The Gendered Ethics of Female Enslavement: Searching for Southern Slave Women's Religions in the African Atlantic

Alexis S. Wells

Alexis S. Wells is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University

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Alexis S. Wells, "The Gendered Ethics of Female Enslavement: Searching for Southern Slave Women's Religions in the African Atlantic," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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In an advertisement placed in the Royal Georgia Gazette in Savannah on January 4th of 1781, slaveowner John Morel offered a detailed description of an enslaved family that had absconded from his Savannah estate.1 Hercules, a man said to be from Angola, escaped with his “country born” wife Betty and “her child” Winter, aged five years.2 By October 11th of the same year, the family still had not been found—a fact that prompted Morel to place another advertisement in the paper, this time with details of additional, self-liberated former captives. Jupiter, his wife Auba, “her” nine-year old son Sancho, a nursing baby, and Jack—another alleged Angolan who spoke scant English—all fled their captivity on the Morel estate.3 Whether the parties escaped together or, at the very least, in cooperation with one another, is unclear. Given the purported Angolan origins of two of the escaped men and tendency of persons from the same or proximate culture regions to abscond together, it is likely that the closely timed disappearance of the parties was no coincidence. Yet, the large numbers of captives from Central Africa that poured into the South through Charleston and Savannah rendered it equally probable that the group’s nearly simultaneously moves were happenstance. Either way, from the aforementioned advertisements and the host of others like it, it becomes clear that the web of relationships that developed in barracoons, on ships, and in enslaved communities offered the possibility for new, overlapping, and reimagined diasporic cultures, born of the intersections between continental and Western Hemispheric diasporic Africans.

Enslaved women’s bodies were the nexus for these diasporic intersections. Early on, the social and legal apparatuses of enslavement conspired to lay the responsibility for the physiological and social reproduction of slavery upon female captives, which in turn, positioned women as the primary preceptors of diasporic cultures. As indicated by Morel’s reference to “her,” or the mother’s, children in the advertisements, in Georgia and throughout the slave states, motherhood was the only parental role recognized by the laws and norms of enslavement.4 Enslaved women labored in cotton, rice, and other agricultural fields alongside—and in some cases, in lieu of—their male counterparts, yet they remained enmeshed in the web of expectations attached to their femaleness. They nursed children as they endeavored to satisfy daily productivity quotas, assumed the bulk of the childrearing responsibilities in enslaved households, cared for and breastfed the children of their masters, functioned as domestics in others’ homes, and bore the children who ultimately supported a global economy. In addition to the responsibilities that accompanied female enslavement, women also endured the physical, psychological, and social exigencies of sexual abuse—an occurrence with effects that extended beyond the victims to the broader community. These biological, domestic, and psychosocial entanglements anchored women to the plantations, farms, and businesses differently from enslaved men. Women like Betty and Auba, who absconded with their partners and children during the colonial period, became anomalies in the antebellum period as slaveowners and indigenous social norms demarcated gendered lines of confinement. The dual circumstances of heightened confinement and sole responsibility for childrearing positioned women as the unmitigated cornerstones of cultural (re)production among bondspeople.

More importantly, the myriad ramifications and entanglements of enslaved femaleness yielded woman-gendered experiences of captivity.5 It was through the prism of female-specific experience that enslaved women shot their creative (re)productions: the cultural performances and formations born of interactions among Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans in response to the exigencies of slavery. Put simply, enslaved peoples’ cultures bore the imprint of woman-gendered experiences. As a ubiquitous domain of culture, religion too manifested the rigors and toils of enslaved femaleness. For this reason, southern religious formations, specifically the sacred (re)productions of enslaved peoples, cannot be fully apprehended without attention to the ways women’s experiences of enslavement shaped the practice, interpretation, and transmission of religiosity within enslaved communities and beyond. Beginning with an abbreviated examination of the discourses surrounding enslaved women’s sexuality, this essay explores how female experiences of enslavement yielded woman-gendered ethical cultures in the U.S. South and, moreover, how a broadened Atlantic scope provides insight into the cosmological and sociological foundations of these cultures. In doing so, the essay glimpses the analytical possibilities generated by an extension of conversations on the dialogical relationship between the sacred cultures of West Africa and the South—pioneered by scholars such as Margaret Washington, Jason Young, and Ras Michael Brown—into the realm of gender.

