Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Today, I want to conclude this series by looking at some of the panels in the last chapter of Wake. Entitled “Ancestry in Progress,” the final chapter brings together the threads that Hall and Martínez weave throughout the text, and as I have discussed previously, they do this in a masterful manner that showcases the powerful manner in which graphic novels work to engage us as readers not just with the direct narrative of a text but also with the themes and ideas that course through the text’s veins.
The opening page of chapter 10 contains four panels, three small panels on the top and a larger panel on the bottom. The three panels at the top zoom in from the New York skyline in the first panel to the Empire State Building in the second panel to Hall standing on one of the eagle gargoyles on the building as she looks out at the city in the third panel. Here, we see Hall gazing at the city where she grew up, the city that she speaks about in chapter 1, saying that even though she grew up in New York she never heard the full history of the city, the role that the enslaved men, women, and children played in its foundation.
The large panel zooms out some and shows Hall, with the same pose as the previous panel, gazing out of the city. Behind her, we see the enslaved women whose stories she tells over the course of Wake. The seven Black women, like Hall, stare out at the skyline, looking in various directions as they examine the city that has arisen over time. The only words on the page, apart from the title which references Zap Mama’s 2004 album of the same name, are a quote from Maya Angelou: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Hall, overlooking New York, is the dream of the ancestors that stand behind her. She has told their stories. She has carried on their legacies. She has continued to move forward. And, she has honored their lives. Even though progression has occurred, the residual effects of slavery carry on to the core of the nation. The next panel, a two-page spread, highlights this very fact. The spread shows Hall, at the bottom right, walking through an empty Grand Central Station as she narrates, “We are haunted. Haunted by slavery and its legacy. Our country lives in the afterlife of slavery.”
As Hall narrates these words, rays of light stream through the windows and cast images of the past on the floor. One image is a Jim Crow sign, another is a group of whites in a lynching photograph, smiling and laughing at the camera as we see the feet of two Black individuals dangling from a tree, and the third is whites walking away from Greenwood in Tulsa as it burns during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.
Coupled with the panels on the previous page and the narrative, Martínez’s images, cast on the floor, draw attention to the continued legacy of chattel slavery on the United States. Hall continues this thread through her narration as well when she points out the history of slave patrols and policing, the stereotypes that we carry within us, and how enslaved women gave birth to property, not children. The page concludes with an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where he lays out stereotypes and misconceptions about African Americans and those he enslaved.
These things linger within our collective psyche, pulling and tugging at us. The haunting of the past causes trauma, as Hall points out throughout the text. Near the end of the chapter, Hall holds an archival manuscript within her hands and narrates, “We must use our haunting to see how Black life truly is and see how it could be otherwise.” In the next panel, the manuscript crumbles in her grasp, and she narrates, “We must live in an alternative Black temporality where we reach into the past to ‘reimagine the future otherwise.’” The third panel depicts Hall piecing the manuscript back together as she says, “the story we are given of being Black in America is that we have no past, and we have no say in the future, the future that doesn’t contain us.”
Martínez concludes this four-panel sequence by showing Hall saying these words during a lecture, and she ends with, “But it must.” Here, Hall and Martínez get to the importance of memory and history. She points out earlier how the narrative gets written, obfuscating the past and presenting it in a one-dimensional manner. This is nothing new. David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and more had to fight the construction of history from the founding of the United States. The current debates over education and teaching history reflect that this has been an ongoing battle, one that shows no signs of letting up. That is why the conclusion of Wake stands out. It calls upon us to remember that we must be aware, we must be knowledgeable, and we must be prepared to fight for the truth.
The final three panels are each two-page spreads. In the first, Hall stands on a beach, looking out over the ocean as she talks about the importance of telling the true stories. She writes, “When we go back and retrieve our past, our legacy of resistance through impossible odds, our way out of no way, we redress the void of origin that would erase us. We empower and bring joy to our present. This is ancestry in progress, and it is our superpower.” The telling of truth is and of itself resistance, the reclaiming of the voices that white supremacy has erased through its own self-serving constructions of the past to solidify and maintain power.
The next panel shows the Unity, on fire, sailing away from us, as a hand, holding a spear, breaches the surface of the water. On the final pages, we see Alele arising from the water, as we do on the title page, with the spear in her hand as she shouts, “For the future!” This image serves multiple purposes, but for me the key is that it is Alele’s reclamation of her narrative, no matter if that was her real name or if Hall’s story is totally factual. It’s a reclamation that provides humanity to Woman №4 and Woman №10, individuals whose names we do not know. Along with this, it’s a call to continue to fight, to continue to reclaim the voices of those who have been suppressed and erased from the collective consciousness. Only then can we tell the true history. Only then can we begin to move forward. People fight so hard to preserve myths and false narratives because they adhere to their beliefs of superiority. Those narratives are just that, myths, and we must correct those myths and retrieve the narrative. Wake does just that.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.