The Souls of Womenfolk: The Birth of the Enslaved Female Soul

The following is an excerpt from Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh’s The Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South. This excerpt was taken from chapter one of The Souls of Womenfolk entitled “Georgia Genesis: The Birth of the Enslaved Female Soul”. Wells-Oghoghomeh’s book was also selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2021 in the Religion/Spirituality category.

Beginning on the shores of West Africa in the sixteenth century and ending in the U.S. Lower South on the eve of the Civil War, Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh traces a bold history of the interior lives of bondwomen as they carved out an existence for themselves and their families amid the horrors of American slavery. With particular attention to maternity, sex, and other gendered aspects of women’s lives, she documents how bondwomen crafted female-centered cultures that shaped the religious consciousness and practices of entire enslaved communities. Indeed, gender as well as race co-constituted the Black religious subject, she argues—requiring a shift away from understandings of “slave religion” as a gender-amorphous category.

In an early twentieth-century interview, Sapelo Island resident Julia Governor reconstructed a memory of the transatlantic slave trade through a narration of her grandmother’s capture and subsequent transfer to the Americas:

My gran, she Hannah. Uncle Calina my gran too; they both Ibos. Yes’m, I remember my gran Hannah. She marry Calina and have twenty-one children. Yes’m, she tell us how she brung here. Hannah, she with her aunt who was digging peanuts in the field, with a baby strapped on her back. Out of the brush two white mens come and spit in her aunt’s eye. She blinded and when she wipe her eye, the white mens loose the baby from her back and took Hannah too. They led them into the woods, where there was other children they done snatched and tied up in sacks. The baby and Hannah was tied up in sacks like the others and Hannah never saw her aunt again and never saw the baby again. When she was let out of the sack, she was on boat and never saw Africa again.

As evidenced by Governor’s recollection of her grandmother’s journey, narratives of capture and transatlantic transport circulated between African-born enslaved people and their country-born counterparts and subsequently became an essential constituent of their collective memory. The stories represented an attempt to reconcile the cognitive dissonance inaugurated by American enslavement and to explain the ominous geographical distance between West and West Central Africa and the lower southern colonies of anglophone North America. They were responses to the fundamental existential questions, Who are we? and Why are we here? In short, they were genesis narratives.

Yet rather than offer a universalized account of human beginnings, narratives such as Hannah’s chronicled the origins of enslaved, African-descended humanity in the Americas—humanity forged amid struggle. Stakeholders around the Atlantic conspired to innovate, institutionalize, and impose racialized, gendered concepts of enslaved West and West Central African existence. And in response to these impositions, captive Africans and their American-born descendants pieced together and created anew their identities. Their identities were born of memories of their ancestral homelands and creative exchanges among themselves. As Julia Governor’s recollection of her grandmother’s arrival on American shores conveys, Africans and their descendants re-membered and remembered their humanity and cultures amid the dismembering experiences of enslavement. Dismemberment and re/membrance formed the context and response for enslaved people’s negotiations and assertions of their humanity—and other aspects of their interiority—in slavery. Together, they defined the expressions, performances, and orientations that constituted religion among most enslaved people—enslaved women, in particular.

For Governor’s grandmother Hannah, dismemberment was the brutal finality of never seeing her child, kin, and homeland again, as well as the multigenerational effects evidenced by her granddaughter’s retelling. The term conceptualizes the historical and individual ruptures that bondpeople sought to redress through their religious performances and innovations, as well as the effects of those ruptures on individual and communal consciousness. Though similar to fragmentation, the concept’s more violent, active connotation better describes captives’ experiences of bondage and implicates the people and processes that precipitated their conditions. Confronted with the trauma of dismemberment, Hannah was forced to identify new cultural and existential anchors through which to re-create her identity. Those anchors, in turn, became the cornerstones of a culture shared by her granddaughter and millions of other persons of African descent carrying the “slave” designation in the Americas. Dismemberment encompasses the ongoing dialogue between individual and collective experience, the past and the present, Africa and the Americas, which grounded enslaved peoples’ cultures. Individuals experienced various forms and moments of dismemberment within their particular contexts. Yet some experiences threaded through enslaved communities and bound them together, regardless of their individual circumstances. The uprooting of Africans from their homelands and relocation to foreign soil; commodification of African-descended people’s lives in the development of trans- and inter-Atlantic economies; estrangement of the body from the power to govern its labor and (re)productions; constant specter of familial and communal disruption; and resignification of the womb as a capital asset were a few of the many critical experiences of rupture that shaped the cultures of enslaved Africans in the South and throughout the Atlantic.

These moments of rupture were born within specific chronological periods and of particular experiences yet not wedded to them. Thus, the beginnings of women’s consciousness as dislocated, enslaved Africans in the South—the experiences that birthed a distinctive religiosity—cannot be marked neatly within a linear historical narrative. Rather, they follow a more organic pattern. As communicated in bondpeople’s genesis myths, experiences of dismemberment spanned multiple continents and generations but functioned aggregately in collective memory. The agony of the auction block following transatlantic transport in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries paralleled and conversed with the traumas of the slave coffles in the nineteenth century, regardless of whether they were experienced individually. In this way, the concept bridges the individual and collective experiences of Africans throughout the Americas—theorizing the cultural and ontological meanings of inhabiting colonial spaces as an African/Negro/Black person, while leaving space for the disparities between different contexts and embodiments.

Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh is assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford University.