Although southerners generated coercive sexual structures specific to the U.S. context, discourses on African-descended women’s sexuality did not originate with captives’ arrivals to North American shores, but rather in diasporic dialogues an ocean away. As the trade in human bodies between Western Europeans and West Africans intensified and captive Africans poured into European and later Caribbean, South American, and North American ports, pro-slavery forces sought to stigmatize African humanity through tales of religious, social, and sexual deviance. Expressing an opinion common among European travelers to West African nations, slave trader Nicholas Owen opined that there was “little to no religion” among the Bulum of Sierra Leone and signaled the Christian roots of his bias with the observation that the Bulum gave “more honour to their idols or devils than they do a devine [sic] being.”6 Such notions of West African heathenism substantiated travelers’ claims of social and sexual immorality. With a not-so-veiled allusion to promiscuity, traveler Joseph Corry exclaimed that marriage ceremonies among indigenous peoples of the Windward Coast were “too offensive for delicacy” and held no “sacred obligation, the bond being broken at the moment of caprice in either party, or predilection in favour of any other object.”7

The distance between Western European and West African sexual gender norms yielded particularly critical commentaries on African women, who bore the brunt of the ignominy for sexual matters. As historian Jennifer L. Morgan has argued, slaveowners used images, reports, and other strategies to proliferate sex-based, racial ideologies intended to naturalize an economic system built upon reproductive labor. Images of long-breasted African women, who could suckle their children over their shoulder reified discourses of excessive fecundity, mechanical childbearing, and sexual promiscuity.8 Although European residents of the continent routinely cohabited and bore children with West African women, the combined forces of the Trans-Atlantic, West African, and Trans-Saharan slave trades created a precarious environment for women, in which discourses regarding their sexuality were created and reinforced. Some women managed to parlay their sexual and marital relationships into social advantage, yet few could escape the long shadow of the slave trade.9 In his account of Sierra Leone, Thomas Masterman Winterbottom recalled instances of European men selling women “with whom they had long cohabited, and by whom they had children” into the slave trade for “some trifling offence, real or pretended.”10 Depictions of African women as sexually unscrupulous, coupled with the perceived enslaveability of African bodies, blurred the boundaries between consensual sexual relationships and racially based master/slave relationships between Europeans and Africans. As the power dynamics between low-status Africans, African elites, and Europeans shifted from one era to the next, the boundary between wife and consort, as well as consort and slave, became even more nebulous. Marching from their homelands to the homes of African masters, plantations and business on the coast, and/or barracoons and off-shore slaving vessels, most captive women already understood the volatility of their slave statuses in gendered terms. In the move from free person to slave, they entered a new discursive world, dictated by global economic forces intent upon signifying their bodies morally and monetarily.

Not surprisingly, such narratives from the continent circulated into the diaspora and shaped how African women appeared in the Western Hemisphere. The sex segregation of female and male captives in slaving vessels, along with the preference for males in the Trans-Atlantic trade, indicated the captors’ tacit acknowledgment of gender distinctions among Africans.11 Yet, the meanings assigned to enslaved African femaleness—created and sustained by the social, economic, and juridical processes of enslaving regions—denied captive women the gendered associations ascribed to European femaleness. Common sailors and officers alike accessed captive women’s bodies for their pleasure on the voyages between ports, some “guilty of such brutal excesses, as disgrace human nature.”12 And, despite the European cultural codes surrounding female nakedness, African women were routinely depicted bare-chested in sale advertisements and stripped naked for examination during sale.13 Such norms further encoded the alleged sexual depravity of African women into the cultural psyche of slave nations through woman-gendered representations of crude, “primitive” African sexuality.

Religious, sexual, and economic discourses, born in diasporic interactions between Africa and Europe, converged in the representation of bondswomen in the Americas and functioned as gateways to debates regarding slavery as a Christianizing “benevolent institution” in the U.S. South. Pro-slavery apologists pointed to stereotypical images of African sexuality to substantiate their claims of slavery’s positive effects upon Black morality and dismissed accusations of rape with characterizations of enslaved women as favorably disposed towards White men’s advances. The hegemonic forces of the slave states encoded the myth of enslaved Black women’s willingness into law with the decree that enslaved children followed the “condition” of the mother—a dictate that absolved White men of social and legal responsibility for their liaisons with Black women, and rendered recourse for sexual encounters a legal impossibility for enslaved women.14 Although abolitionists regularly pointed to the embodied evidence of interracial sexual encounters as proof of slavery’s immorality, the law’s denial of sexual protection to enslaved women widened the chasm between Black and White women and reproduced social myths surrounding enslaved women’s sexuality. Following a number of encounters with Georgians and South Carolinians, traveller George Lewis affirmed matter-of-factly that “virtue in a coloured girl is rare,” and voiced southerners’ lament that “they cannot make coloured women comprehend the sin of infidelity to their husbands.”15

