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Our Nig Summary

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is an autobiographical work by Harriet E. Wilson originally published in 1859. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has argued that this was the first novel to be published by an African American woman, although other scholars argue that it is more an autobiography than novel and that there may have been other works more deserving of the accolade. Regardless of the minutiae of the controversy, it is agreed that this is an important work of early African American literature.

Harriet E. Wilson was the daughter of a white woman, Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith and a black man, Joshua Green. The protagonist of Our Nig, Frado, is of similar mixed race ancestry. She is abandoned by her mother and becomes, at the age of six, an indentured servant to a white family (the Bellmonts) in New Hampshire. The novel begins with an account of Frado's parents and then focuses on her life.

As a child, Frado was allowed to attend school, and she loved reading and learning throughout her life. In the Bellmont family, she is abused by the matriarch Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter Mary, both of whom are cruel and racist. The father, Mr. Bellmont is kindhearted but ineffectual, and the two sons, Jack and James, are kind to her, with Jack giving her a dog, Fido, whom she loves and James serving as her protector when he can. Unfortunately, Jack is busy with his own life and interests, and James moves away when he marries and upon his return to the family, he becomes ill and dies.

Although she considers leaving the family, she stays until the period of her indenture is completed. She is not only literate but a skilled seamstress. Mrs. Moore, a kind Christian woman, teaches Frado how to make hats, enabling her to begin to support herself. Frado becomes charmed by Samuel, a charismatic if unreliable black man and something of a charlatan, marries him, and bears a child. Samuel's unreliability and eventual death lead her into penury again, and she writes this account in the hope that it will enable her to earn enough money to support herself.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Our Nig is the story of an abandoned mulatto girl, Frado, who works from the age of six until she is eighteen as an indentured servant for a white, middle-class family in Boston. Before Frado’s narrative moves forward, Harriet E. Wilson swiftly presents the background story, telling how Frado became an orphan. Next, she gives a full account of the protagonist’s suffering at the hands of two cruel mistresses, and then she rapidly summarizes the sad events following Frado’s arduous servitude: a bad marriage ending with desertion, single parenthood, and extreme poverty.

The reader first meets Frado’s natural mother, the “lonely Mag Smith,” a lower-class white woman who has been seduced and abandoned by an aristocratic white male. As a ruined woman, Mag enters into a relationship with a “kind-hearted African” named Jim, part owner of a coal-delivery business. Out of pity and a belief that marriage to a white woman, even one at the bottom of her world, can be a means for his upward mobility, Jim proposes to Mag; for her own financial security, Mag accepts. After the marriage, Jim becomes a devoted and dutiful husband. When Jim dies a few years later, Mag has two young mulatto daughters; the older one is Frado.

Widow Mag is courted by Jim’s business partner. After a period of financial struggle, she is convinced that she needs a man’s help, so she marries her second black suitor. The day comes when Mag and her new husband decide to leave the village to seek a better life. Since neither of them wishes to be saddled with two little girls, they slyly leave six-year-old, high-spirited Frado with a white, middle-class family, the Bellmonts. Thus begins Frado’s life of misery and pain.

Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter Mary become Frado’s chief tormentors. Day and night, they make the young girl’s life miserable with their constant demands, beatings, and psychological assaults. To make...

(The entire section is 1,472 words.)