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 which lay the tottering girl prostrate on the floor. Excited by so much indulgence of a dangerous passion, she seemed left to unrestrained malice; and snatching a towel, stuffed the mouth of the sufferer, and beat her cruelly.”
Thus, after James’s death and Jack’s departure, Harriet decided to leave the Bellmonts immediately upon reaching age eighteen, the age at which she concluded her servitude. However, she was repeatedly ill in subsequent years due to the prior abuse, and was further victimized by an alleged former slave who, after marrying her and fathering her child, left her, never to return. Harriet was reduced to the expedient of writing about her ghastly experiences in order to earn money for herself and her child. Her son died soon after the novel was published, and she moved to Boston, where the last Boston Directory listing for her appeared in 1863. Virtually nothing is know n about the remainder of her life.
Although she produced only one literary work, and despite virtually all knowledge of that novel being lost until Henry Louis Gates, Jr., unearthed it in the early 1980’s, Harriet E. Wilson is a very important author for a number of reasons. One is that Our Nig is the first novel by an African American woman, antedating the earliest previously known such work by some thirty-five years. Gates himself has stated that Wilson “invented her own plot structure” and “in this important way . . . inaugurates the Afro-American literary tradition in a manner more fundamental than did . . . the two black Americans who published complete novels before her.” Also, authors such as Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker have testified to the novel’s enormous significance, Walker stating that it presents “heretofore unexamined experience, a whole new layer of time and existence in American life and literature.”
Such uniqueness helps to explain the novel’s quick disappearance in 1859, too. As an indictment of northern slavery, the book was ignored by most abolitionists (despite the abolitionist publisher), and its frank, positive presentation of the interracial marriage of Harriet’s mother and father doubtless also contributed to the quick demise. Likely even greater reason for the novel’s poor distribution (it was only one small printing in 1859) and poor reception is the fact that the it broadly indicts the American capitalistic system, in its delineation of economic power and lack thereof, as the defining cruelty, not just of slavery, but also of class-based life among white Americans. Harriet’s mother is driven to an interracial marriage by the sexual exploitation of an economically privileged white male, and only the black man’s kindness prevents her starvation. Similarly, the callousness of Mrs. Bellmont is explicitly tied to her avariciousness and social condescension, evident in her attempt to force one daughter to marry for money only, as well as her attempt to disrupt Jack’s marriage to a working-class woman.
Such a portrait of economic-based cruelty in America at a depth beyond antislavery polemics, particularly by a mixed-race woman whose acerbic wit powerfully satirizes the status quo, doubtless won the novel few admirers among its primarily middle-class, white, northern readership. Further, its unique combination of autobiographical details and sentimental novelistic conventions probably confused many readers. Since its unearthing in 1983, however, Wilson’s autobiographical novel has been deservedly recognized as a tremendously important literary achievement.