Notions of enslaved women as promiscuous and lacking the virtue of southern White women neatly sidestepped questions of White desire—particularly the desires of the so-called “patriarchs” of the southern family—in public-facing, proslavery literature. And although many, if not most, southerners maintained the fiction of Black women’s libidinousness for the preservation of their carefully cultivated, moral self-understandings, the private musings of mistresses and other White female southerners hinted at a more complicated narrative of social, economic, and sexual entanglements. Penning a hypothetical response to northern women for their support of Union soldiers, Georgia mistress Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas declared that “Southern women will be avenged,” for northern men already prepared for their wives the “bitter cup of humiliation,” exemplified by General Hugh Hudson’s Kilpatrick’s rumored cohabitation with his “mulatto” mistress during his campaign.16 Thomas’s proclamation not only acknowledged the falsehood of one-sided narratives of interracial desire, but also implied her perception of Black women as sexual rivals. In her journal, she conceded that the subject of White men’s sexual encounters with enslaved women was “thought best for women to ignore,” but remonstrated that when White women “see so many cases of mulattoes commanding higher prices, advertised as ‘Fancy girls,’ oh is it not enough to make us shudder for the standard of morality in our Southern homes?”17 The trade in beautiful, enslaved women to serve as sexual consorts, called the “fancy trade,” was the most expensive incarnation of human trafficking and one of the most damning contradictions of southerners’ public claims of slavery’s positive moral effects.18

Other southern women shared Thomas’s ire, yet few expressed their thoughts outside of private spaces and the pages of their personal journals. In their public conversations and performances, southern mistresses continued to reify the sexual myths that obfuscated White power and located interracial sex in private, interpersonal interactions, as opposed to the larger discursive structures sustaining the social, economic, and reproductive economies of a global enterprise. The reality of enslaved women’s sexual vulnerability within these transnational power structures did little to attenuate the vitriol of their free, White counterparts, who regularly identified bondswomen as the source of the southern family’s moral decline.

It was out of and in response to this milieu of discourses that enslaved women forged their sexual ethics. Their responses to the exigencies of their positionality ranged from resignation to indignation to compromise, and marshaled repertoires that connected them to the cultures and cosmologies of their West African foremothers. In the tradition of Sande, Bundu, and other continental African, all-female initiatory societies, enslaved women carved out homosocial spaces for the transmission of female-specific ethical systems aimed at sexual power and protection.19 To be sure, the geographical limitations and bodily restrictions that characterized enslavement rendered it highly doubtful that bondswomen practiced the stringent rituals characteristic of their foremothers’ initiation cycles. Nevertheless, locating women’s fellowships in slavery within the expanded meaning-making structures of Sande offers insight into the ways women created indigenous moral knowledges in response to slavery’s rigors. Given their familiarity with the sex-segregated spaces and knowledge systems of their homelands, captive women undoubtedly used quiltings, church services, births, and other formal and informal homosocial gatherings for the intergenerational transfer of vocalized and modeled knowledge regarding enslaved womanhood.20 Using this expanded interpretive framework, Robert Small’s 1863 comment that “Most all the girls join[ed] the Church” between the ages of fifteen and sixteen becomes more than just a hyperbolic pronouncement concerning the gendered nature of Christian conversion.21 Rather, Small’s observation that upon joining the church a girl became “respectable” also gestures towards the ways bondswomen used available structures, such as Christian churches, to facilitate rites and inculcate ethics aimed at respectability, initiation, and protection.22

Indeed, enslaved women’s religious professions and performances, particularly their Christian practices, must be read in light of the sexual discourses of southern enslavement and the women’s West African cosmological heritage. Amid the Christianity-laden discourses concerning slavery, Christian vocabularies offered a modicum of power and protection for a minority of bondswomen. Within a number of the West African cultures from whence enslaved Africans and African-Americans in the U.S. South originated, power was the object and sustaining force of religiosity. Among the Mende of Sierra Leone, halei constituted humans’ actualization of Ngewo’s, or the Creator’s, power. As such, halei infused human objects, spaces, and medicines with divine power, and granted humans degrees of access to and control over the spirits that shaped the seen and unseen realms.23 An ocean away from ancestral spirits, enmeshed in Western European hegemony, captive Mende women and their descendants likely interpreted Christian practices and the spirits of the Christian pantheon as sources of spiritual power.

