SwatTalk: Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
with Rebecca Hall '85
Recorded on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022
Twan Claiborne ’07 Welcome once again, everyone. Good morning, good evening, good afternoon, whatever time zone or part of the world you're in. My name is Twan Claiborne and I am facilitating tonight's SWAT talk with Dr. Rebecca Hall. Before we begin our conversation, I'm going to review the logistics of this event. The event is being recorded and within two to three weeks, it will be shared on Swarthmore College's website. So you can always revisit and spread the news with your friends. For the first 30 minutes, Dr. Hall and I will be conversing with questions I have created and insights that she will present, build off of the banter, and then we will take questions from the audience. So at any time, if you have a question, you can type it in the box and I will take note of it and we'll answer the questions that way. Without any further ado, I am going to introduce to you to Dr. Rebecca Hall, originally from Brooklyn, New York. Shout out Crown Heights. In her graphic novel "Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts," historian Dr. Rebecca Hall tells the largely untold story of women who planned and led slave revolts on the middle passage and throughout the Americas. Named the best book of 2021 by NPR and the Washington Post, "Wake" is part graphic novel, part memoir where Dr. Hall, as a granddaughter of slaves, weaves together a narrative of her own family life with deep archival research that uncovered women warriors. In "Wake," Dr. Hall writes, "Like at a wake," a wake as in a funeral, "we speak of the dead and for the dead. At this wake, we must defend the dead. Our memories must be longer than our lifetimes." Dr. Hall shares excerpts from Wake, including illustrations by Hugo Martinez, a New Orleans-based graphic artist and illustrator. Welcome Dr. Hall.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Thank you. Can you hear me? 'Cause I have this mic on now.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yes, we can hear you.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Oh, okay. Okay, I'm gonna have to, all this stuff is trying to turn on in the background. So suddenly Janelle Monae was blasting here. Actually, let me take the headphones out 'cause maybe apps won't randomly start.
Twan Claiborne ’07 You know, that's so organic too because she's definitely in touch with multiple dimensions and bringing stories, her stories and his stories and they stories all to the forefront.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yes, and she's from the future.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah. Absolutely, so it's all interconnected. So before we dive into the book, I wanna just get a pick your brain about your journey because I'm in the world of education and so many educators have left education and end up pursuing something like medicine or law. Yet you went into law and then decided to leave law and get a PhD in history. What sparked that change of fields of interests?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Sure, so I decided I needed more student loan debt and so I thought, let me do a history PhD. I mean, those take at least seven years. I'm still paying the debt. Apparently, suddenly, I don't fall into a forgiveness category, even though I was a Pell Grant recipient. But it's some weird arbitrary category of direct student loan that suddenly just got dropped. But we can talk more realistically about what happened, but I don't know if folks have seen the book or the cover of the book. I thought it would be good to just start. So the book is "Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts." Twan, you already gave a shout out to my illustrator, Hugo Martinez. So, yeah, so I went to law school. I graduated from Swarthmore. Well, I was done in the winter of '84, but I went to to Berkeley Law '86 through '89 and then took the bar, passed it fortunately, and practiced law for eight years. I worked with homeless families and represented low income tenants, tenants rights stuff, eviction defense and suing slum lords. That was my favorite thing to do. But after eight years of that, I burned out for a variety of reasons. I talk a little bit about it in "Wake" I talk about leaving the practice of law and it's the ways in which racialized gender is baked into systems. And I just got frustrated with it and I actually always loved history. I got my BA in history at Swarthmore, but I thought that if I went on and became a historian, like went and did the PhD, that I would feel too removed from what's happening in the world, what needed to happen on the ground. And I was like 22, 23, so.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 But, then I was like, "You know what? I don't wanna do this anymore." So I was happy to go back and get that PhD, so.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Hmm. And you got it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah. Mm-hmm, I did.
Twan Claiborne ’07 No, that is a great answer. It seems like you've made these transitions at such interesting times in history, you know, the mid '80s starting out in law and what was happening with a lot of political policies in major cities with broken windows and trying to fix urban decay, and then you have your PhD process in the late '90s, early 2000s. And it's like, that's the multicultural apex of all things.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 When was it? No one told me.
