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Women-led slave revolts have been left out of the historical record. Author Rebecca Hall's 'Wake' brings their stories to light

Rebecca Hall 1.JPG

Author Rebecca Hall 

LENOX — Edith Wharton wrote across genres, edited, translated and even sketched. And the latter of those will be elevated in an online program at The Mount this month.

In celebration of Black History Month, The Mount has invited author Rebecca Hall to highlight the art and craft of memoir writing in the form of her graphic novel.

In her book, “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” Hall weaves history and memoir while focusing on slave revolts in the Middle Passage and in New York City and her own quest to uncover this unwritten history. Her pathway to create the book took her through old court records, slave ship captain’s logs, crumbling correspondence and even the forensic evidence from the bones of enslaved women from the “negro burying ground” uncovered in Manhattan.

Hall, who describes herself as a historian as well as a granddaughter of enslaved people and a woman haunted by the legacy of slavery, will have a conversation with Courtney Maum, an author in multiple genres, in an online format, 4 to 5 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 24 as part of The Mount's "Beyond the Writing of Fiction." Maum is the inaugural moderator engaged in the series.

"Beyond the Writing of Fiction," is an eight-month series focused on the craft of writing, according to Patricia Pin, public programs director at The Mount, Edith Wharton's Home. Inspired by Wharton's non-fiction book, “The Writing of Fiction,” published in 1925, Pin said each installment looks at a different genre. Upcoming conversations include March's conversation is with Annabel Abbs, who will discuss her book, "Windswept" and walking the paths of trailblazing women. In April, poetry month, Maum will speak with Arda Collins, a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition.

“Edith Wharton is a rich touchstone to engage our audience in discussions that reach beyond her 'Gilded Age' status. We hope to connect and support writers and artists with varied voices and viewpoints, and one way is through the virtual platform, seeking to reach new viewers and readers,” she said.

Pin hopes to hold more events like this one in the future. The Mount’s mission is evolving to include a recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion charter, she said.

“Dr. Hall’s book visually and emotionally captivates and eviscerates; the content is harrowing. I appreciate and respect the merging of rigorous research, Dr. Hall's ‘measured use of historical imagination,’ and the power of the illustrations to engage readers to question how our collective memory is revised,” she said. “She teaches us to reconsider historical documents and our stories through what is left unsaid.”

The online talk is free, but registration is required. Tickets are available at edithwharton.org/event/dr-rebecca-hall-in-conversation-with-courtney-maum.

Before Thursday's conversation with Maum, here are six facts about Hall and her book, “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.”

1. It all started with a Kickstarter campaign.

Before Hall’s graphic novel "Wake" received high acclaim, it first started as a Kickstarter campaign in 2018. The campaign had a goal of $5,900 but surpassed that goal with a total of $9,184 pledged by 186 backers. Her campaign went viral and earned coverage in online arts magazine Hyperallergic and online women’s magazine Bustle.

2. Hall represents low-income and homeless families.

For eight years, Hall has been working as a lawyer representing low-income tenants and homeless families. There, she says she bore witness to how her clients’ race, class and gender deformed the possibilities of their receiving justice through the legal system. To better understand these structures, she pursued and graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz with a doctorate in history. Her areas of research include the legal history of slavery and the slave trade, African American women’s history and current legacies of slavery.

3. Hall chose the graphic narrative medium because it allowed her to accomplish what she couldn’t in any other format.

The use of text and images in a complex back and forth relationship allowed her to put the past right up against the present, which she says was crucial for this book. Hall said the medium allowed her to make this story more accessible while keeping its complexity.

“The sources on enslaved women are only fragments in the archive. The structure of the medium — panels with gutters (the blank space between panels) is uniquely suited to recover and honor these stories and restore them to the historical record,” she said in a statement.

4. Hall is from New York City, and says she has always been drawn to its history.

However, it wasn’t until graduate school that she learned just how central both the institution of slavery and the slave trade were in the creation and building of New York City as the world’s financial capital. She chose New York City as the location of her novel because she found that often when people are taught the history of slavery, they are taught that it was a southern rural institution.

“But slavery existed everywhere in the British colonies, and continued to exist in parts of the northern United States well into the 19th century. Enslaved labor was used to build and run urban areas as well as rural areas,” she said in a statement. “Enslaved people built the infrastructure of New York City: the roads, the docks, even the wall that protected the city from Indigenous people trying to get their land back. That wall ran the length of what is now called Wall Street.”

5. 'Wake' is centered in the 18th century and shares insight into Hall’s life.

In the book, she talks about how she left the practice of law to go back and study this history. She says that she knew that the history of slavery was deforming the justice system and the world around us but didn’t understand how.

6. She also studied racialized gender.

Her focus is specifically on how concepts of race and gender were used to create the law of chattel slavery and how this still shapes the lives of people today. While slavery existed throughout many eras and locations all over, the race-based chattel slavery in the Americas was a uniquely horrible new thing created in the early colonial period, and it continues to structure systems of race and gender today, said Hall. This form of chattel slavery, which meant that Black people were transformed into property and their children inherited this status, was created by law in the Americas in this early period.

“It takes a lot to legally turn people into property. In order to make this happen, the new laws that created chattel slavery created two genders of women; white women who gave birth to heirs of property, and Black women who gave birth to property. People who give birth to property and people who are born property are thereby constructed as subhuman,” she said. “This is what drew me to that early time period. And as I quickly found in graduate school, it is a bad mental health formula to study slavery and not study slave resistance. This is how I came to the study of slave revolt.”

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