Dec. 27, 2021

Women-Led Slave Revolts

Enslaved Africans in what is now New York State and in the Middle Passage resisted their enslavement, despite the risk of doing so. In the previously accepted history of these slave revolts, the assumption was that men led the resistance, but Dr. Rebecca Hall dug deeper into the records and read against the grain to find the women warriors who fought for their freedom.

Joining me to help us learn more is Dr. Rebecca Hall, a scholar, activist and educator, who writes and speaks on the history of race, gender, law and resistance, and author of the recent highly-acclaimed graphic novel, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: “Negro quarters, T.J. Fripp plantation, St. Helena Island (near Beaufort), S.C.” from the Library of Congress.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing slave revolts, especially women - led slave revolts in what is now New York State, and during the Middle Passage. Slavery in what is now New York State, dated back to at least 1626, with the arrival of 11 captive Africans on a Dutch West India Company ship in the New Amsterdam Harbor. Under Dutch rule, some people who had been enslaved were able to earn partial freedom, and as the English were seizing New Amsterdam in 1664, the Dutch fully freed those with partial freedom. After the English took over, they continued to import slaves to support many different kinds of work. In 1703, over 42% of households enslaved people, a percentage higher than any other city in the colonies, except Charleston, South Carolina. In 1708, an enslaved couple, a Native man named Sam, and a woman who was called only Negro Fiend in the records, murdered their enslaver, William Hallett III, his pregnant wife and their five children in Newtown, Queens. They were quickly caught, along with several other enslaved people who had planned to kill their enslavers. Sam and the other men were hanged, and the woman was burned at the stake, the only punishment available under English law for her as a woman who killed her master. Such a crime was considered treason, because a woman's husband or master was considered her natural lord, and killing him was like killing the monarch, thus a crime against the state. In response to this revolt, the New York Colonial Assembly passed a law in 1708 titled "Act for Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves," which made a death sentence the punishment for any enslaved person who murdered or attempted to murder his enslaver. Despite that law, there was a slave revolt in New York City on April 6, 1712. That night, a large group gathered and set fire to a building on Maiden Lane near Broadway. They then attacked and shot the white colonists who tried to put out the fire, and they fled. The runaway slaves were quickly captured, and 70 were jailed, of whom six died by suicide. 27 were put on trial, among them four women: Sarah, Abigail, Lily and Amba. Of the 27 tried, 21 were convicted and sentenced to death, including Sarah and Abigail. Either Sarah or Abigail was pregnant, so her execution was delayed. After she'd been in jail for some time, Governor Hunter asked the Queen to pardon her, essentially sentencing her to time served. But it's unclear from the record whether the pardon ever came through or what her fate was. In 1799, the New York State Legislature passed the Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799 to free enslaved children born after July 4, 1799, but only when they reached the age of 25 for women or 28 for men. At the time, there was no provision for those who were born before July 4, 1799. The Gradual Emancipation Law of 1817 declared that any African -  American born before July 4, 1799, would become free on July 4, 1827.

Those born before July 4, 1827, were still indentured as children, but now only until age 21. Thus, by July 4, 1848, all African Americans in New York were theoretically free. Slave revolts during the Middle Passage were so dangerous as to basically be suicidal. On the first leg of the triangular slave trade, ships left Europe and sailed to Africa with manufactured goods. These goods were traded for slaves. And in the second arm, the enslaved Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. On the final arm, sugar, tobacco and other products were transported from the Americas to Europe. The conditions on the Middle Passage were wretched, and mortality in the slave ships was high. As many as 15% of the enslaved Africans died at sea, equaling 2 million people. The ships were designed to thwart revolts. The enslaved Africans were chained and manacled below decks, although women usually had more freedom of movement. Despite the impediments, one in ten slave ships experienced some form of African resistance, ranging from usually fatal attempts to leap overboard to major revolts. Occasionally, rebellion sank ships from major explosion or fire, killing both the enslaved and their captors. More often the insurrection was violently beaten back by the crew, and the rebels were punished or executed. When quantitative historians used statistical analysis to try to determine why slave revolts happened on some ships, and not others, they found one clear pattern: that the more women there were aboard a slave ship, the more likely it was that a revolt would happen, although they dismissed the finding as coincidence. To help us understand more about these revolts, and the challenges of understanding the historical record, I'm joined now by Dr. Rebecca Hall. Dr. Hall is a scholar, activist and educator who writes and speaks on the history of race, gender, law, and resistance, as well as on climate justice, and intersectional feminist theory. Her recent, highly acclaimed graphic novel, "Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts," weaves history and memoir that focuses on slave revolts in the Middle Passage and in New York City, and her own quest to uncover this unwritten history. Hello, Dr. Hall, thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Rebecca Hall  8:08  
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  8:09  
Yeah. So I have lots of questions for you. I want to start by just asking how you became interested in studying women-led slave revolts? What sort of got you started on that? 