Twan Claiborne ’07 That's what it was supposed to be, right? We were all sitting together, you know, singing "Kumbaya"-
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Oh right, right, right. They've been saying that for a long time. Hold on one second, let me just. Sorry, I'm just trying to keep my dog from barking up the whole place.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right, all of these different things are happening at such transitions. Speaking about your most recent book, "Wake," did the current climate and conversations regarding race and racialized gender and class have informed your work in any way or inspired the need to do the work?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 That's funny, I had this, when the book came out, it was on Twitter. Oh, you can follow me @WakeRevolt on Twitter. I had this tweet like, you know, "Order my book, white people say it's timely." 'Cause you know, I mean, I did this research 20 years ago. It wasn't in response to anything. It's Wake Revolt, not Wake.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Oh, thank you.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah yeah. So, no is the short answer to that question. Yeah.
Twan Claiborne ’07 That's very interesting 'cause I mean, even reading it, it still feels very timely. And as you said, certain communities will be like, "This is the thing to do, this is the text to read to get some information."
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right, right.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Do you mind, talk about your writing process in this book? Was it different from the previous text that you wrote? What was that process like?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, I mean, so, before this I had only ever published academic stuff like articles and book chapters and law school textbooks or articles, all academic stuff. This was my first time writing something for a mainstream press and that wasn't targeted at academic audiences. You know, I'm wondering, Twan, it might be good to pull up an image 'cause it's hard to talk about this book without seeing an image. It doesn't even matter what image. Do you have that two page spread or whatever?
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yes I do, let me pull that up right now. Okay. Someone in the audience lets me know they can see it. So for those at home, this is an image of our protagonist Dr. Hall walking down the street and within the street you can see images of ancestors, slaves in the windows of the buildings, also on the backs of the car of the NYPD police as well as in the puddle that is on the street.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right, right. Yeah, so this two page spread is an image Hugo and I spent a long time trying to figure this out, but, and why don't we just jump into this question because, so the reason why I chose this medium is because it lets you, for example, it lets you, oh, whoops, I didn't get it lined up just right. Hugo's gonna be bummed. But that the graphic medium allowed me to put the past and the present right up against each other, which is crucial for this particular project. And in this image we're seeing, so I'm talking about this revolt that happened in New York City in 1712. And I'm explaining sort of what happened. And then we can see, like Twan was saying, the reflections of slavery and the slave trade in New York City in the 1700s. Also, just to back up a little bit, so the book, the graphic narrative "Wake," I don't love the term "novel" because to me that means fiction. So I'm trying to single-handedly rename a category of book. So I'm just calling you the book or narrative or whatever is I basically turned my dissertation into this graphic narrative. And specifically it was on these two revolts that happened in New York City in the early 1700s. One in 1712, which specialists knew about. And then one in 1708, which I was the one who did the excavation of that. And it tells the story of, and also revolts during the middle passage on slave ships. We can talk about that too, but, so it tells that story and then it tells the story of my research process. So that's the memoir part. And, as Twan was saying in the introduction, my paternal grandparents were born enslaved. My grandmother, I'm not saying great-grandparent, I mean grandparents. My grandmother was born enslaved on a plantation, sorry, yeah, plantation in Missouri. And my grandfather was born also 1860 on a plantation, on a farm in Tennessee. My father was the youngest of their kids, and he was born 1898 and he fought in World War I, you know, and I was born in 1963, so I was also the youngest. And of course there was, so there's generation skip in my family, right? But the fact that it's even physically possible is the point, right? So the idea that this slavery happened so long ago and etc., yeah, so that's, when I was doing the dissertation research, and for folks here who are historians, you know, it takes a long time. It was four years of full-time research and writing. And it was difficult. It was difficult emotionally because it's a difficult topic. I spent months and months combing through slave ship captain's logs, and yeah. So I really kind of called on my grandmother, you know, I'm not a particularly spiritual person so I don't know that I was thinking I was literally doing it as more just like a feeling of like, "Can you please help me with this?" And this feeling of like, but mainly what it did was give me perspective. Like, if she could live that, I could research it. It helped me get perspective on that. So she makes an appearance in the book and then it ends looking at how this country, we live in the afterlife of slavery and what that means. So connecting past and present.
