With a New Preface, Introduction, and Notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.New Afterword by Barbara WhiteA fascinating fusion of two literary models of the nineteenth century, the sentimental novel and the slave narrative, Our Nig, apart from its historical significance, is a deeply ironic and highly readable work, tracing the trials and tribulations of Frado, a mulatto girl abandoned by her white mother after the death of the child's black father, who grows up as an indentured servant to a white family in nineteenth-century Massachusetts.From the Trade Paperback edition.
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December 20, 2011
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Excerpt from Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and R. J. Ellis
I can say with much pleasure that when the Regenerator was first applied to my own hair it was very gray, and falling from my head, and my scalp was in a very unhealthy state; but upon a few applications I discovered a decided change, and soon my hair assumed its original color and health of youth.
-Mrs. H. E. Wilson, Nashua, N.H.
Harriet E. Adams Wilson's Our Nig (1859) is the first novel written and published in English by an African American woman writer. The story Wilson tells is profoundly moving and seemingly straightforward. But this straightforwardness is deceptive: the novel, taking as its unusual focus the fate of a Northern mulatta, Alfrado (or Frado) Smith, explores in unique detail the contested position of free blacks in antebellum America, and specifically the plight of female free blacks, at what was a highly problematic time in America's racial history.
Frado is deserted as a young girl by Mag Smith, her white mother, following the death of her African American father, Jim, "a kind- hearted African," and Mag's subsequent marriage to Jim's friend, Seth Shipley. The Shipleys cannot cope financially and decide to move away, resolving to leave Frado behind. They deposit Frado at the home of a white New England farming family, the Bellmonts. There she becomes their farm servant, treated harshly and derogatorily nicknamed "Our Nig." Two members of this family, Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary, sadistically mistreat Frado. The males of the Bellmont household and a maiden aunt, Aunt Abby, voice their support for her and sometimes even attempt to protect her but fail to assist her in any meaningful way, for lack of will and courage.
The novel depicts Frado's progress in learning to defend herself from this harsh treatment by fighting back with words and actions and finding her voice. After years of mistreatment, Frado completes her period of service and is allowed to leave. Wilson sketchily outlines Frado's subsequent fortunes in two closing chapters, in which she meets a young black man, Samuel, quickly marries him, and has a child. He soon deserts her, after confessing to her that he is passing himself off as a fugitive slave in order to profit from the abolitionist lecture circuit. Left behind in New England, Frado does obtain some financial support, including public charity, but always lives in dire poverty. This destitution and her declining health (precipitated by Mrs. Bellmont's sustained physical abuse) eventually force her to leave her child in foster care as she struggles to survive.
Alongside Frado's story, we learn details of the Bellmont family's own problems, generated most often by Mrs. B.'s meanness. But the novel's plot focuses principally on Frado's sufferings and her uncertain progress toward embracing Christianity. Three pseudonymous testimonials at the end of the book emphasize the Christian context of the tale and urge its authenticity, while an author's preface explains that she is publishing her story to rescue herself and her child from destitution. One of the testimonials further reveals that the author and her child have been reduced to drawing upon public relief. Published in 1859, Our Nig offers, through this simple story, a very rare thing indeed: a sustained representation of the life of an antebellum free black female, born and bred in New England and working as a farm servant. As Alice Walker observed in 1983 in a comment published on the dust jacket of the first Random House edition edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the novel is of "enormous significance" because it represents "heretofore unexamined experience." It is one of the very first full-length books written by an African American who was not a slave; it stands as a hallmark of literary history as the first novel published by an African American woman in the United States; and it subtly combines compelling storytelling with unflinching indictments of Northern anti-black racism.
Harriet Wilson seems to have published Our Nig herself (though likely with some assistance from unknown patrons), which makes its composition highly unusual: very few African American writers at this time could have taken such a step, an extraordinary one for an impoverished person of any race. The book's survival was to prove precarious for more than a hundred years, since, after one apparently very limited print run, it remained almost unnoticed until 1983, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., established the identity and race of its author, recovered its history, and published the first new edition since 1859. His research revealed definitively that the book was a novel written by an African American female, thereby attracting for the first time concerted attention to Harriet E. Adams Wilson, her text, its place in literary history, and what it contributes to our understanding of the history of racism in antebellum America.
This definitive new edition, a century and a half after Harriet Wilson published the first edition, carefully lays out the ways in which the author's life helps illuminate the themes and concerns of her novel. In particular, for the first time, we examine in detail Wilson's extensive commitment to and engagement with the profession of spiritualism as she struggled to make a living for herself after she published her novel. We then bring these biographical matters to bear on the composition of Our Nig. By tracing in considerable detail just how difficult it was for her to carve out a place within Boston's spiritualist circles following the Civil War, we have established the extent of Harriet Wilson's astonishing achievements over the course of her unusual life.
Opening one of the few extant copies of the 1859 edition of Our Nig is a profoundly moving experience. The book was well produced, albeit with an unprepossessing board binding. Its spine contains the simplest information: the bald, disconcerting title Our Nig (accompanied by a colophon), but inside the title page adds a long and complex subtitle, followed by the obviously pseudonymous author's name. Nothing published before 1859 by any other black author could possibly prepare the reader for the unusual wording: