Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
Harriet E. Wilson
Considered the first novel in English published by a black American woman, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859) fuses elements from several genres, including the sentimental novel, the slave narrative, the gothic romance, and the satire, to portray the life of a mulatto indentured servant in the antebellum North. The book was relatively unknown until it was discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and published under his editorship in 1983. Since then the novel has forced critics to reevaluate the history of African American literature and to reconceive the development of the fictional narrative form in the United States.
Most of what is known about Harriet E. Wilson's life has been pieced together by literary historians following the rediscovery of Our Nig; accordingly, reconstructions of Wilson's biography are incomplete and contain many contradictions. According to the 1860 Boston federal census, Harriet E. Adams was born in 1807 or 1808 in Fredericksburg, Virginia; however, the 1850 New Hampshire federal census claims she was born in 1827 or 1828 in New Hampshire. The 1850 census lists Adams as a resident of Milford, New Hampshire, in the home of a white family, the Boyleses, who served as the model for the Bellmonts in Our Nig, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Recent work by Barbara A. White, though, shows Adams to have resided with the Boyleses for a brief period following her indentured servitude to a family named Hayward, the more likely model for the Bellmonts.
In the fall of 1851 Adams married Thomas Wilson, whom she may have met through the abolitionist movement. Abandoned by her husband nine months after their marriage, Harriet Wilson delivered a son, George Mason Wilson, in 1852; mother and son lived together in poverty and poor health. In an effort to secure a more comfortable life for her son, Wilson left George with a couple in New Hampshire and traveled to Boston, where she remained from 1856 until 1863. There, hoping to become self sufficient and to regain her son, she registered the copyright for Our Nig in 1859, paying for the novel's publication with money she had earned as a seamstress. The book received little attention, however, and George's death is recorded in an obituary in the Farmer's Cabinet of February 29, 1860. There is no record of Wilson's life after 1863, although some sources list her death date as 1870.
Plot and Major Characters
In Our Nig a white orphan, Mag Smith, is seduced by a wealthy gentleman, who then abandons her. Later Mag bears a child, who dies within weeks of its birth, and she is ostracized from the community. She lives in virtual isolation until an African named Jim befriends her and proposes. Overcoming her initial shock at an interracial marriage, Mag marries Jim and later bears two children. When Jim dies of consumption shortly afterward, Mag, together with Jim's partner Seth Shipley, leaves her six-year-old daughter Frado at the home of a middle-class white family, the Bellmonts, and flees town.
When Frado reaches the age of seven, she becomes the Bellmonts' indentured servant and is beaten regularly by Mrs. Bellmont. For years Frado suffers at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter Mary; her only respite comes from her relationships with the family's male members, particularly the oldest son James, who plans to take Frado to Baltimore as his servant. However, illness forces James to return to his parents' home, where both his and Frado's health decline. As she grows older,. Frado prevents further beatings from Mrs. Bellmont by threatening not to work. Feeling "the stirring of free and independent thoughts," Frado turns to books for comfort and, when she is eighteen, is freed.
Having very little with which to support herself, Frado is employed in a number of different professions, but her failing health forces her to accept public charity intermittently. However, she gradually perfects her needlework skills and sews straw hats with a white woman, who teaches Frado more about sewing and shares her library with her. This brief period of Frado's life is interrupted when a black man named Samuel comes to town on the fugitive slave lecture circuit. Frado and Samuel marry, but Samuel often leaves his wife to lecture, and eventually runs away to sea. When Frado bears their son, Samuel returns for a short time, only to abandon them again and die of fever in New Orleans. The novel closes with an abbreviated account of Frado's adventures fleeing slave-catchers and "kidnappers" and being abused by professed abolitionists who "didn't want slaves at the South, nor niggers in their houses, North." Appended to the text is Harriet Wilson's direct appeal to her audience, imploring them to purchase her book and provide her with the means to retrieve her son George.
In his introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel, Gates claims that Our Nig is a major example of generic fusion in which a woman writer appropriated black male (the slave narrative) and white female (the sentimental novel) forms and revised these into a synthesis at once peculiarly black and female." In many ways Frado does typify the sentimental heroine—parentless, poor, friendless and abused, relying on her own strength of character—but she also diverges from that tradition in her rejection of religion and her inability to establish a stable domestic life. Julia Stern (1995) contends that such differences mark Wilson's synthesis of sentimental and gothic traditions, particularly in the portrayal of Frado's suffering. And, while the novel itself is not literally a slave narrative, some critics have conjectured that the slave-narrative conventions used in Our Nig were intended to demonstrate the parallels between the treatments of blacks in the North and the South, including the similar economic motivations that structure relations within both systems.