Twan Claiborne ’07 That is, I don't even know where to start with that 'cause there's so many morsels to choose, to chew on, right? The fact that you said your direct lineage is connected to this. And I feel like so many people within our country do not understand that. Yes, 1865 was 150-something years ago, sure, yet there are people you know who have a direct connection, can name family members, have pictures with family members who were born into this system. It's definitely an important thing to acknowledge. And that urgency, just in this image alone, that urgency and connection is still there, ever-present in all the things you do. And you highlighted that in your research. I'm curious though, because this book primarily focused, you mentioned, on New York, the two slave revolts in New York in the 1700s, and we know that there are narratives where there are revolts that are not in New York in the 1700s. Was there, in doing your research, did you intentionally consider that? Or did you find that the nature of your research led to focusing primarily in the northeast region?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right. So, as Twan was saying, I'm from New York City originally. And I think one of the things that was really shocking to me was I did not know how implicated the city was in slavery and the slave trade, and I didn't learn about it until I went on to graduate school. And so this feeling for me of like, wait a minute, you know, I got my BA at Swarthmore in history and I read a lot and why didn't I know these connections? And so that was one thing. I think wherever I would've drilled down, I think I could have found similar things. But you know, when you're getting a PhD in history, you have to sort of narrow. So my time period was the 1700s British America, so that's why my work focuses on that period. And I should say one more thing about this image while we have it up, and it might shed light a little bit on my working process with Hugo. So Hugo is this incredible illustrator. He had never done anything like this before. I had never done anything like this before. It started as a little Kickstarter and then it blew up and it went to literary auction. And by the time we signed the contract, we're like, "Oh wow, we've gotta do this and turn it in in like 15 months." So we didn't know what we were doing. And so a lot of the work that we did, I mean, he's the artist, I can barely draw, so we spent so much, but every panel and layout, we designed together, and it took so many iterations, like, should I be in the subway? And should there be reflections in the glass? Should I be here? So finally we're like, "Okay, this is it. We're on the street." And then he came back with a pencil and in it was the police car with the nooses. I didn't ask him to do that. And I'm like, "Oh okay, well, but that works." If you wanna pull up, Twan, did you wanna pull up that other image that I was talking to you about so we can talk about this graphic medium generally?
Twan Claiborne ’07 Which one? Let's see.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 The one, yeah, not that one. The one I sent you originally by email, yes, here we go.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right here, yes. So, the one on the left.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Go ahead. Yes. So, people asked me a lot, and already Twan and I talked a little bit before you all joined us. One of the questions I get a lot is why a graphic narrative? Why did you choose this method? And like I was saying, the narrative, this method of sequential art lets you put the past right up against the present in a way, I don't know if I could have done that in prose and I can't think of a better form, frankly, for doing that. The other thing is that the methodology of comics is fascinating. I've been a fan. I never thought I would write one. When I was like, "Wow, we just committed to doing this," I read everything I could. Like, there are comics scholars, there are people, I mean, there's a lot of stuff out there. But one of the things I think it's important to understand and what was really important is that, so I mean, if you wanna see every frame of something, you go to a movie, right?
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 With a graphic narrative, we're choosing to construct, so the spaces is like our panels and then the spaces between are called the gutter, right? So you've got panel, gutter, panel, gutter, and you have to put a lot of effort into like, how are we going to construct a story in a way that makes sense? But there's so much co-creation that happens with the reader because the reader is determining things like how long to look at an image or how quickly to do it or what even order to, you know. So, but the other thing about this panel gutter relationship, there's this great, one of these comics scholars Scott McLeod has this book "Understanding Comics," and he has this chapter that's called "Blood in the Gutter." And so again, the gutter is the space between the panels. I realize I'm moving my mouse around and whatever, but no one can see that mouse, right?
Twan Claiborne ’07 No, not at all.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Okay, I'll stop doing that. So the idea of this is that the gutter is where a lot of action happens. And he sets up this chapter by like, it shows like a traditional comic book. You know, there's somebody who's like, "I will kill you with this ax." And he's standing and then you hear "Ahh!" off screen. Like, it moves the "Ahh!," you don't see them anymore, but you hear the scream, and then it's like, "Well, who killed them?" You did, the reader, because it happens in the gutter. And so here, in this image, I have tracked down the women by looking through the court records that were charged for being involved in the 1712 revolt. And I go through so many pages and pages and pages trying to find something like their testimony, something. And then what I found was the sentence of "having said no more for herself than she had previously said." And it was like, "We found her guilty and sentenced her," you know, to burn at the stake or hang or whatever the particular thing was. And I'm like, "Oh, I must have missed what she'd said previously." And so I went back and it's like, no, she didn't say anything. They didn't record what she said. And so there was this constant sort of absences and silences, absenting is what I call it. And I'm using this medium as a methodology for describing the shape of absence. Absence does work. And here we have the four women, Sarah, Abigail, Lily, Amba represented in outline so there's an absence in the shape, but then they're also pushing, they're crossing the gutter and appearing to me even though it's an earlier panel and I'm in the present and they're way in the past, right? So in addition to being able to put the past right up against the present, there's ways in which the methodology, for example, here, the relationship between panel and gutter can be used. So it's an incredibly generative medium. And now that I've learned how to do this, I'm never doing anything else. I'm current working on, my current book is another graphic narrative. I'm at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study frantically working on it now.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Mm-hmm, I mean honestly, this is so much, there's a level of accessibility and presenting it in this graphic narrative that you can feel the urgency of the topic itself. And also too, throughout the pages, your personal journey with it. You did mention how you aren't a spiritual person, yet you found yourself calling upon the spirit of your grandmother to get you through this process. I'm also curious how this research, not just in recreating this book, but the research itself changed how you connected to the people around you, your family, because you bring in your family, your son at the time who was a young child and-
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 He's 24 now.
