Vanderbilt University professor lectures on hardships of West African slaves at MTSU

Photo and story by Benjamin Shaw / Contributing Writer

Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, an assistant professor of religious studies, American religious history and African-American religious history at Vanderbilt University, gave a lecture titled “Female Captive to Negro Wench: Slavery in Religious and Gendered Perspective” in the Parliamentary Room of the Student Union Building Tuesday afternoon.

The presentation, sponsored by the newly formed MTSU Religious Studies and Africana Studies programs, focused on the intersection of those two fields and how they relate to the research that Wells-Oghoghomeh has done in both fields.

Wells-Oghoghomeh painted a bleak picture of the origins of enslaved women, who were considered much more valuable than men, in the West African coast beginning in the 15th century. She pointed out the harsh reality that women were not enslaved only as laborers but also as means to produce more slaves.

She spoke about the historical and cultural constructs that enslaved women were a part of in West Africa and how reproductive ability, among other things, was a means of securing status with their masters. That construct changed as the slaves were moved to the Americas. Wells-Oghoghomeh said that reproduction and childbirth became one of the main factors that went into the value of enslaved women and that these women had to shift their view from its West African context.

With the change of this construct, women were no longer valued mainly for their ability to work.

“Reproduction becomes central to how they have to grapple with their mortality,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said.

Childbirth, or complications from it, was one of the main ways that enslaved women died.

Wells-Oghoghomeh then bridged the idea of religious identity in the midst of all these hardships that enslaved women were facing. These women had to decide if they even wanted to bring children into a life of slavery. They also had to consider ways that their own cultural and religious heritage could be transferred to their children in a way that allowed them to not be subjected to the punishment of their masters.

“Women were not concerned with liberation,” Wells-Oghoghomeh said. “They were concerned with survival.”

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