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Our Nig Themes

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is a story concerning the life of a black woman in the North in 1859—just before the Civil War. It is an autobiography, written by Harriet Wilson just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. What distinguished this from slave narratives is that Wilson herself was a mixed-race indentured servant rather than a slave. Thus, the work is crucially important in helping us understand how racism functioned and affected people in the North, condemning blacks to some of the same de facto conditions of servitude as southern slaves.

The first important theme of the work is that of self-determination. In some ways, Wilson shows how complicity can contribute to conditions of enslavement. When Frado stands up for herself and refuses to be beaten unjustly, she is treated better. Her original condition as an indentured servant is because her parents placed her into indentured servitude; she was actually born free. Her marriage to Samuel becomes another form of servitude in which she is trapped by her own emotional needs.

Another major theme is that good and bad in the book are not divided up by race, gender, or even family. Instead, there is a sense that characters are self-determining and free to make their own moral choices. For Frado herself, the most "uplifting" influence is education. She craves books and understanding, and they are a constant source of support and joy to her even when she is physically ill. She struggles with religion, as she is concerned that Heaven is only for white people. One constant theme in the book is the tension between an inclusive and welcoming Christian ideal, promoted by sympathetic characters such as James and Mrs. Moore, and the harsher, racialized form promoted by Mrs. B.

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, she wrote, “I have purposely omitted what would most provoke shame in our good anti-slavery friends at home.”

Although Wilson maintained that she had suffered worse horrors than those she recorded in her book, she asserted that her book was not meant to be an attack on northern whites. Hoping that she would not be misunderstood, Wilson rationalized her awful experiences by contending that her mistress “was imbued with southern principles.”

Harriet E. Wilson’s fear of being...

(The entire section is 1,023 words.)