Last post, I wrote about the ways that Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts uses the juxtaposition of text and image to highlight the continued ways that past impacts the present. Today, I want to continue that discussion and expand it some by focusing specifically on some of Martínez’s layouts. From the opening of Wake to its conclusion, the ways that Martínez’s illustrations and layouts compliment Hall’s narrative stand out, and I cannot think, off the top of my head, another text where this occurs so well. I have been reading Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth lately, and there are a few pages there that do this, most notably the one where Gus and Dr. Singh walk over Gus’ head from ear to ear. Martínez’s illustrations work in a similar manner.
From the opening section, Martínez and Hall’s use of sequential art brings us into the narrative and engages us. The opening, which I’ll refer to as the “Prologue,” starts by showing the rebellion on The Unity, a ship carrying enslaved men and women from Africa to the United States. The opening splash page shows the ship, bobbing up and down on the waves in the Atlantic Ocean in 1770. We see a word balloon above the ship that simply reads, “They wait . . .” This introduction sets the stage, and the word balloon leaves us guessing on who says “They wait” and what will follow.
On the next page, Martínez presents us with a cross-section of the ship, from the top sails to the hold. He breaks the ship parts up into six distinct panels, moving us from focusing on Adono, the woman who says, “They wait for our signal” to an enslaved woman, in the hold, passing tools to an enslaved individual so that they can break their chains. This movement brings the focus to all of the enslaved individuals on the ship while foregrounding the fact that Adono and another enslaved woman, Alele, plan and start the rebellion onboard The Unity.
Breaking down this page, the top sail shows Adono speaking to Alele. We see Adono’s face and the back of Alele’s head. The next sail zooms outward, and we see Adono and Alele in a horizontal panel facing one another as Alele tells Adono that everyone will die. The largest sail, at the bottom, zooms out even further, showing that Adono and Alele are not having a private conversation, as the first two panels would lead us to believe. Instead, they are speaking in front of a group of enslaved men, women, and children on board of The Unity. Adono replies to Alele saying, “We are dead already,” and Alele responds, “At least let us die together.” This movement and the women’s words shatters the narrative that enslaved women did not revolt their enslavement.
When we reach the deck of the ship, we see the men, women, and children with knives and swords, ready to fight for their freedom. Below deck, we see men, women, and children in chains and in cages, and in the very bottom, a woman passes a tool to a person in chains. This page encompasses a lot, highlighting the thrust of Hall and Martínez’s Wake, specifically the correction of the historical narrative.
What Hall does here, as well, is something that we do not realize till we move towards the end of Wake. Hall gives the women names, something that the historical record does not do. When Hall reads about the numerous revolts on the Unity in the archives, she reads the captain’s log. The log does not refer to the enslaved individuals by name; rather, they become numbers and property. The ship departed Whydah on May 19, 1770, with 425 enslaved individuals on board, and the captain’s log for June 6 reads, “The Slaves made and Insurrection, which was soon quelled with ye Loss of two Women.” Later, on July 11, the log reads, “A Man №3 and A Woman №4 of Captain Moneypenny’s Purchase Died Mad. They had frequently attempted to drown themselves, since their Views were disappointed in ye Insurrection.” In each entry, and more, the men, women, and children either get referred to in relation to their enslaver or merely by a number.
The historical record strips these individuals of their identity, reducing them to nothing more that property on a ledger. After reading, Hall asks, “Who were these women? What were their stories?” She points out that we know that the ship sailed with captives from Whydah, in present-day Benin, and we know about the slave port there and “the social and political conditions in that part of West Africa at the time.” We know, as well, that the kingdom of Dahomey had the Ahosi, an army of women soldiers.
This section ends with another splash page. Hall leans over the archival material. Through the windows behind her we see the melding of the present with modern buildings on the left and the past with an eighteenth century sailing ship on the right. Hall stands in the middle, dressed in contemporary clothes, and our eyes move down the page. Hall’s shadow goes across the table, and the edge of the table serves, somewhat, as a border. Her shadow splits into two at the bottom, showing two women warriors with spears.
Hall ponders that possibly “Woman №4 and Woman №10 were Ahosi too.” If so, then while Hall cannot tell their “actual” story, she can “imagine their story, imagine their struggle, with all I know of their kingdom’s history.” She does what Toni Morrison does, what Frank Yerby does, what countless others do. She reconstructs the past to give us insight into Adono and Alele and their lives before enslavement and during the revolt. In doing this, she brings their story to us today, causing us to think about and internalize the past.
The “Prologue” concludes with three pages that show the Unity on the water, the water, and Alele rising from the water with a spear and the title of the book. The first page shows the Unity sailing away after the revolt, and in its wake we see three images of Hall, in the present, looking through the archives. The first shows Hall’s hand on a ship log from the Royal African Company and another hand, possibly Alele’s, pointing to the Unity. The next shows Hall pulling a record for the Unity, and the final shows her reading it. Each of these panels are in the wake of the Unity, floating in the Atlantic Ocean, in the past, and Hall narrates, “the past is haunting you.” With this page, Martínez, again, brings the past and present together, and the image shows the ways that we exist within the wake of the past, the waves kicked up by the past, the waves that throw us off course and keep us stuck within its wake.
In the next post, I’ll finish up my discussion of Wake by looking at a few more moments in the book. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.