Pragmatically, Christian piety also translated into social power for some women. As historian Brenda Stevenson has argued, the assumption of the identity of “religious woman” granted bondswomen access to a potent trope of scripted womanhood that challenged racist, woman-gendered sexual discourses and allowed women to assume socially influential, transgressive identities within otherwise disempowering contexts.24 When Aunt Dinah, a venerable spiritual elder on one Virginia plantation, observed the overseer’s sadistic practice of flogging bondswomen with their bottoms exposed and a number of other coerced intimacies, she defied the culture of silence surrounding interracial sexual violence and reported the abuses to her mistress.25 The mistress promptly alerted her husband to the improprieties, and her husband—the master and ultimate authority of the plantation— in turn, checked the abuses of the overseer. Without doubt, Dinah’s status as a respected, “religious” woman of advanced age afforded her the social and spiritual authority to expose the overseer’s sexual misconduct and protect her vulnerable, less powerful sisters from violation. Though it is unlikely that Dinah’s exposure eradicated coerced interracial encounters between powerful White men and the bondswomen in her community, it is clear that her Christian piety afforded her a moral influence that extended beyond the enslaved alone. The potential for transgressive power and possibility of a more intelligible, and therefore defensible, morality situated Christian conversion as a viable, albeit not remarkably effective, means to sexual protection for bondswomen. Still, contextualizing conversion within the coercive sexual cultures of female enslavement and ancestral cosmologies of power broadens the avenues of investigation for the gendered dimensions of conversion.

Christian spaces and vocabularies were not the sole source of or means to sexual power and protection for bondswomen, however. Of the homosocial spaces in which women developed and exchanged indigenous knowledge, none afforded more power than the birthing room. Indeed, woman-gendered, communal spaces were generally supervised, organized, and led by female elders, who mirrored the majo—the headwoman of the Sande lodge—not only in their spiritual and social authority, but their medicinal knowledge as well.26 Like the majo, the most senior woman within female communities was generally a midwife. Significant not only for her role in facilitating the (re)production of the South’s most valuable resources, but also for the myriad of female-specific knowledges that accompanied her craft, the midwife usually enjoyed increased mobility and an exalted status within White and enslaved communities. Well into Emancipation, southern women of all shades entrusted their medical care to Black midwives.27 Consequently, midwives often operated with limited intervention from the ever-watchful enforcers of White, slaveholding power. It was this rare, relative impunity and seldom challenged authority within the physical and social spaces of female reproduction that situated midwives, or “grannies” as they were referred to colloquially, as founts of woman-gendered knowledge and birthing spaces as important sites for the transmission and enforcement of indigenous ethical rubrics. In the birthing room, apart from the slaveholder’s constant gaze, midwives like Nancy Boudry taught her patients the efficacy of “black pepper tea” to ease the pain of childbirth, the relationship between reproductive cycles and moon phases, and other axioms that wed the woman-gendered concerns of enslaved females to the gendered knowledge of their foremothers.28

Perhaps most significantly, birthing rooms offered space for midwives to aid and instruct their fellow bondswomen in the more complex negotiations of sexual ethics aimed at the reclamation of power. The termination of life and/or thwarting of the reproductive cycle was an ethical choice, born of slavery’s psychological, emotional, and physical rigors, as well as the co-optation of enslaved women’s reproductive rights for the perpetuation of a global social and economic system. Due to women’s sole responsibility for the rearing of children within the gendered structures of enslavement, children anchored women to slavery and shaped their theological and ethical orientations in ways that deviated from enslaved men and free women. Unlike their male counterparts, enslaved women carried, birthed, and often reared alone the embodied consequences of their reproductive choices, or lack thereof. Furthermore, contrary to most free White women, bondswomen routinely bore witness to violence against their children. A formerly enslaved man, Elisha Doc Garey recounted the story of his female cousin, who witnessed the murder and unceremonious disposal of her oldest child at the hands of her master and mistress. Though still a child herself, the young girl functioned as nurse to her master’s grandchildren. When she one day missed a step and stumbled with her charge in her arms, her mistress and mistress’s daughter complained to the master, who promptly picked up a board and struck the enslaved child across the head. She was killed instantly. The master then ordered that the child be thrown in the river, as her mother “begged and prayed” for the body.29 Confronted by such scenes and limited recourse, it is no wonder that some women used plants such as cedar berries, camphor, and cotton root to prevent and/or abort pregnancies, while others employed the help of midwives to conceal the termination of live births.30

