FACULTY FOCUS: Olatunji Ojo’s study of slavery offers greater understanding of African culture

Note: Faculty Focus is a monthly series that highlights faculty whose compelling passions, innovative ideas and various areas of expertise help weave together the fabric of Brock University’s vibrant community. The full series is available on The Brock News. 

Brock University History Professor Olatunji Ojo researches topics most people feel uncomfortable discussing.  

These subjects sometimes instil fear, spark curiosity or cause conflict — but exploring them can lead to a greater understanding of past and current cultures as well as social and economic change. 

Ojo’s research focus is slavery, specifically in southwestern Nigeria in the 19th century. He has written about human sacrifice, kidnapping to force payment of debt, internal slavery in Africa, revisions of received wisdom on the evolution of African ethnicities, and the formation of African ethnic and national groupings.  

“I have a desire to explore things that people sort of shy away from,” says Ojo, who is also Chair of the History Department. “The fact that it’s uncomfortable encourages me to want to explore it.” 

Ojo’s interest in researching slavery stems from his own family history. Growing up in a village in Nigeria, he would listen to stories his father would tell of Ojo’s great grandparents, all who were enslaved Africans.  

His father spoke of Ojo’s maternal great grandfather, who had escaped bondage in the 1890s and joined a British constabulary. His great grandfather revealed information about his former master and led a small militia to free the remaining enslaved people.  

“He did that because he had a crush on a woman who was also enslaved,” says Ojo. “That woman became his wife — my great grandmother.” 

Ojo’s personal connection to slavery was the jumping off point for his research. Beyond studying his community’s history with slavery and his family’s personal experiences, he wanted to learn more about the African side of slavery and how it has affected current society.  

“It shouldn’t just be what the Americans did or did not do, or what the Europeans did or did not do,” he says, “But rather, what is the institution of slavery, how did it operate in Africa in my area, and what extent did it shape some of the things that happened in the recent past and what’s going on right now?” 

For many, slavery is a dismal subject; however, Ojo has learned it also has a complex history.  

Ojo says enslaved people have found various ways to survive the system and use their power to overcome adversity, whether by physical force, wit or using race or gender to their advantage.  

For example, an enslaved woman could survive slavery through marriage.  

“Even though she might have been forced to marry the slaver, as soon she becomes his wife, there are ways to get him to do some of her biddings,” he says.  

She might abort a pregnancy as part of her resistance or refuse to fulfil her important duties, thereby threatening her master’s status and gaining herself leverage. 

An enslaved soldier might refuse to capture more people to enslave. 

“By refusing to fight, he’s consciously limiting the power of the master,” says Ojo.  

“It’s through some of these tactics that make it easy to see the complexity of slavery, but also ways in which people in one African village actually did have some agency in shaping their own lives,” he says.  

In North America, the African side of slavery is rarely taught, and more generally, African history is not well known, Ojo says. Most information about Africa, he adds, is learned through media and movies, so he makes it a point to spend at least one week in every course he teaches to discuss African history with his students. 

One exercise he assigns is comparing African news described by North American media outlets to African accounts of the same story.  

“I ask, how do you explain the difference in the presentation of the same story by two different writers,” he says. “As historians, I want students to look at issues very objectively. Every time they watch a movie or read an essay, I want them to think about the message the producer or writer is trying to convey.” 

In Ojo’s own writings, he incorporates African traditions, such as proverbs, songs and dance rituals, to illustrate some of the ways in which Africa carries out its history. 

This offers crucial insight into African cultural and social systems, especially in societies where their practices directly impact their historical construction,” he says. 

Lately, Ojo has been researching climate change and is interested in looking at it from an African angle.  

He expects he might explore how environmental conditions in Africa over the past several centuries have led to negative societal effects, such as conflict and violence.  

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