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Intimate Histories: Enslaved Women, Religion, and The Problem of “The Slave”

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Since the inception of the system that displaced and colonized humans in one locale for the production of goods within a global economy, the term “slave” has been deployed to describe the persons whose physical, intellectual, and reproductive resources supported the dawn of modernity. Though the discursive treatment of the persons bearing the designation has changed over time, the residue of its ontological significance persists. Enslaved persons continue to appear in scholarly and popular literature as undifferentiated bodies who largely resided on the periphery of historical processes until their emancipation catapulted them into the role of actors. The omissions effectively render the enslaved inanimate and perpetually trapped within the enslaved/free paradigm, in which varied forms of sociopolitical freedoms are requisite for personhood. Taking the lives of enslaved woman-gendered people as its starting point, this talk explores how studying the intersections of race, gender, and religion in slavery invites new approaches to the study of racialized humanity and intimate histories in the Americas.

Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department at Stanford University. A historian of African-American religion, her teaching and research examine the religiosity of enslaved people in the South, religion in the African Atlantic, and women’s religious histories. Her book The Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South (UNC Press, 2021) is a gendered history of enslaved people’s religiosity from the colonial period to the onset of the Civil War. She is currently at work on a second monograph that traces the gendered, racialized history of “witchcraft” as a sociocultural category and loose collection of misidentified practices in the United States. Dr. Wells is also co-editing two projects: a two-volume documentary history of religion and slavery, as well as a comprehensive volume on new approaches to African American religious history. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Forum for Theological Education, among others. She received her B.A. in English from Spelman College, and Master of Divinity degree and Ph.D. from Emory University.

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