Abortion and infanticide were choices backed by the medicinal and spiritual authority of the midwife, and protected by the exclusive, physical and social spaces of homosocial knowledge systems. As evidenced by women’s decisions concerning their unborn and newly born children, bondswomen’s definitions of sexual protection extended beyond the parameters of their own bodies to encompass the lives of their potential and sentient children. Consequently, concern for the well-being of their children frequently required women to include various degrees of sexual acquiescence in their repertoires of ethical action. In her autobiographical narrative, Harriet Jacobs recalled the limited range of choices that confronted her in the face of the sexual advances of her much older, married master, and prompted her to enter into a sexual relationship with a younger, kinder White benefactor. With motivations and circumstances that resembled those of her African continental foremothers, Jacobs aspired to bequeath her children the privileges born of magnanimous, White parentage and her own strategic sexual choices. Despite the shame and humiliation that she felt in exposing her decisions to her family, Jacobs admitted that she acted “with deliberate calculation.”31 In a telling statement on ethics and agency, she declared: “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment.”32 Upon becoming pregnant, the teenaged Jacobs confessed that she prayed for her child’s death, yet in the wake of his birth, referred to him as her “new tie to life.”33

Such “tie[s] to life” irrevocably altered the range of choices available to women, as well as the rubrics they applied to define ethical action and moralize affliction. Given enslaved women’s complicated and intimate roles in the social and biological (re)production of the very system that enslaved them, “life”—its significations and parameters—was complicated. Louisiana bondswoman Charlotte Brooks’s rare and provocative first-person account of her mothering experiences in enslavement offers a glimpse into the ways the rigors of femaleness and childbearing shaped how enslaved women moralized and defined “life” and “death.” Born into slavery in Virginia, by the time she reached Louisiana Brooks already had experienced the bitter heartbreak of separation from her family and was sold an additional two times thereafter. She was mother to an infant at the time of her second sale, and recalled the rigors of nursing a young child as a fieldworker. Although nursing, she entered the fields before daybreak and her master prohibited her return to her child until ten o'clock. According to Brooks, she often walked over a mile to reach the infant, whose cries of hunger she could hear well before she arrived at the child’s location. She would often “overstay” her time, whereupon she was forced “to run all the way back to the field.”34 When later asked about the baby, Brooks reported that her “poor child” had died at two years old. She added matter-of-factly that “Old marster’s son” had been the child’s father, but he “never noticed [her] child.”35 Brooks had more children, all of whom died, in her words, “for want of attention.” As a fieldworker, Brooks was not permitted to care for her children until late evening, and after learning to walk, the children had to “paddle for themselves” in accordance with the plantation’s protocol. Brooks ended her account of her children saying: “I was glad the Lord took them, for I knowed they were better off with my blessed Jesus than with me.”36

In light of the varied potential for emotional, familial, social, and physiological “death” in slavery, within the cosmological structures of women’s ethics, “life” acquired meanings that transcended sentience in the sense realm. The notion of life’s capacity to persist and improve outside of the sense world, evident in Brooks’s statement, not only marked some enslaved women’s adoption of elements of Christian theology, vocabulary, and/or narrative to interpret their experiences, but also the persistence of West and West Central African understandings of the fluidity of the visible and invisible, sense and spirit worlds. “Life” included the spirits of the unborn, many of whom never achieved social personhood as a consequence of slavery’s physiological effects, the whims of the spirits, or the protective maneuvers of their mothers.37 For those who were born and initiated into personhood within enslaved communities, “life” was negotiated through posturing, performances, and compromises. Within this cosmology of life and death, enslaved women’s ethical choices concerning sexual power and protection become intelligible.

