Looking through historical documents, specifically British court documents, related to the 1712 slave revolt in New York, Rebecca Hall encounters the names of four women involved in the revolt. However, their testimony doesn’t exist within the record. Instead, it simply reads, in reference to one of the women, “Having nothing to say for herself than what she had previously said . . .” The historical record erased Sarah, Abigail, Lily, and Amba from existence, presenting their words as unimportant or transcription and silencing them for eternity. Hall must, in her research on women led slave revolts, “read between the lines” of historical documents because the documents erase and silence the individuals.
Surrounded by piles of books and records, Hall narrates, “This is one way history erases us. What we had to say was not even considered important. You think you are reading an accurate chronicle written at the time, but if who we are and what we care about are deemed irrelevant, it won’t be there.” Silence is the absence the sound, the absence of a voice, the absence of an identity. In Wake, Hall and Hugo Martínez use silence, on the page, to drive this point home. They recreate the lives of enslaved women who led various revolts, and they recreate all or portions of some of their stories with only images, leaving out any use of text on the page. The elimination of the text leaves us, as readers, to engage with the images, adding our own sound and voice to them to construct the narrative. In essence, Hall and Martínez employ silence to give voice to those who have been silenced.
This silence occurs, at some point, in each historical account that Hall and Martínez relate. Today, I want to look at the ways that they use silence as they present us with the 1708 slave uprising in New York led by “Indian Sam” and a “Negro Fiend.” Hall details looking at the court records and a few historical accounts and seeing Sam named but the woman merely referred to as a Black fiend, eliminating any part of her identity. During the uprising, the woman, Sam, and others killed seven white people. Following the uprising, four enslaved individuals were executed. Hall and Martínez piece together, based on various sources, what may have happened.
Throughout the eight pages that detail the events of 1708, we only have Hall’s narration as she points out specific moments and information. Essentially, Hall becomes their voice. At one point, she narrates, as the woman pulls an axe off the wall and passes another axe to Sam, “Sam and the Negro Fiend are done being enslaved.” The next panel shows their hands, each holding the axe, as she passes it to Sam, and Hall narrates, “Done with all of it.” Here, we have a voice, and I mean that in a textual sense, in our ears relating what the individuals think. Yet, we do not have their voice, and Hall, throughout Wake, points out that we do not have the voices for some of the individuals whose stories she relates to us.
After Sam and the woman arm themselves, Hall’s narration ceases and we see two pages without any text. Over the course of these two pages, we, as the reader, provide the sound. We provide the narrative language to interpret the silences enacted upon the woman and Sam. Martínez’s images give the woman and Sam a voice, highlighting why they were “Done with it all” and decided to kill their enslaver William Hallet and his family.
The first page in the sequence is really, for me, a splash page with an axe impacting the middle of the page and shattering it into about eight different shards, each of which contains an image of the “Negro fiend.” We move from the shard on the top left of the panel in a circular motion around the axe blade back to the top left, moving between the present action and the woman’s recollections of her enslavement. We see shards that depict her in a slave coffle, with scars on her back from a whipping, with, what appears to be Hallet, holding a baby that we assume is the product of him raping her, and of her carrying water and falling over. In between these images, we see the woman entering Hallet’s bedroom and swinging the axe multiple times, striking, presumably Hallet and his wife as they sleep.
The next page contains eight panels: four vertical panels at the top, three panels in the middle, and a large panel at the bottom. The top four panels each show the Hallet residence in silhouette. The only difference in each panel is that the light in the windows moves from the left window on the top floor to the right window then to darkness, and the smoke emanating from the chimneys diminishes as the panels progress. This movement, of course, shows the woman and Sam’s movements in the house as they kill Hallet and his family. We do not see this action, and we must imagine it within our own heads, actively participating in reclaiming Sam’s and the woman’s voices on that winter night in 1708.
The middle panels show the interior of the house. In the first panel, we see the hallways, doors open or ajar, and bloody footprints along the floor indicating the action that has just occurred. Next, we see two panels, that could exist as one panel, dissected in the middle by the gutter. On the left we see the bottom of the stairs and bloody footprints leading towards the next panel. The next panel shows Sam and the “Negro fiend” in silhouette walking out of the door with blood stained footprints behind them. The gutter separates these sections of the panel, indicating their escape from enslavement. The final panel shows them walking away from the house, Sam holding a lantern as the woman leads them away.
In these two pages, and throughout the eight-page sequence, we never see the woman’s face. Even if we see Sam’s facial features in a panel, the woman’s face always appears shadowed, never revealing her appearance. This aspect, along with the lack of text, underscores the silencing of Sam and the woman. We at least know Sam’s name, so some of his identity has passed down to us, but the woman we only know as a “Negro fiend.” This label denies her even her name, thus constructing her as merely a fiend.
Again, we do not have any text on these two pages, so the pages are, essentially, silent, just as the woman, in the historical records exists in silence. However, we read and hear her trauma, we know why she rebelled. Her actions and movement carry within them her voice. She speaks without audibly speaking, and the pages speak without audibly speaking through text. In this manner, Hall and Martínez reclaim her voice. Along with this, we, as readers, actively reclaim her voice because we must, in the pages where we do not have Hall’s narration, fill in the voices of Sam and the woman as they rebel against Hallet and enslavement. It is through this act that the woman revives. The telling of her story makes her exist. It perpetuates her existence. With it she says, “I was here. I lived. This is my story.” While the retelling may not be “historically” accurate, it nevertheless reclaims the woman’s voice, making her silent no more.
The use of silence occurs throughout Wake, and this is merely one such example. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.