Stanford scholar reveals the inner lives of enslaved women by studying religious, sacred practices
Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh looks at the religious practices of enslaved Black women in the Lower South to better understand how they experienced human bondage.
While records of enslaved Black women are ubiquitous in the archive, they are one of the most extraordinary and evasive groups to study, says Stanford religious studies scholar Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh.
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“Enslaved women are everywhere and nowhere,” said Wells-Oghoghomeh.
When enslaved women are found in the archive, it is most often depictions of the violence and violations perpetrated against them: scenes of mutilation, humiliation and trauma. Sometimes depictions are more transactional, their lives reduced to a public auction or a number in a ledger. Either way, none of these representations overtly reveal what these women thought and felt about the world they inhabited.
For Wells-Oghoghomeh, their silence is an “eerie” one. “They are there in the Anglophone, antebellum-era records, but they are never speaking,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said.
With the aim of giving voice to the most marginalized of a marginalized group, Wells-Oghoghomeh has spent over a decade poring through historical material to better understand how enslaved women experienced life amid the horrors of American slavery.
Her book, The Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South (University of North Carolina Press, 2021) pieces together accounts of enslaved women from historical sources such as the Library of Congress’ WPA Slave Narratives archive. Wells-Oghoghomeh also consulted travel accounts, diaries, letters and legal documents – all with a focus on their religious and spiritual practices, as well as the events that revealed their moral and ethical beliefs.
Role of religion, spirituality
In the period that Wells-Oghoghomeh studied – West Africa in the 16th century to the beginning of the American Civil War in the Lower South – religion was not institutionalized in the way it is recognized today. (It was not until after the American Civil War that many Black people entered the Christian Protestant faith, Wells-Oghoghomeh pointed out).
Religion for enslaved women in the Lower South was as much pragmatic as it was sacred: beliefs, worldviews and rituals were adapted to meet the conditions they were in, Wells-Oghoghomeh said.
“They incorporated ideas and practices as they were useful to them,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said.
Moreover, the enslaved women that Wells-Oghoghomeh encountered in the archive were rooted in the sacred cultures of their homelands. Some came from regions, like Western Sudan, where Islam was the dominant faith. Others came from groups such as the – cultures entrenched in spirit pantheons, unseen spirits and deities, as well as nature spirits that were believed to appear periodically, she described.
When some enslaved people first encountered Christianity in the Lower South, they viewed conversion as a way to fulfill a need
Enslaved Blacks incorporated new and old practices, like making ritual objects. Similar practices were also common among Anglo-Americans at the time, so enslaved women often blended different practices to help them cope with the pain inflicted on them by their slave owners.
“They were very pragmatic in their approach to religion,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said. “If a spirit or practice didn’t do what they needed it to do, they adapted and adopted those that did.”
The West and West Central African beliefs that the women did hold onto – such as medicinal and ritual approaches to childbirth – were passed down from generation to generation.
Sometimes all that remained of an enslaved person’s family was a name. They didn’t even have a face because they were taken from their mothers at too early of age to remember it. Names, therefore, took on an especially sacred meaning and ritualized naming practices emerged in enslaved people’s cultures, Wells-Oghoghomeh said.
Wells-Oghoghomeh defines the spiritual practices that emerged through a concept she called “re/memberence.”
“Re/membrance names the processes and logic through which actions and ideas assumed religious significance: practices, sayings, beliefs and gatherings assumed a religious function insofar as they helped bondspeople to re/member,” Wells-Oghoghomeh writes in her book, noting the grammatical use of a slash to acknowledge the memory and creativity that enslaved people bore towards their African ancestors.
Enslaved women of prime childbearing age – between 15 to 35 years old – were considered highly valuable by slave traders, especially after the 1807 law prohibiting the import of slaves into the United States. Even the womb of little girls came to represent the expansion of financial assets. Wells-Oghoghomeh learned of one 8-year-old girl, Nancy, who was sold on the promise of “The future … and increase of Nancy.”
“One of the difficulties of doing work on slavery is that we’re still living in a moment where people of African descent are stereotyped and understood through the very same filters.”
Assistant professor of religious studies
Enslaved women struggled with the idea of carrying, birthing and raising children to only have their children taken away to perpetuate the cruel system that held them captive and inflicted trauma daily. Wells-Oghoghomeh discovered one incredibly distraught woman, who after seven of her children were taken from her, called out to the universe, “Why don’t God kill me?”
Wells-Oghoghomeh was also interested in how enslaved women reclaimed power in a world that seemed to legally control the fate and destiny of them and their children. One of the more shocking phenomena she encountered was the prevalence of abortion and filicide. For these women, terminating a pregnancy – oftentimes conceived through sexual assault – was seen as an act of mercy. Their child’s death meant they were spared from a violent and oppressive world that would eventually kill them, said Wells-Oghoghomeh.
“The thwarting of the reproductive cycle through abortion and filicide constituted a pointed subversion of the enslaving system and a bold reclamation of reproductive power,” Wells-Oghoghomeh wrote. “Interpreting these acts as maternal choices rooted within an ethic of survival, re/membrance and quality of life offers insight into how women’s reproductive experiences shaped their cosmologies and theologies regarding life and death, mercy and justice.”
Offering a space for enslaved women’s voices
For Wells-Oghoghomeh, her research is about honoring the complexities of these remarkable and resilient women in American history.
To do that well, she had to train herself to identify those moments when an enslaved women’s deepest, inner thoughts and feelings revealed themselves – sometimes fleetingly.
“I learned to read silences, gaps and ellipses,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said, noting sometimes all she was able to capture of these women’s thoughts was the expression of a woman in the background of a landscape painting of a slaveholder’s ruminations or thoughts.
“I freeze every single moment and I put those frames in conversation with what I know about her context, what’s going on where she is, what might she be wearing, what might she have experienced the day before or the day after, where she is in her life – those are the ways that I’ve kind of allowed the silences to be a part of the narrative.”
These are hard stories to elevate, Wells-Oghoghomeh acknowledged, particularly in the current moment where many of the issues she studies present themselves in contemporary problems today, like reproductive rights and police brutality.
“One of the difficulties of doing work on slavery is that we’re still living in a moment where people of African descent are stereotyped and understood through the very same filters,” said Wells-Oghoghomeh.
“Those historical legacies are the burdens we carry as a society. It’s difficult to tell these stories, even as a historian in the 21st century, because I don’t want these women to be mischaracterized. But my priority is to humanize them, to reveal the complexity of them as human beings.”