Wake Review

By | Monday, July 18, 2022 Leave a Comment
I just got a chance to read Wake, The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez, which came out earlier this year. I had expected it to be a series of stories relaying a variety of slave revolts that happened to be led by women, a kind of anthology of biographies and short incident histories. While there is some of that, it's more akin to a travelogue of Hall herself as she goes to different records facilities looking for information about women-led slave revolts. Like she's doing research for the book I expected this to be. And while that might have lead to disappointment in not matching my expectations, the story turns out to be far more revealing and insightful than a more straightforward series of biographies might be.

In general, we are taught very few stories of slave rebellions. You get a handful of stories like those of Nat Turner, but most of the stories we're presented with are more of the Harriet Tubman variety where slaves escape to either farther Northen states or Canada. This is, of course, by design. Broadly speaking, rebellion type stories were strongly surpressed so as not to give other slaves any ideas. Contemporary reports often omitted slaves' names and obfuscated details with euphamisms. So it should come as no surprise that when Hall began doing research for this book, she ran up against many of these types of obstacles.

But here's the thing... for as challenging as that is to uncover details of slave revolts, it's EVEN HARDER to uncover details about the ones by women! Misogyny is, sadly, nothing new and the people in power (i.e. men) were so dismissive of the idea that women even had the capability of participating, much less planning or leading a revolt that crew would unchain them and leave them to walk about the main deck of slave ships while the men were secured below. It's for that reason that most of the recorded slaves revolts that occurred during the ships' voyages were led by women -- and attempted revolts occurred on a full ten percent of slave ships!

But beyond the misogyny of the time, there are elements that carry through today. Many of the struggles Hall notes are simply obtaining access to records to begin with! Whether those are insurance documents of companies that have been in business that long (documents that would not only have many of the details Hall was seeking, but whose confirmed existence would implicate them very directly in the slave trade) or the lack of basic acknowledgement from academics who calculated that most ship-board revolts were on ships that had more women on them and couldn't even fathom a possible explanation for that or simply a courthouse clerk that didn't feel like bothering to look up any records that weren't already in their computer system or security guards that wouldn't even let Hall enter the premises with her computer, there still remains a concerted effort -- hundreds of years after the fact -- to squelch these stories. Hall is only able to relay the details of a very few instances, and most of those are woefully incomplete, requiring some educated guesses and more than a little imagination on her part to tell. Those stories that I expected would be in this book aren't because, at every level, they officially don't exist. The people in power then didn't want anyone to know about them, and the people in power today don't either. As Hall notes in the book...
Living in the wake of slavery is haunting, and to experience this haunting is to be nothing less than traumatized. Still, it is possible to heal from trauma. Or to come to terms with it. At first we try to block out the horros of the past. To ignore them. To pretend they are not there. The next step is to acknowledge the past and its harm, even as it triggers us. We try to avoid looking at it too closely. But the ghosts are everywhere. They have been waiting for us all along.
Wake, The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is an excellent read, and a surprisingly fast one for as thick as the book seems. You'll learn a few names of women who kicked ass back in the day, but more significantly, you'll learn how and why their names (and so many others') aren't known. It's a sad story, first that all of the women discussed died horribly, painfully, and unjustly. But also seeing all the systems in place that prevent even the most determined and educated indivduals from finding out anything about them. The book should be readily available from all modern bookstores and retails for $29.99 US.
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