Our Nig was largely forgotten soon after its publication in 1859, possibly due to its criticism of abolitionists and the controversial portrayal of an interracial marriage. Although the novel was mentioned in Herbert Ross Brown's The Sentimental Novel in America (1940) and Joseph Kinney's "The Theme of Miscegenation in the American Novel to World War II" (1972), Our Nig was virtually unknown among literary scholars until 1983, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reintroduced it to the public. Subsequently many critics have addressed Wilson's manipulation of genres and her representation of African Americans and of Northern abolitionists, and have compared the novel with Harriet A. Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy, and William Wells Brown's Clotel. While, in the words of reviewer Francis Browne (1987), Our Nig "hardly ranks with the masterpieces of the genre," its historical importance as a "forerunner of the Afro-American literary tradition" is unmatched nonetheless.
SOURCE: "Identifying Satire: Our Nig," Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 455-65.
[In the following essay, Breau contends that Our Nig is meant to satirize the slavery and indentured servitude that were allowed to exist in the antebellum North.]
In his introduction to Harriet Wilson's novel, Our Nig, Henry Louis Gates argues that the book is both a sentimental novel and an autobiography.1 Establishing the autobiographical nature of the text is his first concern; he begins his essay by referring to the historical data—publishing records, census information, and the death certificate of Wilson's son—that helped him establish Wilson's historical identity and authorship. He supports his argument by comparing the plot details of Our Nig with the information contained in the three appendices that follow the text.
A reader guided by this interpretation of Our Nig reads it as a serious text, written by one who "preferred the pious, direct appeal to the subtle or ambiguous."2 The image of Harriet Wilson as a desperate mother "forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life" hovers over Our Nig as we read, underscoring the similarities between the author's claims in the preface and the suffering of her heroine, Frado.3 Gates claims that Wilson would...
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SOURCE: "Speaking the Body's Pain: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig," African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 391-404.
[In the following essay, Davis reads Our Nig as a challenge to the sexualization of the black body, contending that the novel humanizes blacks by testifying to their capacity for pain.]
That care has iron crowns for many brows;
That Calvaries are everywhere, whereon
Virtue is crucified, and nails and spears
Draw guiltless blood; that sorrow sits and drinks
At sweetest hearts, till all their life is dry;
That gentle spirits on the rack of pain
Grow faint or fierce, and pray and curse by turns;
That hell's temptations, clad in heavenly guise
And armed with might, lie evermore in wait
Along life's path, giving assault to all."
—Holland (Epigraph to Our Nig)
With these images of blood, sorrow, suffering, and crucifixion, Harriet Wilson introduces and frames Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Wilson's choice of this particular epigraph foregrounds a central preoccupation of Our Nig: pain. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., concludes in his introduction to the novel, " … Mrs. Wilson was able to gain control over her materials more readily than her fellow black...
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In light of these other nineteenth-century black women's attempts to either defuse or deny the black woman's sexualized body, Our Nig's detailed descriptions of the physical body appear all the more striking. What we are forced to witness throughout Wilson's tale (even more, perhaps, than we might wish) is a body whose primary and delineating experience is not sexuality, but pain. Frado's dominant bodily experience is of pain; the dominant motif in Our Nig not rape but torture. Pain defines both voice and body, the speaker and the spoken.
When we first begin reading Our Nig, it is difficult to envision how pain will ever figure as anything but a brutally silencing force. From the moment Frado enters the Bellmont's "Two-Story White House, North," we are confronted with scene after scene depicting her brutal torture at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont. As Wilson informs us,
… Mrs. Bellmont felt that [Frado's] time and person belonged solely to her.… What an opportunity to indulge her vixen nature! No matter what occurred to ruffle her, or from what source provocation came, real or fancied, a few blows on Nig seemed to relieve her of a portion of her ill-will. (41)
Frado is repeatedly beaten (34-35, 110), kicked (43-44), whipped with the ubiquitous rawhide (30, 11, 101), forced to go shoeless even after the frost has set in (66), and made to eat and work standing, even...
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SOURCE: "Economies of Identity: Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig" PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 424-38.
[In this essay, Ernest explores the paradox of Wilson's attempt to seek patronage from her readers: To be successful, such an effort would depend on the good will of Northern white readers, yet her story exposes Northern racism and criticizes abolitionists, thereby alienating the very audience she needed to cultivate.]
