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.
The above is a reconstructed memory by Sapelo Island resident Julia Governor, shared in an earlier twentieth-century interview, where she narrates her grandmother’s capture and subsequent transfer to the Americas. Stories like Governor’s are few and far in between in conventional public records – as most accounts of enslaved people tracing their roots leads them to plantation records or ship manifests, and thus, millions of enslaved people remain nameless and faceless individuals in America’s history.
These are the kind of stories Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, explores in her book “The Souls of Womenfolk,” as she traces a bold history of the interior lives of enslaved Black women as they carved out an existence for themselves and their families amid the horrors of American slavery. In conversation with Interfaith America Wells-Oghoghomeh shared how her book draws upon diverse sources to explore how enslaved women crafted female-centered cultures that shaped the religious consciousness and practices of entire enslaved communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you write this book?
“The Souls of Womenfolk” is a product of deep love for the study of slavery as well as the study of Africana religions. I found that the study of religion in slavery was very central to later theories of African American religion in the United States, but there weren’t that many studies of religion among enslaved people in the United States, or really, anywhere.
In slavery studies … I saw a different phenomenon at work. There was detailed historiography around the study of gender and slavery, but not a very deep engagement of religion at all. So, the book was born out of me trying to speak to this lack in the scholarship in both slavery studies and Africana religious studies. Religion is a heavily embodied category, and slavery is also embodied; we cannot really understand the religious consciousness and performances of enslaved people without being attentive to the ways gender configured these differences in how they experienced enslavement.
American Civic Life