I desperately wanted to like this book. The title is great, the cover is stunning, and the topic is perfect for Black History Month. What’s more, I like graphic novels and history and I love learning about slave revolts. But the book didn’t quite do it for me. For one thing, the title is misleading. I was expecting an actual history of women-led slave revolts: facts, details, names, and numbers. Instead, the book is about the author Rebecca Hall doing her Ph.D research on women-led slave revolts and what she uncovers, which, unfortunately, isn’t very much.
Hall’s quest, it must be said, is interesting in theory. It takes her to various grand libraries and other institutions, and all the way to the UK. She’s in search of official records about slave revolts, and she finds some. But she doesn’t find enough. Predictably, given the slavers’ need to erase the culture and humanity of the enslaved, in many cases records simply don’t exist. Or they’ve been lost to time, or in at least one case, the owners of archives are unwilling to share.
One of the more fascinating episodes occurs when Hall goes to the Lloyd’s building in London. Lloyd’s of London, an insurance company and bank that did extensive business with slavers, has an archive detailing the histories of the slave ships it insured. Naturally, the company refuses to let Hall see these documents. Apart from the fact that Hall is a Black woman, why would a company with such a disgraceful past want its laundry aired in public? Hall is unceremoniously removed from the building.
This episode is typical. Numerous panels depict Hall furious at getting rebuffed. On the occasions when she succeeds in gaining access, we usually see her shedding tears as she pores over slave-era documents in fusty rooms. The archives are shocking in the way they dehumanize slaves. Countless Africans died during the Middle Passage and were known only as numbers (Girl slave No. 9, Man Slave No. 11). They were property, without souls or agency, whose names, languages, and family ties are lost to history. This is devastating, and even worse for the legalistic banality of the archival language that describes them. But the book could have used more of the slaves’ stories and less of Hall’s.
On a more positive note, the illustrator Hugo Martínez does wonderful work here. His black ink drawings on white backgrounds illustrate a wide range of scenes: from 15th century barracoons in Dahomey to 18th century American plantations to the towers of modern London. These pictures, while occasionally hard to decipher, are always striking. I particularly enjoyed the period details that breathe life into historical scenes – muskets, the buckle on a pilgrim’s hat, the slave ships’ billowing sails – and the dark whorls with which Martínez depicts the sea.
There are a few “false notes” in the text. Putting old African speech patterns into contemporary English is a fool’s errand. A slave in 1712 wouldn’t have hugged her friend and uttered the modern idiom “I’ve got you.” Worse, the final illustration in the book is badly misjudged (you half expect the caption to read “Wakanda Forever!”). And suicide isn’t a verb. But these infelicities are few and far between, and at times the text reaches the heights of poetry.
Overall, WAKE is worth reading. Perhaps if it had been marketed as a memoir rather than a history book, this reader would not have taken issue with it.