Over one hundred years after Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) appeared and disappeared, the book can be bought and read again.1 Purchasers of the 1983 reprinting fulfill, belatedly, the terms of the work's existence. For inextricably bound to Wilson's commentary on gender, class, and race in the nineteenth-century northern states is her insistence on the book's status as a product for consumption in the marketplace. As Allida testifies in the appendix, Wilson, having met with some success in selling a formula "for restoring gray hair to its former color," was forced by failing health to "resort to another method of procuring her bread—that of writing an Autobiography" (137). Wilson herself, in the preface, calls the book an "experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life" (3).2
An appeal for patronage was characteristic of many African...
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SOURCE: "The Disappearing 'I' in Our Nig," Legacy, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996, pp. 38-53.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses the linguistic methods Wilson uses in Our Nig in order to create an authoritative voice against her dis empowerment by race, class, and gender discrimination.]
In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman pledges himself to speak for the many voices that cannot be heard without him:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs.
Whitman acknowledges a reality of nineteenth-century United States society and letters: the difficulty for the disenfranchised—those who do not have access to power within the established structures of society—to be heard.1 Issues of authority are particularly problematic in a first-person text. Because of the general perception that "the first-person narrator is by definition an 'unreliable narrator' " the disenfranchised speaker can almost never be heard without a mediating voice, like Whitman's, that is explicitly empowered (Stanzel 89).2 In Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), presently believed to be the first novel published by an African-American woman, the difficulties of...
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SOURCE: '"To Weave It into the Literature of the Country': Epic and the Fictions of African American Women," in Poetics of the Americas: Race, Founding, and Textuality, edited by Bainard Cowan and Jefferson Humphries, Louisiana State University Press, 1997, pp. 31-45.
[In the following essay, Fox-Genovese argues that Our Nig reverses the conventions of domestic fiction in an attempt to describe the obstacles facing the integration of the stories of African-American women into the American literary landscape.]
Toward the end of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's novel, Iola Leroy, Dr. Frank Latimer asks Iola Leroy (to whom he will shortly propose marriage), who is seeking to do "something of lasting service" for her people, why she does not write a "good, strong book that would be helpful to them?" More than willing, she reminds him that the writing of a successful book requires leisure and money and, even more, "needs patience, perseverance, courage, and the hand of an artist to weave it into the literature of the country."1
By the time that Harper published Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted in 1892, she had been a successful and admired writer for almost forty years, as well as an indefatigable worker for the advancement of her people, but she had never previously published a novel. With empathetic hindsight, it should be possible to understand why she had not....
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SOURCE: "Said But Not Spoken: Elision and the Representation of Rape, Race, and Gender in Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig," in Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jea Campbell Reesman, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 96-116.
[In the following essay, Johnson claims that the narrative structures and lacunae in Our Nig encode the sexual violence committed against the author.]
Many critics and historians have established the idea that rape and its threat, as well as struggles to meet dictates of the code of "true womanhood," placed intertwined burdens on the narrative self-representation of antebellum black women. In Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, white male sexual abuse is a powerful if unspoken threat to the protagonist, Frado, though a threat suggested only indirectly, by means of the author's and the narrator's interventions and narrative elisions. Wilson's representation of Frado's vulnerability to sexual abuse fits into her promise of a narrative that discloses southern slavery's "appurtenances North" but one that does not "divulge every transaction" constituting the life of the "Free Black" subject.1 Nevertheless, to date commentators have sought primarily to situate Our Nig within the historical and literary discourse of related period texts, such as those by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick...
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Curtis, David Ames, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Establishing the Identity of the Author of Our Nig." In Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, edited by Joanne M. Braxton and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin, pp. 48-69. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Compares the fictionalized autobiography of Harriet Wilson with the historical facts of her life.
Davis, Cynthia J. "Harriet E. Wilson (1827?-1863?)." In Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Denise D. Knight, pp. 484-89. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Reconstructs Wilson's life, explores the themes of Our Nig and its critical reception, and gives a short bibliography of secondary sources.
Doriani, Beth Maclay. "Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America: Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women's Autobiographies." American Quarterly 43, No. 2 (June 1991): 199-222.
Identifies the rhetorical strategies used by Wilson and Harriet Jacobs in order to "defy the social constraints on the writers' identities as women and as blacks, as well as the reproduction of those constraints in the genre conventions that the writers manipulate."...
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