The Souls of Womenfolk
The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South
- ISBN: 9781469663609
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: September 2021
In The Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South, Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh “challenges the presumption of a genderless subject in historical explorations of enslaved people’s religiosity.” (9). With this history, the author highlights enslaved women’s ability to create ethical and moral systems within their enslaved community as well as lead newly created religious communities. Throughout the book, Wells-Oghoghomeh weaves the lives of West African women (specifically from the Upper Guinea coastal region) before they were enslaved with the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Lower South of the United States (using Georgia as the example). In this way, she looks at the dismemberment of women, the author’s way of describing “the psychic effects of bondpeople’s material experiences of enslavement” (5) and re/membrance which was a woman’s response (individually and communally to it. Wells-Oghoghomeh seeks to bring forth the long-forgotten histories of enslaved women in the Lower South, and in six chapters she ensures they are not forgotten again.
Chapter 1 lays out the beginnings of dismemberment, weaving stories of slavery in West Africa and how women saw themselves within that system. Enslaved women who lived in West African societies who participated in enslaving others were often confused by the life they had after arriving on the colonial shores and being sold on the auction block. Chapters 2 through 4 cover much of the dismemberment of enslaved women’s lives and their ability to obtain re/membering in the Lower South. Enslaved women responded to the daily violence upon their bodies in a number of ways. These included infanticide, abortion, surrogacy, and acquiescence. Since enslaved women did not have the right to their own bodies, and since their wombs were resigned to being another economic tool in the enslavers belt, Wells-Oghoghomeh calls the resignification of the womb the “most significant aspect of enslaved women’s maternal dismemberment” (93).
The author further observes that due to the lack of bodily autonomy and constant fear of sexual violence, enslaved women took back what little power they could not only by choosing who their sexual partners were, but also by creating “common sense epistemologies and ethical systems that privileged their experiences, acknowledged their unique social positions, and improved their quality of life (130). Finally, enslaved women played a special role in the lives of the enslaved community by being present at most births and deaths. Enslaved women in the Lower South utilized “Western African cosmologies and ritual structures” (133) to ground behaviors around birth and death “to mitigate the effects of the dismembering contexts into which they were born and in which they would die” (133). Wells-Oghoghomeh closes this section by discussing enslaved women’s highly respected position in the community as “key sustainers of bondspeople’ ritual practices” (160).
In the final two chapters, Wells-Oghoghomeh lays out the sacred imagination of the enslaved community, including a final chapter on the role enslaved women played in the contextualization of Christianity within West African cosmologies. It is well known among historians of slavery that enslaved Africans rarely took on the Christianity of their enslavers. Instead, they “merely integrated Christian ideas, symbols, and rituals into their re/membered West and West Central African sacred systems” (193). Wells-Oghoghomeh does an excellent job walking the reader through the various spirits, ghosts, witches, and other spiritual manifestations in the enslaved community. She closes the book acknowledging that through the practice of re/membering, enslaved women “offered the entire enslaved community a socioreligious infrastructure upon which to construct their distinctive institutional religiosity” (233).
Wells-Oghoghomeh’s book is not a quick introduction to the lives of enslaved people, but rather a deep and at times disturbing dive into the lives of enslaved women and how they led their communities. Readers will face stories from multiple enslaved women recounting violence upon their bodies, minds, and spirits. They will read difficult decisions made by women whose bodies and wombs were seen not as autonomous, but as economic machines to breed workers for enslavers. Finally, readers will begin to understand how enslaved women utilized their positions as highly respected members of the community to guide the community in religious matters. This book will be difficult for many, but it is very important for the understanding of the enslaved community and its descendants.
Maggie Finch is a PhD student in intercultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.Maggie FinchDate Of Review:October 31, 2022