Dr. Rebecca Hall  8:22  
Well, I mean, I've always been, well, I've always been interested in history. I mean, I got my BA in history, and I was thinking about getting a PhD in history, but I decided to go to law school instead. And then, you know, after practicing law for eight years, I'm like, "I'm gonna go back and get that PhD in history." And I've always been interested in the history of slavery and slave resistance, because it's also a family history. My paternal grandparents were both born enslaved. They were both born in 1860, my grandmother on a plantation in Missouri and my grandfather on a plantation in Tennessee. And it's kind of unusual for someone who's my age, I'm about to turn 59, you know, to have, you know, to, to have have grandparents who were born enslaved, but because there was a big generation skip in my family. But the fact that it's possible, I think, is really indicative of how not far away we are from that. And it also has sort of kept me very conscious of it. And, you know, I come from a family of radicals. You know, I've always been interested in how people fight back, and how people you know, confront their oppressors and how radical social change can happen. And so when I was getting my PhD in history, I decided that I wanted to, you know, research that you know, consider having my research focus be slave resistance and revolt. So as I was getting familiar with that literature, it was really weird because it, you know, every book, or article that I picked up on slave revolt always, like, completely disavowed the idea that women would have been involved in that. And, you know, after enough of that, you know, a person starts to wonder like, what's at stake here? You know, why do you have to, you know, it's much ado about nothing, and it's like, "Why do you have to keep saying this?" like, and so then I ended up, you know, doing kind of a deep dive into the historiography of slave resistance and slave revolt in order to understand why that was. And now since this graphic narrative has come out, and I've done so many interviews, I've managed to get this sort of complex historiography down to about five minutes.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:52  
I think the this sort of thing that interests me, so and it's related to this is this idea of silence. And so in this paper, you have "Not Killing Me Softly" at the end you talk about how that silence is created. And that's such a powerful that silence is created. And there are so many layers in this story in which the silence is created. You know, maybe if we could talk some about that. And, you know, it not just sort of this is missing, like it just wasn't there. But, you know, the all the reasons that that it is that women aren't included in these stories, and that there was such a push to disavow to say, "Yes, women couldn't be part of this." 

Dr. Rebecca Hall  11:39  
Exactly. Right. Yeah. In my academic work that, you know, that you've read, I mean, I talk it about this issue of kind of like, it's a pacification, right. Like, you know, it's not that Black women were passive and didn't participate in this type of resistance, but that they were actively pacified, by the way history was written to to erase their active participation in slave revolts. Yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:12  
Yeah. And I think so, the other piece of it, then in what, what's so powerful about "Wake" is not just the sort of pacification of them. But in many ways, the pacification of you. That people are really trying to silence you and silence your ability to do this work. So could you talk some about that? And then, you know, sort of how and why it came to be that you were putting that into the narrative in "Wake?"

