help raise questions about how history has informed present-day race relations, which remain characterized by violence and trauma.
“Why is there a particular type of misogynoir against black women who are seen as subhuman?” Hall said. “This institution of slavery was created legally but created two categories of women: white women who give birth to heirs of property and black women who give birth to property.
“That continues to haunt our society, and the only way forward is through truth and reconciliation,” she said. “We can’t have that without learning the history.”
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts currently has a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter through May 5.
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