On a recent trip to Savannah, GA, I walked around the downtown area and visited sites such as Wormsloe, a plantation established by Noble Jones in 1736. At Wormsloe, which is a Georgia State Park, none of the materials, from the brochures to the museum to the markers around the site mentioned the enslaved who made money for Noble and his offspring. In the history of Wormsloe, the informational material says that “Noble planted” the crops that would become the monetary staples of the plantation and that he built the site. What this material erases is the labor of the indentured servants and enslaved that did the work. This erasure is not surprising to me, in the least. It highlights, though, the ways that we construct narratives and frame the ground on which we traverse.
In contrast to Wormsloe, I visited the cemetery at the Nacoochee Methodist Church on Juneteenth. The church, along with the Bean Creek Baptist Church, have worked to identify the countless unmarked graves of the enslaved buried in the cemetery which rests in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While the front of the cemetery is full of markers and headstones, the back, underneath the Georgia pines, contains rows and rows of metal crosses indicating the spot where an individuals resides. No names. No dates. No information except a cross. As I walked through each of these spaces, I thought about those who came before, those who walked the ground, those who labored and worked. I thought about the enslaved. I thought about the Indigenous individuals. At Wormsloe, I knew amidst the beauty of the space, situated in the Georgia marshes, enslaved individuals lived and died to increase the wealth of Noble Jones and his ancestors. The same occurred in the mountains of North Georgia at the Nacoochee Methodist Church where the minister enslaved individuals.
All of this makes me think about Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts and the ways that graphic memoirs can help us to think about and visualize the dirt upon which we walk, connecting our present to our past. Hall’s graphic memoir details her the research she conducted while working on her dissertation on women-led slave revolts. Throughout, she details the ways that we think about our existence and our connections with the past, specifically the stories we tell ourselves. Paired with Martinez’s illustrations, Hall provides powerful moments highlighting the fact that we need to, no matter where we are, think about those who have walked the same roads we travel upon.
The first page of chapter 1 depicts Hall walking through puddles in New York City. Hall appears in modern dress as she crosses the street, and the men in front of her on the sidewalk wear suits. The buildings are concrete and modern, and a hot dog cart appears in the top left of the page. The reflections in the puddles, though, depict New York in the 1700s. We see wooden structures, white men in period dress on the sidewalk, and a coffle of enslaved men and women walking down the street. No words, apart from the setting and chapter title appear. Instead, the visual does the work of showing how the past and the present collide, even when we do not cognizably recognize it.
On the next page, Hall recognizes this confluence. With three panels, she stops, turns her head, and looks into the puddle. She asks us, “Have you ever seen something out of the corner of your eye but when you turn your head to focus, it’s gone?” Hall sees and feels the past as she walks through New York. She knows that New York did not see a complete abolition of slavery until July 4, 1829. This past is what pulls at Hall, and as she notes, she grew up in New York and never learning about the history of women-led slave revolts or slavery in the city, but once she did, she began to see it everywhere.
Martinez breaks the rest of the page down into three horizontal panels that are linked together. The left panel and the right panel show Hall walking in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in the present, and the panel in the middle shows the same street in the 1700s with an enslaver and a coffle of enslaved walking up the street. Hall answers he previous question over these three panels, saying, “Like invisible forces have shaped everything around you but you’ve lost the words to describe them. This is what it means to live in the wake of slavery.” Wall Street was a slave market from 1711 to 1762, and the slave trade built up Wall Street and the stock exchange. Hall doesn’t mention this, but Martinez’s panels make the link for us, bringing this information to the forefront in relation to Hall’s narration.
Later in the chapter, Hall’s partner calls her, and while she’s on the phone, a white man in a suit bumps into her, not even stopping to apologize. He treats her as if she is invisible and not worthy of his recognition. When he hits her, we see the man and Hall in the present, and reflected in the mirror, we see the white man dressed in colonial garb, a smirk on his face, and Hall in modern dress falling backwards. She narrates, “We think of slavery as something happened in the South, on cotton, tobacco, and sugar plantations,” not in New York and the Northeast. Again, the past and present collide. The history of slavery raises its head in the present in the callous way that the white man treats Hall.
Hall concludes the chapter by reflecting on the fact that she did not know this history. She gazes at a construction site and begins to think about the archives and what they tell her about New York. She says, “And as I dug into the history of my hometown, I began to see it [slavery] everywhere.” The final page is a full page panel where Martinez shows a backhoe digging up the soil. In the foreground, a skeleton hand breaks through the earth, pointing a finger towards the sky. Hall highlights that in order to understand the present we must understand the past. We must not sugarcoat it. We must not erase it. We must excavate it if we ever hope to rectify the damage caused by slavery and oppression.
For me, I think about this with my own hometown. I never knew about the racial violence enacted in my hometown. I never knew about the Civil Rights Movement in my hometown. I never knew about the violent backlashes in my hometown. Now that I know this history, I see the continued impact that each of these things has on the present in my hometown. I see how the constructed the present disparities, the present incarceration rates, the present issues. I was denied learning that history because if I knew that history, as I do now, it would change my outlook. It would threaten those who have maintained their positions through their erasure of that history.
We must know who walked the ground upon which we walk. We must know what happened on the soil where we reside. We must know the history. If we do not know any of this, we will persist in committing the same atrocities again and again and again. We will never move forward in any substantial way because we will fail to see that we are committing the same sins of those who came before us.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.