Twan Claiborne ’07 I did that math and I was like, wow, he's an adult.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, he's 24, and my partner, my wife, who's also in the book, we just had our 33rd anniversary, so.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Oh, congratulations.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Thank you.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Oh, that's wonderful. Did it change the way that you were connecting to them and the other people around you?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, I mean, I feel like, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, there's a section where I'm teaching a class to undergrads at UC Santa Cruz, where I was getting my PhD, I was all but dissertation at the time. And it was a class, a seminar, senior seminar, "Engendering Slavery and Emancipation." And I had them read "Beloved," Tony Morrison's "Beloved." Not because it's a history book, not because I teach literature, but because I think it's incredible and I think it can really be used to teach a lot. Hold on a second, Maya! My 110 pound puppy.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Aww!
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 But she, wait, I distracted myself with my dog. What was it? Oh yeah. And so it was really intense for me to teach that book, having a child, 'cause folks who've read the book will know, the main character kills-
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yep.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Her child to prevent her from being re-enslaved. And so yeah, it was kind of, it was intense, yeah. This is Maya, say "Hi, everybody."
Twan Claiborne ’07 Hi Maya!
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 You can see her tail probably.
Twan Claiborne ’07 We love a fun researcher who wants to get engaged with the talk as well.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Absolutely, come here, Maya.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Comin' on through, oh my gosh. So many questions. Folks, if you also have questions too, feel free to start typing them in as well. I did have a question in regards to I was thinking about the topic because you chose specifically women, and this is actually one of the questions that came up in the chat. Why focus particularly on women, Black women in the slave revolt, and not just the process of the slave, of any slave revolt?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right, right, yeah. So, I was studying slave resistance, and what I kept encountering in the literature, like, every book, every article that talked about slave revolt would say, in the article, the first few pages, in a book within the first chapter somewhere, they would make very clear, but of course women weren't involved in this revolt or any revolt because we know that women weren't involved in this type of resistance. And there's particular historiographical reasons why this kept being shouted again and again and again. And I'm like, why do people keep saying this over and over again? Like, there must be something going on. And then it was like, I bet there were women involved. How can you just say no, there wasn't. And my dissertation advisor was like, "No, I bet you're right. It's just, you're never gonna find the sources." And like for me, that's like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It's like, I'm gonna find the sources. And I did. And so for me then the question became if women exist in the primary sources, why is this historiography so virulently insisting that revolt in particular, specifically organized violent acts of resistance was a male thing. And so it became this whole issue of gender and resistance and the gendering of revolt. So that's why I went there.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Mm-hmm. That's always so intriguing in moments that are supposed to be objectively observing a moment in time, and yet, depending on who is telling the stories, and you actually mentioned this in one of the panels, that history is written by the victors. There's an element in even these objective stories that there is that twist on it. Like, why can't women lead these revolts? Or what are you trying to say about womanhood, however you defined it in your culture? So that is very interesting.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Well, and also the idea that there's these objective historical observations. I don't think that's actually true. I don't think it's possible. All knowledge is situated, right? And I think the issue is, are we gonna be honest about how we're situated with respect to this knowledge we're producing, or are we not? And I feel like academic rigor requires us to explain how we're situated in relation to what we're, so academic rigor for me begins there, right? It doesn't end when I say "I have a personal relationship to this" 'cause acknowledging that also helps me keep track of blind spots I may have or all these other other things. And so, and it becomes really clear, if we look at silencing in history generally, there's this great book called "Silencing the Past." It's the Haitian Revolution, how the Haitian Revolution has been written about by historians. Michel Ralph Treo, he had two PhDs, even more education than me. Where he says we think about a primary source document, like for example, the transcripts from the 1712 trial of the enslaved people who participated in that revolt. We think of this as like a chronicle, we think chronicles are just chronicles of facts. They're not anybody's interpretation, they're not any, but he points out, "Well, if you're at a baseball game and you're listening to the announcer, let's say, I guess you're listening to a game on the radio or whatever, you know, you hear every single detail. Like, this person's, you know, at the, I'm terrible at sports and I find baseball particularly, let me not get in trouble. But anyway, all these details, right? Like, this person's up to base and this whatever. But they don't tell you how many hot dogs were sold during the game or anything like that, because that was not considered relevant. And so these chroniclers, the ones who said, "Having said no more for herself than she had previously said," what she actually said was not relevant. What they wanted to show was that there was a particular procedure that was followed. What she actually said was completely irrelevant. I was just pushing back a little bit of the idea that there is some kind of objective.
