Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457
Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was written by Harriet E. Wilson in 1859, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. As is mentioned towards the end of the book, it was written primarily as a way to make money when the author was destitute and trying to support a child. It is, as far as contemporary scholars know, her only published book. After its publication, she supported herself as a spiritualist, lecturing and giving readings, remarried, and also worked as a housekeeper but did not return to writing. The book itself fell into obscurity after its initial publication.
When Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rediscovered the work and wrote about it in 1981, he claimed that it should be considered the first novel by an African American woman. Other scholars dispute this for two reasons. The work itself is autobiographical, though names are changed and some elements may be fictionalized, and thus it might not be best described as a novel (although scholars again disagree on this point, as other similarly autobiographical works which follow the literary conventions of fiction are considered novels.) Also, an increasing number of early works by African Americans are being recovered from the archives. Nonetheless, it is by all standards an important work for its portrayal of the situation of African Americans in the North at this period.
The familiar slave narratives tend to portray the horrors of slavery in the South and often, especially when read in concert with works of the Abolitionists, portray the North in a positive light, as a place to which slaves would escape to freedom and where African Americans had greater opportunities. Our Nig eloquently shows that life as an indentured servant in the North was almost as bad as slavery and that New England was very much as racist as the South.
Another important element of Wilson's story is her love for learning and reading. It opened up a world of joy, hope, and imagination to her and served to sustain her even in her most difficult periods. There is a certain ambivalence about religion in the work, with some examples of Christian benevolence but other cases where Christians use their religion as a cloak for self-satisfaction and racism.
In terms of characters, the major antagonist, Mrs. Bellmont, is a white woman, and her daughter Mary is equally unpleasant and abusive. The three white men of the family are generally more benevolent, but with varying levels of complicity, sometimes attempting to protect Frado but often being either passive or simply disengaged. Despite having a black heroine, black men are not portrayed in a particularly positive light, as the main paternal black figures of the book also fail to protect and sustain Frado.
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