On Sept. 29 and 30, Dr. Rebecca Hall ’85, historian and author of the multi-award-winning graphic novel “Wake,” visited the college. Her visit included two parts: a fireside chat where she led a discussion on the importance of understanding slave revolt history in the contemporary context, and a research workshop that acted as a smaller Q&A session.
On her first day, Hall spoke to Swarthmore students, faculty, and guests in the Intercultural Center on the role and importance of women in slave revolts, who have been silenced throughout history. Hall also spoke about her first graphic novel, “Wake,” which depicts these women-led revolts.
Hall based “Wake” on her dissertation work, which included four years of full-time research about women-led revolts for her PhD in history. One problem that Hall ran into while researching “Wake” was the fragmented, incomplete, or biased nature of the few historical documents about woman-led slave revolts. As a result, Hall had to use imagination to recreate a vivid picture of a revolt and the characters who may have been involved and retell this important story. Hall emphasized in her fireside chat that graphic novels served as the best vehicle to tell this imaginary reconstruction.
“What I’m actually trying to do is develop a Black feminist methodology for recovering our stories through the use of this medium,” Hall said. “Our existence in the archive is so fragmentary, that there’s a way in which this sequential algorithm is kind of perfect for this kind of recovery.”
This issue of access to complete historical records was a consistent problem for Hall while writing “Wake.” For instance, Hall recalled travelling to Lloyd’s of London, a large insurance company that used to insure slave ships. She was banned from accessing records due to a company-wide policy of keeping documents from people studying the slave trade. Hall, though, believes it is important to focus on the past and do this research to prevent the burial of slave and slave revolt history.
“I think it is so important for us to ground in the resilience of our ancestors because that’s our superpower,” Hall said. “And this history of this revolt and resistance is so disavowed because it is a dangerous history. Dangerous in a good way.”
In this fireside chat, Hall also spoke on her experiences as a Swarthmore student and dealing with homophobia and racism as a student. Hall’s talk and workshop was her first time back on campus since graduating. When she was a student, Hall received anonymous late-night homophobic calls and was chased across Parrish Beach. She left after her first semester but was encouraged by past Dean of Students Janet Dickerson to return. Hall finished her degree off-campus and ended up enjoying her teachers and classes. She also was heavily involved in Swarthmore activism, especially LGBT+ and South African divestment actions.
“I really liked my teachers, and one of the things I loved about this place was students were willing to really engage intellectually in a way that I hadn’t experienced in other places,” Hall said. “I had someone in Sharples teach me Plato’s Theory of Form using plates and cups. Another thing that made it possible [to be here] was my activism here. We were the class that got Swarthmore to divest from South Africa.”
The workshop that Hall led on Sept. 30 in the Black Cultural Center for colleagues and other historians was a more intimate affair than the fireside chat the night before. It served as an additional day for specific questions about the text in a smaller environment. Hall read excerpts from her novel while answering questions and took this time to elaborate on why each graphic correlated closely with the text. Then, through guided questions, Hall told more stories about her travels while researching for Wake.
Hall spoke at length about the challenge of searching past the surface-level information about slave revolts that is available to the public. Instead, much like a detective, Hall reached out to judges, courts, and other legal providers for additional documents. These documents told unique stories about women during the slave revolts, which aided in the writing process. This history is often overlooked in America due to its harsh reality. In one instance, while visiting New York, Hall created her own map based on past and current landmarks to find locations such as the African Burial Ground.
During the workshop, attendees asked Hall about how she approached researching such an emotionally draining novel. Hall was open with her coping mechanisms, including accepting the importance of self-care and becoming a mother. By taking care of another individual, Hall gained a newfound sense of motivation in life. She had a young child depending on her, so she had to keep providing. One of the things Hall said helped her during this process was spending time in nature, which she also discussed during the fireside chat.
“Nature is crucial I think to everybody and there is a way in which Black people have historically been denied relationships with nature that are restorative and healing,” Hall said at the previous evening’s talk. “Part of it has to do with violent history … The white supremacists control nature. Why is it that republicans have all the trees? In order for me to chill and relax and be grounded, the things I have to wade through.”
Another personal aspect of the writing process Hall talked about was her desire to speak at literary festivals. She explained that her travels would eventually take her to some southern states, which she is not looking forward to due to the history of slavery and racism within the South and the current state of the country. Hall, though, believes it is important to travel to those places because of the vast history and information available there. The research she discovers in these southern states will be included in her next novel.
While traveling to promote her novel, Hall also spoke with Black high schools and college students through a program hosted by Tulane University. During the presentation, she was shocked by how engaged the students were throughout the session. Hall believed the audience’s questions were well-planned, and the audience’s reaction very positive. She found it encouraging that such young students were inspired by the message her novel delivered.
Towards the end of the workshop, Hall and the workshop attendees visited McCabe Library where they had reserved old archive files about Swarthmore from the Friends Historical Library and College Archives. One of the files contained information from Blue Jeans Day, an event held by Swarthmore’s Gay Student Union on April 21, 1981 that encouraged people who were part of the LGBTQ community, or allies, to wear jeans. But the next day, three students burned blue jeans instead as anti-protest against gay rights. This event resonated with Hall because of her experience with homophobia on campus. Sharing these past events, Hall believes, speaks to the history of the college, showing the amount of growth that Swarthmore has gone through since Blue Jeans Day.
Hall wrapped up her visit by talking about the next book she is writing. This new story is about Reconstruction history and the false notion that Black people, and especially women, did not bring about their own freedom.
“There were four million enslaved people in the south at the beginning of the Civil War,” Hall said. “Half a million of those people got up and walked off those plantations. It was the biggest general strike in history. That story is hardly ever told and when historians have written about it, and this has to do with narrative, it is almost like a force of nature, like a river that overflows its banks.”