Enslaved women’s experiences of and choices regarding their sexuality thus not only provide insight into indigenous ethical systems, but the cosmological infrastructure of women’s ethical reasoning as well. For enslaved women, as for their West and West Central African foremothers, power and protection remained paramount to the definition, performance, and adoption of moral values. As evidenced by the inclusion of choices that ranged from Christian conversion, to abortion and infanticide, to sexual acquiescence in their repertoires of ethical action, bondswomen understood ethics as not only situational and fluid, but also gendered.38 Ensnared in a web of social discourses regarding their sexuality, and overburdened by long working hours, harsh conditions, mal- or undernourishment, constant childbearing, and little hope, enslaved women devised responses distinctive to their positionality. Contrary to the universalized ideals espoused within certain Christian theological systems, the “rightness” of enslaved women’s choices were measured by their efficacy in the protection of themselves and their children, as well as the potential for the reclamation of sexual power within the economies of enslavement.

Extending conversations regarding bondswomen’s ethical cultures beyond the borders of the United States South, into the discursive, cultural, and cosmological spaces of the African Atlantic acknowledges the analytical inaccuracies born of the equation of culture with national boundaries, and opens up the possibility for deciphering, heretofore, obfuscated dimensions of women’s interiority. Enslaved women were omnipresent characters in the social, economic, political, and discursive dramas that collectively constructed the South as a distinctive culture region. However, their stories and voices have rarely factored into historical meta-narratives of religiosity in the United States South. When they have appeared, their experiences generally have been subsumed under the gender-amorphous “slave religion” category that acknowledged neither the ways femaleness contoured enslavement differently nor the impact of corporeality upon religiosity. Methodologically, consideration of the U.S. South not as a hermetically sealed geo-culture, but rather as a part of the Atlantic world, expands the historical stage to include actors that have been neglected in the historiography of the southern religiosity. Through an emphasis on the connectivity and movement of cultures between bodies, diasporic methodologies invite consideration of interpersonal relationships, and not merely institutions, as the cornerstones of culture. It is in these relationships—in the intimacies between captive and country born, master and bondswoman, elder and neophyte, mother and child—that we glimpse the interior lives of the silenced, the enslaved, and the female.


1 The owner of the enslaved people was likely John Morel, II, son of John Morel of Christ Church parish who amassed large tracts of land in the Georgia lowcountry through Crown grants. Emma Morel Adler, “A Biographical Sketch of John Morel, (1733-1776),” (paper, Armstrong State College, August 1979), 3–5.

2 Nathan A. Windley, comp., Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790, Volume IV (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1983), 82. In the later advertisement, Morel also adds to this family group another child: Peter, aged thirteen. Ibid, 100.

3 Ibid, 100.

4 Georgia Assembly, Acts Passed by the General Assembly of Georgia (J. Johnston: 1908), 74–75. This act specified that enslaved children followed the “condition of the mother.” However, no parental rights accrued from the legal recognition of enslaved motherhood.

5 The distinctiveness of women’s experiences of enslavement in the United States South has been well-documented by historians. See for instance: Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, revised edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999) and Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, Revised (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 9–41.

6 Nicholas Owen, Journal of a Slave Dealer: A View of Some Remarkable Axecedents in the Life of Nics. Owen on the Coast of Africa and America from the Year 1746 to the Year 1757, ed. Evenline Martin (London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD., 1930), 49.

7 Joseph Corry, Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa: The Religion, Character, Customs, &c. Of the Natives With a System Upon Which They May be Civilized and a Knowledge Attained of the Interior of the Extraordinary Quarter of the Globe and upon the Natural and Commercial Resources of the Country Made in the Years 1805 and 1806 (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1807), 11.

8 Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 2, 36, 40.

9 Carol MacCormack cites British slaver and hymnist John Newton’s account of enslavement at the hands of the powerful Sherbro wife of a British trader. Carol P. MacCormack, “Slaves, Slave Owners, and Slave Dealers: Sherbro Coast and Hinterland,” in Women and Slavery in Africa, ed. Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 284.

10 Thomas Masterman Winterbottom, An account of the native Africans in the neighbourhood of Sierra Leone; to which is added, an account of the present state of medicine among them, Vol. 1 (C. Whittingham: London, 1803), 126.

11 Alexander Falconbridge, An account of the slave trade on the coast of Africa, 2nd ed., (J. Phillips: London, 1788), 25.