Twan Claiborne ’07 That's really important actually to push off. Because that is something that even in K through 12, that's how we view history. And yet, at least in my school, they're trying to challenge that. Like, is this fully objective? 'Cause there's always parts that are missing to the story depending on who the story's supposed to be told, who's telling the story and how they've been socialized and the culture. So it's really important that you definitely put that out in the atmosphere and the whole thing just needs a retooling and rethinking of that as a root question. And speaking of retooling and rethinking and naming things, one of the questions from the audience is how did you select the names for the women in your graphic narrative? And is there meaning behind those names?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Select them, okay. So the names that I just, those were the names, you know, so I didn't select them. For the revolts in New York City, there is a revolt on a ship, The Unity. The revolt actually happened but the records, the captain's logs, are like, "woman number 10 of this person's purchase" and this and that. So, it's not, so I created names for two of the characters, two of the women who were involved in that revolt. I didn't wanna call them woman number nine and woman number 11. But the thing I think that it's important for people to know, too, is that the slave ship revolts, the reason why this stuff was documented at all was not just because slave ship captains were very attached to keeping careful records. It was for insurance purposes. So because the slave trade was insured and there was actually a provision if the property was lost in the revolt. The provision was called the insurrection of cargo. That was the insurance provision. And so there's a lot of ways in which we have to do this look at archival emergences of the people that we're trying to, stories we're trying to tell through really weird angles in order to get those stories. And one of the things that's so frustrating to me is how poorly history is taught in high schools, generally speaking. And I was talking Twan just before this, I've taught law school, graduate school, undergrad, and I actually taught high school for three years. I've seen firsthand how poorly it's taught. So the feeling, the idea that we need to interrogate sources and try to find out who was it written for and what purpose and why, and I think that's always gonna be true no matter how many people who've been pushed at or added in to the narrative. We always need to think critically about whatever's put in front of us.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Absolutely, and I can speak in the English departments, we're always asking that question 'cause I feel like English is always the one that's easiest, right? Because it's, again, it's supposed to be subjective. We're reading novels, fictionalized tales and all of these things. And that is not always extended to other pertinent topics such as history, which is living and something that you also embed in every panel and all the gutters and the frames, that this is just not something I'm going to the store from. There is a really powerful scene where you were, I think it was in chapter six, where you were playing with your son and there was tears and then you went into the mirror and began to see it like it was coming alive for you because it was pressing, it was urgent. And someone actually asked the question along these lines, what advice would you give, particularly to high school teachers of English, of history, on guiding students who are embarking on this process of investigating history ?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, I mean, first of all, people need to, I don't even know where to start with that because it's, so some of the problems with it, if I was like the czar of curriculum design for high school, I actually helped write curriculum for the state of New York, actually. But is that we should not focus on having students memorize dates and names and places until they have some kind of connection to what, until they care about it. And when they care about it, then of course they'll think, "Oh, I guess I need to understand this in order to understand this sequence of events," right? But I start with historiography. I teach high school kids right from the beginning, this is how history is written about, like, we're gonna compare different textbooks' chapters on this topic. Like, let's look at all these different textbooks and how they've all talked about, for example, the Nat Turner Revolt, and look at how that's changed over time, how this is. And so people can see that this is a creative process and in the best way creative. One of the things that has happened to me, 'cause I've been on book tour basically since the book came out June, 2021. I've been everywhere, like Norway, I mean, it's just been literally everywhere. And there's been so much more interest among high schoolers than I expected. I mean, I wrote it for adults, right? But there's all these people getting drawn into it that I wasn't expecting. And also what they're drawn by, like, they're really invested in my journey as a researcher and I wasn't expecting that at all. But it's like people walk away with this with a sense of, "Oh, this is what historians do," you know, "This is what it means to be a historian." I don't know, I think people think we just read books that other people wrote and write more books about those books. I don't know what they, yeah, exactly.