Dr. Rebecca Hall  12:42  
Right, right. Yeah. I mean, so what happened was, is that I wasn't planning to be a character in this book at all, you know. I was going to use the book just to tell these stories that I had recovered. And I wasn't planning to spend a bunch of time on historiography either, because, I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but that's kind of niche. And I just figured, you know, people aren't going to want to spend a lot of time reading that. So but then, I, it became really clear that because these stories are so fragmentary, for reasons we can discuss, I needed to put myself in it in order to explain what was happening in the sources and what I was finding and what was missing. And so then it since I became like, a character in, in the narrative, it made sense for me to, to talk about what was true and painful, you know, because otherwise, like, why why, write? So there's a lot of stuff in the, in the graphic narrative that's not in the academic work, because you don't, one doesn't normally talk about the kind of silencing that you that a person experiences in the process of their research, in their actual research. Although that's changed, and there are there, there is work out there that focuses specifically on that. But I so, but I wanted to, you know, tell the story about what actually happened and what made it these sources so inaccessible, you know. I mean, and it started right from the beginning, like where, you know, first I had to question like, and basically dismiss all the mainstream history, that that women didn't participate in revolt. And then, you know, my dissertation advisor's like, "Well, I agree, women probably did participate in revolt, but you're never going to find the sources." And then that's like, wave a red flag in front of me. Like, I will find them you know, you know, and then and, you know, as I discussed in the book, there's a whole range of, of things, everything from being able to find sources but the sources the chronicling of events. Like you often think of a chronicle, like somebody just sitting down and writing what happened, that that is going to just contain everything. But you know, even what's chronicled is completely shaped by the society that that person's in and what's considered relevant or not. And so I found the court documents related to this slave revolt that occurred in New York City in 1712. And there were four women prosecuted in, you know, in these court proceedings, and there literally was no chronicling, of what they had to say or what motivated them in that particular moment, or what they cared about. And what was just so striking to me is that there's actually like this sentence in the court record that says, you know, "Having said no more for herself that she had previously said, we found her guilty and sentenced her to burn at the stake" or, you know, be hung or whatever, the various creative, but then I would look for what was the thing that she had previously said, and it just wasn't recorded. It just wasn't there. But and I talked about this in the book, but what was there was just tons of sort of evocations, of, of the Crown's power. You know, it this time, it happened to be Queen Anne, you know, but no, I mean, every page was, like, filled with this, like, I mean, it's almost kind of like a, I always think of it as like, you know, establishing jurisdiction. You know, I mean, I studied that as a law student, then, as a lawyer, but I still, I always thought of it as this kind of almost like a magic spell, but you kind of wave over something like, I'm gonna, like, you know, create this power that is arbitrary. And, and, and part of how it was created was this non stop language, you know, where the Queen every time the Queen's name is, anytime a date is mentioned, they have to say, in the year of our, you know, Queen Anne's, whatever, you know, defender of the faith, Queen of England, and Ireland and France. That was kind of aspirational, I think the France part, but anyway, so yeah, so so. So the point is, is that the record was filled up with the chronicle was filled with things that was considered important within the legal system, and completely devoid of what I was looking for, and, you know, what I considered important. And the lives of these women, you know, they just, you know, had been, like, disappeared.

 And then, you know, the other kind of problem I ran into, was dealing with just explicit racism in, in archives. And, yeah, I go into detail about that, but everything from like, one of the focuses of the book is women's leadership of revolts on slave ships. And in order to get more documentation of that, I really needed access to Lloyds of London's corporate archives, because Lloyd's of London got their start in insuring slave trade ships. And, and they made a lot of money doing it. And one of the things that they insured against is if there was a revolt on a ship. So if there was a revolt on the ship, and the ship owner lost property, they could file an insurance claim. And, you know, that policy was called the Insurrection of Cargo, which, I don't even know where to start with that. But anyway, so I knew that if I got access to their records that I would could find, you know, many more sort of documentations of revolts, because on on slave ships, the documentation was crucial. And it was detailed, because because of these insurance practices, right, and also kind of British regulatory systems required the captain and the ship surgeon to keep certain type of documentation. But yeah, they would not give me access. And they don't give historians access, historians who study slavery because they don't. I mean, I wasn't interested in suing them for reparations. I was just trying to find the stories, right. But I'm sure they're concerned about that. They're concerned about their reputation. And so yeah, there was no way to get access to to it. And you know, I've talked to a lot of other historians of slave trade and none of them were able to get access to that record either those records either so, so it wasn't just like uniquely me, although I think it might be shifting. They hired an archivist who actually reached out to me. And so it was part of this, like, racial awakening that allegedly happened last year. I think it's over now. But, but she seems to be willing to talk to me. But I'm not working on that book anymore. I'm actually on a second book. So, but yeah, I mean, I still would love to go back and see, you know, what they have.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:26  
Yeah, just it makes you wonder how many stories haven't been told, you know, where there isn't even the piece of the historical record to follow. You know, you talk and I've heard these terms before, as well, of sort of reading against the grain, and of historical imagination. And so I wonder if you could sort of talk a little bit about what what those are, and how you have to use those in looking at these kinds of things, where the the sources are just going to be incomplete?

