Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Our Nig is the recently recovered first novel written by an African American woman. It is also the first book to give an African American’s view of the racial abuse and exploitation that defined the quality of life many “free” blacks experienced in the North.

On August 18, 1859, Mrs. Harriet E. Wilson went to the clerk’s office of the District Court of Massachusetts and entered the copyright of her novel, Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadow Falls Even There. At her own expense, one hundred fifty copies of the novel were made available for sale on September 5, 1859. This simple record marks the only notice her book received.

The public’s apparent lack of interest in Wilson’s book during the nineteenth century is still puzzling to current scholars, who continue to speculate about the slight this novel received during a time when evidence of black scholarship (especially writings) was enthusiastically noted as fuel for antislavery arguments. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a literary theorist with a particular interest in the works of African American writers—and the person who actually recovered Our Nig from its literary graveyard in 1982, confirms that period historians, bibliophiles, and biographers alike neglected mentioning Wilson’s literary effort. Gates could find only five scant references to the novel in the 124 years of criticism following its publication.

Confirming that her work was autobiographical, Wilson maintained that she had edited her story to minimize negative depictions of the condition of blacks living in the North so that the antislavery cause would not be threatened. In the book’s preface,...

(The entire section is 722 words.)