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Hollywood. It's very, I mean it's a very Hollywood thing, you know, thinking about archeology. Not everyone is doing what Indiana Jones is doing, which you can argue is essentially grave-robbing and that's a whole other conversation. But it's very interesting how you highlight that or you mentioned that your intention, that this was supposed to be a book for adults, yet it's being used in K-12 schools and some of the folks commenting are saying they are using it as a text. And I think that it's important to start from that angle of how is history told before you can actually dive into it and really interrogate it. You mentioned that earlier in the conversation, how you were initially doing your research and you decided to do women revolts and so your graduate advisor was like, okay, and let you be, but discouraged in a way because it was like, you're not gonna find anything. Did you find any pushback from your approach from either your folks who you work with on dissertation or other historians? Not just on the material, but also the medium in which you chose to give this information? To present the story, excuse me.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 That's lots of drama, I'm like, oh I'm gonna answer, oh, now there's another part, oh, now there's another part.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Just all the drama, right?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 All the, yeah, all the questions all at once. So the idea that women were involved, participated in slave revolt is ridiculously controversial. It was controversial when I wrote, you know, it didn't matter that I had evidence, like, look here they, it was still like all this pushback and it remains controversial among many historians in the field. Hopefully that is changing. So there has been lots, there was lots of pushback. I guess I care a little bit less these days about what professional historians, I just wanna know that I'm doing my work right, you know? And I'm an independent scholar, so, yeah. And why I came to this, even revisiting this project is 'cause I was leaving academia, right? And I was like, before I leave, what I felt, one of the things I felt really frustrated about was that I had done all this work and I wrote a dissertation and subsequent articles and that probably 10 people had read any of that. And that was very frustrating to me. So I was like, I need to get it in some kind of form that more people will have access to it. And that's how this came about. And then it got picked up and it just, it took over my life in the best way, but yeah, it's been crazy busy since then. I was telling Twan that there are all these iterations. First of all, it's coming out in multiple languages. So it came out in here Simon and Schuster and then Penguin Random House in the UK, but it's also come out in French, German, Turkish, Korean and Japanese.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Oh!
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85I know, right? It's kind of fascinating.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Oh, yes. And also too, someone asked the question, the audiobook format, it's on there. You talked a little bit about before this, is it a traditional audiobook?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 No, you can't do an audiobook of a graphic narrative. It's just not possible, right? 'Cause so much of it images, but we have created a play, like, it's a full play. And you can get it on Audible. I mean, it's got a full cast, DaWanda Wise who starred in "Jurassic World" this summer plays me, which is hysterical to me, I find it hysterical. We had a composer, I mean, it was just, but it tells the story of how the book came about. It basically tells the story. In addition to interspersed the several revolts from the book, it talks about me getting repeatedly fired from academia and teaching and how I ended up choosing to do this book before walking away. And then yeah, the rest is history, as they say.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right. History as we are reading it and seeing it and hearing it, in play form. This is a question coming from the audience too. You actually talked about this, how you incorporated a lot of your personal story in this, from talking about your grandparents and then also including your family with your wife and your son at the time, who's now 24. Mind shocker just to say, I can't believe it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 I can't believe it either.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 He's a sweetheart, too. Yeah, I'm not, it's objectively true, it's not just, yeah.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right, right, who's that story benefiting?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Oh, I think we're going meta now.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right? I mean, hey, we spent four years on that campus. We can't help not to. Now this, you know, it also sort of highlighted how deeply personal this entire journey was, the research and then rekindling it for writing this book and how it was hard, definitely hard at times. How much of that story, that personal struggle and also of your family, did you consider putting in the book? Were there parts where you were just like, I can't tell this 'cause it's too raw or it dissuades. How did you decide how much of your family story you wanted to put in?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 In the graphic narrative?