Dr. Rebecca Hall  20:56  
Right. Right. So there's, I mean, so there's a few layers of issues here, right, just in terms of primary sources. I mean, we can get into the how history has been written about it, you know, but just looking at sort of the primary sources themselves, the chronicling of the events at the time. There are, there are several, there are a lot of things that get in the way, you know, that bury these women's lives and make them almost impossible to retrieve their lives and their stories. You know, everything from, like what I was talking about earlier, you know, what they have to say is irrelevant. And it's not chronicled not recorded. You know, I mean, enslaved women were not keeping diaries, and to access issues like the Lloyds Lloyd's of London to like, you know, kind of more blatant racism that I experienced that cleans archives, where I was trying to track down information, the court records for a revolt that happened in Queens in 1708. And so reading sources against the grain, I mean. So, I mean, it's really something any historian should do. it's really something anyone should do when they're looking at pretty much any claim to truth about anything, right? is, you know, where it's like you, you go into it, remember, like, being very conscious of, okay, who's creating this document? What's the purpose? Like, why are they creating it? So for example, on the slave ship logs, you know, for insurance purposes, if they're, if they're being created, and they're also being created, to comply with British regulatory regulation of the slave trade, and sort of what's at stake, and who's, like, important and who's not considered important. And then a, so it's about against the grain is kind of, like kind of like a basic principle where, where you just don't take something at face value, you know, you kind of turn it and look at it, literally, against the grain to see, you know, what's there. And, and, you know, in my work, I pay a lot of attention to silences. There's a, I mean, there's great scholarship on, like, one of my favorite books is by Michel-Rolph Trouillot called "Silencing the Past," where he talks, he talks about it in the context of the Haitian Revolution. But he, he, it's this short, beautiful book, where he really kind of talks about a lot of these, these mechanisms. You know, Saidiya Hartman, you know, her latest book, "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments?" I think that's what it's called. But, you know, she does a lot of work of like trying to recover, you know, what we call, you know, the subaltern like, the people that are just at the very bottom of the social structure, you know, trying to recover their lives and their stories. And she was the one who came up with this term, which I actually didn't know when I was writing "Wake." I wish I had, it would have been really helpful. This concept called "critical fabulation," which is, which is, I mean, her background is in literature, although she does a lot of history. But it's this idea that that the truth, that in order to access the truth of people's lives, where the documentation of their lives have been so thoroughly erased, at certain points, it becomes necessary to hypothesize like you know, to try to fill in some of the blanks. I don't use the term "critical fabulation," partly because I didn't know it. And also, I'm not a lit person. And fabulation isn't a term that, it doesn't speak to me. And so what I talked about was measured use of historical imagination. So there are a couple of sections in the book, which are clearly marked where I'm saying, "Okay, the record has now fallen silent. You know, let me try to imagine what was possible." And then in those sections, though, so meticulously researched, everything from like, you know, the 1712 revolt, where, you know, the documents, you know, the colonial governor of New York, talks about that there was an oathing ceremony like that the, you know, sitting like tying themselves

to each other by sucking the blood of each other's hands, or, you know, whatever. And, you know, I was able to find details about that kind of ceremony, which doesn't involve any blood sucking in this in, in the British colonies, at the same time, but in Jamaica. And among the same ethnicity of people, which were Akan speakers from what's now currently Ghana, and, you know, so so when I create a scene with this oathing ceremony, it's based on that, you know, so that's just an example of how, like, literally everything about it, like, one of the things is, you know, because when I did the original scholarly work, I wasn't thinking visually at all. So when I was like, "Oh, I'm writing this book. Oh, my God, I need to do like, I need to do visual research." It's like, well, how do you do visual research from like, the 1700s? There's no photos, you know, there's no, and so I mean, I ended up doing things like, you know, what did this what did the city of Manhattan, of New York look like in 1700? You know, and I ended up like, reading, like, 20 years of the city council minutes, which were just so tedious. But I learned a lot about like, you know, "Because it is so dark at night, we are now requiring every third house to put out a candle lantern." You know, I'm like, "Oh, okay. So that's what the streets look like." And then it's like, "There's been complaints about how much the candle lantern's little candles cost, and whether the city should reimburse," and then this goes on for pages and pages. It's like, ", now we've decided every fifth house will put out a candle" that you know, in the dark of the moon, you know, so it's like this weird way to like, but yeah, so the point of this is that all of it was thoroughly researched. So it's not made up is the point. Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:54  
Yeah, that's so it's so great. One of my other favorite books this year was, "All That She Carried." And that there's a similar sort of, we don't know that this person did this. But we know in this time period, these kinds of people could have done this. And I think it does so much to sort of fill in, fill in those details and help you really imagine these people's lives. So I wonder, too, if you could talk some about just the sort of, from a process standpoint, how you got to the point where you were writing a graphic novel, you know. You talk about how this was originally, you know, an academic piece, and you know, how it got to this format. And, you know, I have to say, I read a lot of history. And this is, I think, the best depiction I've seen of how the work of history is done. And it's so you know, I know you said, it's kind of niche to talk about, like historiography and stuff. But to me, that's the really exciting stuff is like, what does this actually look like? How did you get to this point where you were writing a graphic novel?