12 Ibid, 30.

13 Regarding the discursive exposure of enslaved women, see for instance, the advertisement for the sale of Windward Coast captives: “[To be sold, on board the ship Bance Island,…negroes just arrived from the Windward and Rice Coast],” Photographic Print, Library of Congress, <>. Although this description occurs later in the history of U.S. enslavement, during the height of the interstate slave trade, abolitionist James Redpath offers a description of the indecent examination of an enslaved woman. James Redpath, The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States, by James Redpath, ed. John R. McKivigan (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996 [1859]), 218.

14 Georgia Assembly, Acts Passed by the General Assembly of Georgia (J. Johnston: 1908), 74–75. Other slave states enacted similar laws.

15 George Lewis Schomberg, Impressions of America and American Churches from the Journal of the Rev. G. Lewis One of the Deputation of the Free Church of Scotland to the United States (Edinburgh:1845), 131–132, 917.3L, Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

16 Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889, ed. Virginia Ingraham Burr and Gertrude T. Despeaux. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 252.

17 Ibid, 167.

18 Fancy women often fetched the highest prices in the slave economy, even though, as Edward E. Baptist argues, her value was subject to the market forces of supply and demand. Edward E. Baptist, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas, ed. Walter Johnson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 181–183.

19 “Sande” names the all-female initiatory society indigenous to Sierra Leone, as well as the woman-gendered knowledges transmitted through Sande initiation. Carol P. MacCormack, “Biological Events and Cultural Control,” Signs 3, No. 1 (Autumn 1977): 95. Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 17–18.

20 On some plantations, women gathered during their “leisure” time on Sunday for quiltings. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: Georgia Narratives Part II (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1976), 296.

21 Robert Smalls Interview, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, ed. John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 373–379.

22 In her analysis of “seeking” in enslaved praise houses, Margaret Washington Creel introduces a framework for understanding Christian rites in terms of the all-male Poro and all-female Sande initiatory societies of Sierra Leone. Creel advances the idea of the praise house congregation as a regulatory body, aimed at the maintenance of a communal ethic and led by communal elders. My argument builds upon’s Creel’s and proposes an understanding of structurally African, Christian bodies as gendered communal structures. Margaret Washington Creel, A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs (New York: New York University Press, 1989), 278–287.

23 Anthony J. Gittins, Mende Religion (Nettetal: Steyler Verlag-Wort und Werk, 1987), 104–105.

24 Brenda Stevenson, “Enslaved Women, Religion, and Social Power in the Antebellum South,” The Journal of African-American History 9, no. 4 (Autumn 2005): 347, 353.

25 Benjamin Drew, The Refugee: A North-Side View of Slavery (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1969 [orig. 1856]), 98–99. Although this incident occurs in Virginia, enslaved women in Georgia likely used similar strategies.

26 MacCormack, “Biological Events and Cultural Control,” 96. Boone, Radiance from the Waters, 27. Little and MacCormack identify the chief administrator of Sande initiations as the Majo, or “head woman,” while Boone offers an extensive explanation of the the Sande Waa Jowei title, which in its literal translation means “Sande Initiating Sowei.”

27 Todd L. Savitt, Race and Medicine in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century America (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2007), 76. According to one medical professional, physicians attended fewer than half of all the births in Virginia.

28 Rawick, Georgia Narratives, pt. I, 115–116.

29 Rawick, Georgia Narratives, pt. II, 2.

30 For more on women’s use of abortifacients, see White, Ar’n’t I A Woman?, 84–86. Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 33. Sharla Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 65, 176–177.

31 Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written By Herself, ed. Jennifer Fleischner (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010), 78.

32 Ibid, 79–80.

33 Ibid, 83, 87. Jacobs eventually bore a daughter as well and admits that “Had it not been for these ties to life, [she] should have been glad to be released by death,” even though she was only nineteen years of age. Ibid, 102.

34 Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 [orig. 1890]), 3–4.

35 Ibid, 14.

36 Ibid, 14–15.

37 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Second Edition (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1989), 106. “Social personhood” references some West African cosmological understandings of communal recognition, and not birth, as the main criterion of personhood.

38 The understanding of enslaved peoples’ and Black women’s ethics as “situational” has been well-theorized by slavery historians and womanist religious studies scholars. See for instance, Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 4.