Twan Claiborne ’07 In the graphic narrative.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, so, originally it was just gonna be the story of the revolts, but as Hugo and I were creating it, I was like, the sources are so fragmentary that I was like I need to be in it to explain what's going on, right? So then sort of, I put myself in as narrator and then once I was in it, I'm like, well, I'm in it, so now let's tell the truth. And the truth was the research was very hard, emotionally. And so that's how that happened. It was funny because I was just at Swarthmore the last few days of September, I came and did a talk and a workshop and I haven't been back since I graduated in in 1985, 'cause yeah, it was a very difficult experience for me. The amount of sort of racism and homophobia, violent homophobia was off the hook. And so I just, my experience with Swarthmore has just basically been trauma and debt.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 But it was a great visit actually there, it was really good, so yeah, maybe.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right, I mean, it's also such a full circle moment. I do work in some of the affinity groups and we have these conversations, especially from the era in which you were part of, a lot of the folks who I'm working with talk about how hard that time period was. And it feels like all in your research, in the work that you've done and working right in this graphic narrative, there's sort of a reconciliation process of your time here, on this planet, and all of the places that you've been and thinking about how hopefully this was a restorative process 'cause I've read it and I was taking on all the emotions and sort of glimpsing it out and thinking about the intentions of this work. Do you feel like the narratives that you are telling and this graphic narrative and future graphic narratives will help make these uncomfortable conversations easier to have? Or do you feel there is so much pushback with a lot of schools banning critical race theory or whatever they wanna call it, that these narratives are gonna still face some sort of uphill battle because of people's general sensibilities of toward history? If that question makes sense.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Oof, it does. I don't know quite where to even enter that question though. You know, the issue about banning so-called banning critical race theory, I mean, it's funny, I taught critical race feminism at Berkeley where I had a Mellon postdoc, so I'm quite familiar with the field, and of course what's being tried to be banned everywhere is not, that's not that field. And to me it's like, for me I think, and if you listen to the audio drama, the kind of refusal of history that we're seeing today, that's quite in the headlines, that is always happening. And it's not just from the far right, it's from liberals as well. And one of the things that the audio drama tries to confront directly is the kind of white liberal, the way white liberals can also engage in the refusal of history. So yeah, I don't know what other aspects of that question to try to address.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah, I mean, it was heavy. It's like, how much do people want to really dive in? Because, again, as you have highlighted so well in this narrative, there's a point when history becomes personal, whether it's something that has directly affected you, 'directly,' whatever that means or not, it's part of your journey.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah.
Twan Claiborne ’07 And so it's hard to disassociate and look at it. Like you said earlier, you can't be objective, right?
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 And clearly it's personal for everyone. And I think that's why there's so much effort involved in banning discussion about history of race in this country. There's this kind of teleological triumphant narrative that we wanna talk about how race in this country and how we're on this trajectory. Or Martin Luther King, he says, "The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice." And it's like, no it doesn't. There's not a moral arc that bends towards justice. Things happen. And sometimes we go back 10 steps and one step forward. And so I think the issue of how do we, I mean, until we've had some kind of reconciliation, some kind of repair, we're just gonna keep circling the same drain. And then people are gonna wonder like, why is the country burning down? Why are these people reacting to these people reacting to those people reacting? If we don't tell the truth and talk to each other, it'll always be like this or worse, you know?
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah. And finding ways to connect, to connect across different mediums, right? Being a historian doesn't mean you're sitting reading crusty books in obscure libraries and things like that.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 I love crusty books and obscure libraries, but.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right? Me too. But there's like, that sort of image feeds into this idea of a disconnection from history and anti-intellectualism and all that stuff. Yet again, you just are like, no, it's so much more. And I think it's so powerful that in this process you didn't just use the book to say, "Let's talk about Sarah and Abigail's story." Or Akua or the other folks you mentioned. I am actually in this process because I understand as a historian and as a human being that history is me. It's that personal.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right, and my point is that it's personal for everyone. History is personal for everyone. And that's why it's so contested. It's not like I'm uniquely historical as a person. Yeah
Twan Claiborne ’07 No, you kind of hinted at this before I mentioned of it, but you said that you were leaving academia and someone was curious to talk about that process of leaving academia.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, I mean if you, yeah. If you want all the details, check out the audio drama. It's available on Audible even though it's not an audiobook. So. So, I don't even know where to start with that one. Lemme me just say check out the audio drama. But, you know, there were certain compromises I was not willing to make. And although I was willing to make so many, so many, but I wasn't gonna like, "We'll give you a job if you don't ever teach race." It's like, that's why I'm doing this. Or, you know, I mean, it's a long story, ordeal. I feel like we don't have time for me to get into it. But I think the main thing though is that I was invited here to Salt Lake City to teach at the law school here at the University of Utah School of Law. And they specifically invited me to come teach race. They were like, we need you to come, we need someone to come and teach race. And so then they invited me to come and do that and then didn't provide any support or deal with any of the incredible reactionary pushback from students and other faculty. And so that didn't work out. And then the recession happened and where it's like, "Well, we're in Salt Lake, I guess we're staying here now."
