Critical Context

Although the story of Our Nig ended on an optimistic note, Gates uncovered a sad finale to Wilson’s true-life story. He found that the writer was disappointed in the precise ways she had hoped for success. The book did not create a source of income, and her precious son, for whom she undertook the task of writing a book, died of a fever at the age of seven. (Ironically, the recent discovery of an obituary notice for Wilson’s son in a local paper supplied the most cogent evidence of Harriet E. Wilson’s existence as a real person, and also confirmed her social classification as an African American.)

The ironic fate of Wilson and her book is a cruel yet a fitting finale to the saga, for Wilson’s social vision was exceedingly advanced for her time, as was her expanded humanistic vision reflected in Our Nig. Certainly, the author herself recognized that the world probably was not ready for her story. In an unusual foreword to Our Nig, Wilson acknowledged the problem the subject matter of her book could pose for an important segment of her audience that she called “good anti-slavery friends.”

Wilson nevertheless exposed how prejudiced people living in Massachusetts in the 1850’s were abetted in their outrageous behaviors by the passivity of white liberals whose antislavery convictions were directed toward the South. She offered the pitiful story of her harsh life as an indentured servant in the North as proof.