Dr. Rebecca Hall  28:57  
Yeah, yeah. I mean, with this PhD in history, I had, you know, tried various ways to teach, you know, I was not at all interested in adjuncting. So I was only looking for like tenure track positions and, and, like, visiting professorships, and, you know, kind of long story short, I kept getting fired. And then I started teaching high school, which I actually really loved. I mean, it's funny because I like had taught law school at Berkeley because I had a Mellon postdoc, law school at the University of Utah, graduate school, at UC Santa Cruz and at Berkeley, and then it's like, "Okay, now I'm going to teach 11th graders," you know, and I didn't know if I was gonna be able to do it, but I really enjoyed it. But I kept getting fired, you know, for, you know, talking about race. You know, the idea that these like, race teaching wars are something that's new. I mean, they I feel like when I see what's going on now, I feel kind of like, you know, I'm in the front row eating popcorn watching it, you know, because it's completely shaped the last 10 years of my life, you know, it's not like it's some new thing. And so I was like, "Okay. I'm not going to hit my head against any of these walls anymore. What would I really like to do?" And one of the things, the biggest regrets that I had was this feeling that all this work and research that I put into this, like,  my master's thesis, my four years of dissertation, you know, the article that you refer to, that all the stuff was just buried in academia, you know, and no one knew about it, and it wasn't even impacting the field, like the same, you know, crappy books kept coming out, you know. And I was like, this is, you know, how can I, you know, it's like, I gave myself a sabbatical. And I was like, "How can I sort of bring this out?" And I find graphic novels to be very powerful, particularly, ones I actually don't like the term graphic novel, but it's, it's especially when it's not fiction. But I don't really, apparently I don't get to define that. But I call them graphic narratives. So you know, I have taught the, the book, "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. My son actually learned it, like twice in his, like, once in middle school and once in high school, but they're, I mean, they're just some amazing books. And so I've been a fan of the medium. And so it made me think like, "Hmm, could I do that with this?" And then it just, you know, kept happening. I mean, it was like, you know, I hired an artist, you know, paid him a per page rate of like, $100 that I put on a credit card. Well, we started a Kickstarter to try some of these, like, to reimburse some of these funds, and then the Kickstarter kind of took off. And then there was all this press. And then I got contacted by an agent, you know, the same person who represented Marjane Satrapi for "Persepolis." And, you know, the next thing I knew there was like, she was teaching me how to write like a book proposal for, you know, a trade press. I mean, I've published in academia, but you know, and then there was like, an auction and people were bidding. It was just crazy. It was just like, and so yeah, so then we had and the thing was, it wasn't written yet. You know, when they were auctioning for it, there was like eight pages, penciled and maybe 20 pages of script. And so it's like, "Wow, okay, now we're gonna do this." And, you know, Hugo, my illustrator who's like amazing. He hadn't done anything like this either. I mean, he was working as a pedicab driver in New Orleans at the time. So we were both just like, "Woo!" Like, I mean, you know, he, he drew comics, kind of in his spare time. But yeah, it's like, "Okay, now we have 15 months. Before I do that, oh, yeah." It became both of our full time jobs. So yeah. And, you know, so I'm going to choose this option to second book, which I'm working on right now. So, yeah,

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:12  
I love that. So the second book will also be a graphic narrative?

Dr. Rebecca Hall  33:17  
Yes, yes. And it's going to be take, it's gonna take place during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Yeah, right now it's tentatively called, "Taking Freedom: Black Women in Emancipation."