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 And yeah, and so, yeah. I don't wanna spend a bunch of time trying to figure out how to get this down into three minutes. But I did wanna say something though about this issue of history and the images of history. One of the things that just struck me again is like, why is this ninth grader asking me questions about the historical research process? This is awesome, I'm loving it. I did this series of events at Tulane with the college and then also all of these, there were like a hundred high school kids, they bought like a hundred copies of the book and gave it out and it was a discussion group. And one of the good questions there was this, yeah, this ninth grade kid who was like, "Dr. Hall, comic books are normally about superheroes and I'm wondering, so who's the superhero in your book?" And I was like, that's a really interesting question. And I had to think and I'm like, "Black people." And then like they all burst into applause, and you know, if you've worked with teens, they don't burst into simultaneous spontaneous applause. That's just not a teen thing.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Yeah.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 So it's like, are they gonna clap? I don't know, is she gonna clap? I have no, you know. So I was like, what is it? And I was talking to this high school teacher who was there and we worked so hard and created a curriculum on my website that really walks people through how to teach this book. And like I said, it's for high school students because it clearly was becoming the thing that needed to happen, useful for anybody, you know, it's more scaffolded than you might use for college, but it's still helpful. And I was like, can you please explain to me why these younger people are drawn to this pretty geeky? And she's like, "Well, but see, they know they're being lied to, but they don't know how. And then they see someone who looks like you going through this process of trying to uncover the truth." And so I'm trying to stick with that and be like, wow. At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, there are 50 fellows there from all over the country, all kind of fields from like poets to astrophysicists. I love it, I love being at an institute. I wanna always be an institute. I wanna be institutionalized.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right? You know that.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Yeah, but people are approaching me like, "Oh, Rebecca, I have this passion about this subject in biology that my research is based on. Could you tell me how I could do this, use this medium to communicate ideas on my field?" And it's just, people are so, there's so much scholars now being like, "Wait, we can actually con communicate complex things?" And one of the things for me that the medium allowed and my approach is that I wanted it to be accessible without losing its complexity. And that was my goal and I hope that I achieved it. You know, the paperback that came out in June, NPR has this quote on the top, it's like, "With its remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection, "Wake" sets a new standard for illustrating history." I'm like, "Ooh, no pressure on this next book," right?
Twan Claiborne ’07 Right, there's been so many comments and questions coming from K12 teachers in the chat about how it is they're using it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 I wanna hear about how they're using it. Do they know about my website that has this detailed lesson plan? I swear we spent probably 60 hours on that at least.
Twan Claiborne ’07 You know what? That's what I put in. I put in the link, for folks who are there, I put in the link to purchase the book where you can see where it's sold, including the paperbacks.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Let me put my, I don't know if this helps, but I'm gonna put host and panelist, I'm gonna type my-
Twan Claiborne ’07 Definitely add it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 hd.org, so my website, rebhallphd.org has, under "Wake," the primary sources are there, there are photos, all kinds of stuff that teachers would be interested in. But then there's also very detailed curriculum including final research projects, I mean, we really went to town on this.
Twan Claiborne ’07 No, it's wonderful because again, like you said, it's accessible and this is a way for it to come alive because the kids are asking questions, they've always asked the questions and they're at the age where they ask the why and when you mentioned earlier the importance of starting there with why, why history is told in this way, what's the foundation? Then we can start making these conversations more accessible and actually get some stuff done. So we're not sitting there like a, you know, I know you have little Maya there, but not a dog chasing its tail in a circle.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Right, right, right, exactly.
Twan Claiborne ’07 'Cause we're getting tired of it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 We have dogs for that, we don't have to do it.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Exactly. Thank you so much Dr. Hall for taking the time to speak with us. And for those of you who are very interested, please check out the website rebhallphd.org under the "Wake" tab you'll find the curriculum. Also follow Dr. Hall on Twitter @WakeRevolt and you can get a copy of the book. You can click on the link here, simonschuster.com, and it'll tell you all of the ways to get the book. I've gotten the audiobook and some other folks actually in the chat mentioned they have the audio as well.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 The audio drama, yeah.
Twan Claiborne ’07 The audio drama, lemme sell it, audio drama. We are reframing things here. This is a graphic narrative and an audio drama.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 And audio drama, drama, yeah. And before I forget, so I'm curious about all these K through 12 or these high school, I'm assuming, teachers, I love to hear what your experiences are. If you reach out to me on Twitter, I always respond. I don't know, I'm sure Twan can connect people if there are people here who wanna reach me, but I'm very interested in how people are teaching this and how I can be of help, 'cause, yeah.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Absolutely. And I can get that information to you and I'll connect them with it.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Okay.
Twan Claiborne ’07 Thank you again Dr. Hall and thank you everyone who participated tonight and wherever you are in the world. I hope it's a good day, morning, evening and all that stuff. And you get out there and get a copy of this book and start making moves to tell history in the way it needs to be told.
Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85 Thank you, thank you all for having me. Thank you Twan for talking with me, too.
Twan Claiborne ’07 You're welcome. All right everybody, have a good night.