Pioneering research shows how Euro-African exchanges transformed West African gender identities

Lecture will demonstrate dynamic influence across the Atlantic world

Release Date: April 26, 2016 This content is archived.

“The missionary and colonial institutions played the most fundamental role in the decline of female power in the region and the concomitant emergence of men in positions of power.”
Ndubueze Mbah, assistant professor of history
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – West Africa’s engagement with the Atlantic world through slavery, legitimate commerce and colonialism from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century shaped the demography of the African forced diaspora and transformed local gender ideologies, according to Ndubueze Mbah, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences.

These consistent encounters, which stretch across centuries, shifted the realities of a pre-colonial period characterized by female breadwinners and powerful female political institutions to a colonial period of male political domination.

Mbah will discuss these changes in the next Scholars@Hallwalls lecture at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 6, at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo. Presented by the university’s Humanities Institute, all Scholars@Hallwalls events are free and open to the public.

The lecture, “Emergent masculinities: Gendered power and social change in the African Atlantic,” will draw from his forthcoming book.

“Mbah’s book will have a profound impact on the fields of African and Atlantic history,” says Erik Seeman, director of the Humanities Institute. “Whereas most historians of Africa and the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries use only sources generated by European colonial officials, Mbah goes far beyond that. With his knowledge of African languages he is able to supplement traditional sources with participant ethnography.

“The result is the most sophisticated analysis to date of gender in West Africa in the era of the slave trade,” says Seeman.

Mbah’s methodology relies on archeological evidence, linguistic evidence and oral traditions ranging from the narrative to historic war songs.

Among Bight of Biafra Cross River communities in present-day southeastern Nigeria, women’s role as agrarian and merchant breadwinners enabled men to engage in military slave production for American and European markets until the 1850s. Mbah calls this a dual-sex system of social reproduction.

But the social positions of men and women changed by the mid-19th century, fueled by the currents of the Atlantic slave trade, and European imperialism.

While slavery introduced shifts in property ownership that benefited men, putting them in a more powerful economic position than women, European missionaries and colonial officials later strengthened male privilege with Western education (from schools that admitted only males), wage labor and modern forms of wealth.

“The missionary and colonial institutions played the most fundamental role in the decline of female power in the region and the concomitant emergence of men in positions of power,” says Mbah. “But there are counter-narratives on how women in the region resisted this socio-economic disempowerment. They did so by performing hegemonic masculinity as spirit-mediums, slave merchants and female husbands.”

In every society, at every point in time, there are conflicting visions of masculinity and femininity, according to Mbah. These identities often compete, with one or two of them sometimes achieving hegemony over others.

“In conventional literature, hegemonic masculinity is conceptualized as a social vision of how real men should behave,” says Mbah. “In historical practice, what I have found is that ideas of masculinity often involved women as well as men. Masculinity in historical terms is actually quite divorced from biological manhood. Women performed hegemonic masculinity as much as men.”

Pre-colonial African societies are often perceived as communities isolated from global processes, but Mbah’s research demonstrates how these otherwise remote societies were in fact global villages influenced by global forces that brought deep changes.

“These socio-political transformations could not have happened, in the way they happened, and to the degree they happened, without concerted engagements with the Atlantic world,” he says. “Through exchange of commodities and indigenization of European institutions, African individuals who never crossed the Atlantic were nonetheless ideologically and materially Atlanticized.”

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