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:27  
Excellent. Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I'm so glad that you did. And, you know, I feel like there's more historic graphic narratives coming out. But a lot of them are aimed at sort of the the kid or young adult audience. And this, of course, is, you know, my 10 year old has read it and enjoyed it, but that's not, you know, sort of, he has he loves it. But, you know, obviously, that's not the sort of audience that you're writing for in this.

Dr. Rebecca Hall  33:57  
I would be concerned actually. People know, their own kids, what they can handle. Yeah, no, this is for adults. And they're, you know, there's plenty in this medium that's for adults, you know. And it, I think one of the things that people don't quite understand is that it is a rigorous methodology. Right? It can, it does. There are things that you can do in this medium that you can't do in any other medium. Like, I mean, what the basic structure of the graphic narrative, you know, is panels, and the space between the panels which people call the gutter, right. So the relationship of panel, gutter, panel, gutter is, like a pretty complex process where you decide sort of the temporality of how this is what like, if you want to see every frame of something, you go to a movie, right? But if it you know, this is like, you know, the the author is choosing very carefully what to include. And then once you have that sort of basic structure of panel, gutter, panel, gutter you know, it's like the gutter is this really generative space because it's the space where people are sort of interpolating their own imagination in helping to co create reading this, right. And you can then do things and kind of, kind of mess with it or trouble it, that allows you to create other like experiences. So I wish if we were doing a visual thing, I could show you a couple. But you know that, you know, there, there are scenes where, like, the panel below is pushing through the gutter into the panel above. And that's very intentional, because this book was very much about putting the past right up against the present, and seeing them as this back and forth relationship. Yeah. And then this medium was therefore perfect for that. Like, I can't imagine doing it really, in another way. So I think people are starting to begin to take it seriously. You know, we've gotten like, you know, insane amount of really stellar reviews. So that was surprising to me. I mean, it's a good book, I know. But you know, just you get reviews, and you get bad ones, and you get great ones, and you get mediocre ones. And we just keep getting stellar ones. And I mean, PBS was saying that this sets the new standard for illustrating history, and, you know, and a lot of people like yourself, but you know, even without your academic background, were fascinated by the the historical process of research, which was fun, because, yes, we kind of joke like, are we gonna have like action figures? Like, we'll have one like the historian, you know, and it's like, okay, when when do you bring in the historian to come in and like, help fight evil? So, yeah, people, like a lot of the feedback that I've gotten is that people were actually quite fascinated by the historical research process.

Yeah, it's yeah, it's very cool. So I could probably keep asking you questions all day. But to be mindful of your time, is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Yeah, yeah, I really wanted to talk. I mean, there's so much to talk about, but I really wanted to make sure that people understood about how the history of slave resistance  has been written in this country, and try to understand why women have been so completely erased. You know, when the history of slavery was first being written, it was being written by, you know, former slave owners and you know, lost cause southern white men writing, you know, about how slavery was a benign institution, and was this had the civilizing effect, and it was, you know, and, and there was no resistance at all to slavery, because it was this benign institution, right. And then, when that was being finally sort of questioned, there's this, you know, you get in the 60s, you know, in the Civil Rights Movement, you get sort of more Black people, Black men in the academy, writing, and they're like, "Excuse me, there were actually hundreds of slave revolts," which there were. And they they were working on, you know, recovering that, but at the same time, but that takes, like anything, any history that's written is always written in a social, political context. And, you know, the social political context at that time was this, that, you know, it was like the War on Poverty, it was this whole thing about why are Black people, you know, poor? And it's like, well, it's not because of economic oppression, it's because of the culture of poverty, that Black people's culture is deficient. And, you know, specifically, their gender roles are distorted, where you have this sort of matriarchal Black woman and the emasculated Black man, you know, and this was like, the discourse. It was like, everywhere, you know, and strangely, it's actually still around, there's still remnants of it around, but kind of in response to this, you know, these historians were saying like, "Well, I mean, I mean, like in Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, and whatever, he's, like, you know, Black women would not undermine their men by participating in revolts," like, and, you know, it became this whole, you know, thing and then when you start to get like women historians, a feminist historian starting to write like in the 70s and 80s. You know, their position on it was like, "Well, if Black women weren't involved in revolts, they were involved in all these other kinds of resistance that are equally important and perhaps even more impactful, like individual acts of sabotage and arson and poisoning and tool destruction" and kind of like part of that weapons of the weak thing that was going on in the 70s and 80s, which is also, you know, so important. But where I entered the picture was, "Yes, that's all true. But I'm not giving up on the first thing," you know, and what, there's something about coordinated acts of violent resistance that is fraught, you know, because of these reasons that we were talking about. So, but I came in it backwards, like, what, what is this, and then like, went back and sort of, you know, learned all of that. 

