Rebecca Hall does not consider herself a scholar. At least, not in the traditional sense. As a Ph.D. student, she traveled around the world researching the untold stories of women-led slave revolts in the United States, completing research that would transform the way she viewed the history of this country and herself. But by the time her dissertation was completed, only a few people actually read it. “It’s just sort of buried in academia,” Hall says. “How can I get this information that I think is important out in the world in a way that retains its complexity, but not dumbing it down?”
From inside her office in Byerly Hall as a visiting fellow of the Radcliffe Institute — surrounded by walls that have now become a living, breathing outline of her next narrative – Hall reveals the answer.
“Comics,” she says. “That’s not a normal thought process, but it is for me, because I love the medium. Comics are a medium.”
In 2021, Hall — who has no formal training as an artist — published “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts,” a graphic novel. Since then, “Wake” has been listed as a best book of the year by Forbes, Ms., NPR, and the Washington Post. Hall then told the ‘story behind the story’ in an audio drama adaptation of the graphic novel, which was recently nominated for Audiobook of the Year at the 2023 Audie Awards.
In “Wake,” Hall is the protagonist, serving as the narrator and guide through the story. Readers follow her as she sifts through archival records, reckons with the truth that begins to haunt her, and goes on a nature walk for a moment of respite from the atrocities that she uncovers.
Hall feels there is something special about the visual organization of comics that allows people to connect with stories in unique ways. “If you want to see every frame of something, you go to a movie, right? With a comic, the reader is a participant,” Hall says.
It is raw, personal, and therefore, exactly what many traditional academics would advise against. But to Hall, that is the point of telling Black women’s stories as a Black woman. “I don’t believe in objectivity. I feel like the most responsible position is to say: ‘All knowledge is situated. And so here’s how I am situated,’” Hall says.
As the granddaughter of people who lived as slaves on plantations in Missouri and Tennessee, Hall believes her proximity to the history of American chattel slavery placed her on a path of constantly pursuing justice.
Before becoming a historian, Hall received a law degree from University of California, Berkeley in 1989. An early comic strip in “Wake” describes her feeling of entrapment in a racist and misogynistic criminal justice system: “I could ‘win’ these cases for my clients. But I felt the need to see underneath the ‘justice system’ — to get at the root of what was warping the world.”
So Hall went back to school. This time, she received a Ph.D. in history from UC Santa Cruz. Still craving an opportunity to communicate her discoveries to a wider audience, Hall started teaching at universities. But after what she described as a “nightmare situation,” she left academia for good, frustrated that academic writing lacked potential to creatively engage those outside of its inner circles. “Scholarly writing is the death of writing,” Hall says.
Disillusioned by academia but still wanting to teach, Hall switched career paths yet again. This time, she began teaching at a local public high school in Salt Lake City. After being denied a full-time history position for critiquing a lesson plan that involved buying and selling human chattel as a math problem, Hall was hired and fired two more times.
Seeking a way to illuminate structural problems with her research, Hall turned to comics.
She took a deep dive into how comic books worked — pouring over pages of colorfully bookmarked instructional comic book guides that now sat on her office bookshelf. Finally, Hall was ready to bring her ideas to life. A mutual friend introduced her to Hugo Martínez, an illustrator who at the time worked full-time as a pedicab driver in New Orleans. In May 2018, they began working on the graphic novel with around $9,000, crowdfunded on the website Kickstarter.
But as Hall began her research, she found that the women whose stories she told would suddenly disappear from the archives. When Hall ran into this problem, she turned to “critical fabulation,” a methodology coined by academic Sadiya Hartman in 2008. Hall describes this process as the “measured use of historical imagination.” “The record has fallen completely silent. How can I continue to tell the story? I can tell it based on some stuff that actually, positively 100% could have happened,” Hall says.
Hall explains that many institutional archives contain scant information on marginalized groups. Hall not only sought to fill in these gaps but reimagine the way people regard this history entirely.
“Some of what makes these stories buried is in the banality of evil,” Hall says. “The way the history of slave resistance has been written by historiography in the United States is that there was no resistance to slavery here because slavery was a benign and civilizing institution.”
After going on her book tour, Hall began to see firsthand how this work of truth-telling was impacting more people than she could have ever imagined. One moment stands out in her mind from a visit to a book club for high school students hosted by Tulane University.
“There was this 10th grader that was like, ‘Comics are usually about superheroes. So who’s the superhero in your book?’” Hall recalls fondly. “I’m like, ‘Black people,’ then the whole room started applauding. And you know teens don’t applaud.”
Later, she shows me TikToks of people reviewing her book and sheds a few happy tears. She bustles around her office, finding the paperback translations of “Wake” with colorful covers in French, German, Turkish, and Japanese.
Through it all, Hall remains in a state of disbelief at just how much her book resonated with people across the world. “This was a really weird project. I thought it was very niche and very personal. So I’m still trying to wrap my brain around why it popped in the way it did,” Hall says.
After her book tour, Hall decided on a whim to give academia another try, and applied for a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute. She was accepted as a Mary Beth and Chris Gordon Fellow for the 2022-23 academic year.
“It’s like I’ve needed this my whole life and didn’t know,” Hall says.
Hall is currently working on a new graphic narrative called “Taking Freedom,” based on the resistance of Black women during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. “I think it’s important for people to understand why people need to engage with this time period,” Hall says. “So much of our country has been shaped by what happened.”
Hall is also developing her own production company rooted in Afro-futurist education, called Wake Productions. Hall hopes to incorporate various media beyond comics — including film and podcasts. With all of her projects, Hall tries to stay rooted in core values of truth, justice, and education.
“Nobody likes being lied to. Everyone wants to know the information that helps them understand their world,” Hall says. “I am really drawn to connecting all these people who don't want to be lied to anymore, and teaching outside of the entire classroom.”
— Magazine writer Mariah M. Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariahnorman03.