(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 matters worse, Mrs. Bellmont assigns Frado drab and unhealthy sleeping...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jefferson, Margo. “Down and Out in Black Boston.” The Nation 236 (May 28, 1983): 675-677. Focuses on Wilson’s ingenious use of irony and sarcasm as key elements distinguishing her book from other narratives written by antebellum blacks. Explores Wilson’s sophistication in satirizing contemporary white women writers of the period through her careful selection of a title for her book.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Surveys the conditions of blacks in North-ern states after those states abolished slavery and details the prejudices that circumscribed the lives of free blacks living in the North.

Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988. A pioneering study of slave narratives. Provides a helpful context for assessing Our Nig.

Tate, Claudia. “Allegories of Black Female Desire; or Rereading Nineteenth-Century Sentimental Narratives of Black Female Authority.” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Addresses the issue of why traditional African American scholarship has produced negative readings of Our Nig and other books written by nineteenth century black women.

Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Edited, with an introduction, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 2d ed. New York: Random House, 1983. Gates’s fifty-five-page introduction places Our Nig in its historical context. Gates summarizes the interesting and involved research used to authenticate the authorship of the novel, and he analyzes Wilson’s narrative style, demonstrating how the writer used both the conventions of the sentimental novel and innovative devices to write her unique story.