The vast majority of what is known about Harriet E. Adams Wilson has been gleaned from her sole published work, Our Nig, an autobiographical novel. The chronology of events therein suggests that Harriet was born in approximately 1827-1828, given that Frado (pseudonym in the novel for Harriet) is described as gaining at age eighteen her freedom from the family to whom she was an indentured servant/slave, and that she then lived another ten or fifteen years before the publication of her story in 1859.
Our Nig shows that Harriet’s first eighteen years were difficult. Born to a white mother and a black father, at age six she was abandoned at the home of the well-to-do Bellmonts (a fictitious name in the novel). Harriet never again saw her parents, who left to escape destitution. At the mercy of strangers, she was assigned an attic cubicle as bedroom and was made into a house servant. Although Harriet was treated well by the male and two female members of the Bellmont family, Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter Mary saw to it that she was overworked (assigned farm chores and dishwashing duties immediately) and received little food and only ten minutes in which to eat while standing. She was also regularly beaten, often with her mouth propped open with a wooden block. Allowed to attend school for three years, she was frequently ridiculed as the only black child (in the nineteenth century United States mulattoes were unquestioningly considered to be “Negroes”).
Still, Harriet often found refuge in the quarters of Mr. Bellmont’s sister, also a member of the household. Jack and James, two of the Bellmont sons, also provided her some protection, James even commanding that Harriet eat at the table rather than standing. Harriet also found solace in religion, to which she was introduced by Mr. Bellmont’s sister, whom Harriet often accompanied to evening church meetings—although she was not allowed to accompany the family to church in the daytime, merely to drive them there and bring them home afterward.
Nonetheless, the beatings by Mrs. Bellmont (the “tyrant” and “plague”) continued. At one point, Harriet dared to respond to a command to work by saying “I am sick,” at which Mrs. Bellmont “suddenly inflicted a blow...
(The entire section is 929 words.)