 And now I feel like, you know, now it's like, you know, it's post Xena, it's a, you know, people, I mean, people weren't like, I mean, regular people, like regular, interested people who were reading this book, were not at all shocked, you know, that women were involved in, you know, it's, but still, you know, a lot of historians are like, really, it I mean, it's shifted, but, you know, there's some who are just still really like, really, you know, and these kind of historiography, I mean, this is what I'm talking about when I mean, historiography is like, the social and political context in which something history is written and how that shifts over time. So that's not so much historical method, like how you deal with sources. But like the historiography, you know, of slave ship revolt, having this sort of myopia about women not being involved in it just messed up the whole history. You know, I mean, I talked about it in the book, where, you know, after these historians put together this, like, incredible database of over 36,000, slave ship voyages, and, you know, they're quantitative historians who make databases and query them. And, you know, they found out that like, there was a revolt on one in 10 ships, which shocked everybody because, you know, revolts on ships were just so basically suicidal, you know. And then when they were trying to look at, well, what's the difference between the ships that had revolts and the ships that didn't have revolts, they saw that the ship, the only difference, statistical difference, statistically significant difference is that the more women on the ship, the more likely a revolt, and these historians immediately dismiss this. And it's like, this is just some kind of fluke, because we know that women weren't, you know, involved in this type of resistance. So then they completely overlook the fact that women, you know, once the ship left the coast of Africa, women were brought on deck and unchained, and that's where the weapons were. And it all makes sense, you know, like, yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:44  
Yeah, well, I am so glad both that you did this research, but then also that you decided to share it with the world in this way, because it is just a fantastic book. So tell everybody how they can get your book.

Dr. Rebecca Hall  42:59  
Well, wherever books are sold. So, you know, at your local independent bookstore, you can get it a You could get it on the evil Amazon, you can, you know, and if you go to your local bookstore, and they don't have it, ask them why not? Yeah. So that's one of the things about having a big, big press like this as they get the stuff out. Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:23  
Yeah. And I'll, I'll put a link, certainly so people can find it. And anyone who listens to this podcast regularly knows I love ebooks and audio books. But this is when you've got to hold in your hand, that you need this one in paper.

Dr. Rebecca Hall  43:38  
But there is an audio drama that we're in the process of making. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:43  
Excellent. Very well, Dr. Hall, thank you so much. for speaking with me. This was really, really fascinating conversation. And I just I love hearing about and learning about these these silences in the way that silence is produced and the way that we can try to read it into the silence.

Dr. Rebecca Hall  43:59  
Exactly. Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me on your podcast. Yeah.

Teddy  44:06  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain, or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History. Or on Facebook at Unsung History Podcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Rebecca Hall

Dr. Rebecca Hall is a scholar, activist and educator, who writes and speaks on the history of race, gender, law and resistance, as well as on climate justice and intersectional feminist theory. Her recent highly-acclaimed graphic novel, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, weaves history and memoir that focuses on slave revolts in the Middle Passage and in New York City and her own quest to uncover this unwritten history. Wake went viral when it started as a Kickstarter campaign, earning coverage in Hyperallergic and Bustle. Dr. Hall has spoken about her work and Wake to eager audiences at the National Antiracism Teach In, the Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival and at Black Gotham’s “Nerdy Thursdays” at the New York Historical Society. Wake was selected as Steph Curry's June Literati Book Club Pick. An Indie Bestseller, Wake has also received glowing reviews from The New York Times, NPR, and The Guardian, calling the graphic novel “stunning,” “powerful,” and “a must-read.”

As a lawyer representing low-income tenants and homeless families for eight years, Rebecca bore witness to how her clients’ race, class and gender deformed the possibilities of their receiving justice through the legal system. On a quest for a deeper understanding of these structures, she pursued a PhD in history at UC Santa Cruz. Her areas of research include the legal history of slavery and the slave trade, African American women’s history, and current legacies of slavery. Rebecca has taught at U.C. Santa Cruz, Berkeley Law, UC Berkeley’s history department and at the University of Utah.