Our Nig: Or, Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black

Paperback | July 28, 2009

byHarriet E. WilsonIntroduction byP. Gabrielle Foreman, Reginald Pitts

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For the 150th anniversary of its first publication, a new edition of the pioneering African-American classic, reflecting groundbreaking discoveries about its author's life

First published in 1859, Our Nig is an autobiographical narrative that stands as one of the most important accounts of the life of a black woman in the antebellum North. In the story of Frado, a spirited black girl who is abused and overworked as the indentured servant to a New England family, Harriet E. Wilson tells a heartbreaking story about the resilience of the human spirit. This edition incorporates new research showing that Wilson was not only a pioneering African-American literary figure but also an entrepreneur in the black women's hair care market fifty years before Madame C. J. Walker's hair care empire made her the country's first woman millionaire.

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For the 150th anniversary of its first publication, a new edition of the pioneering African-American classic, reflecting groundbreaking discoveries about its author's life First published in 1859, Our Nig is an autobiographical narrative that stands as one of the most important accounts of the life of a black woman in the antebellum No...

Harriet E. Wilson (1825–1900) was born in New Hampshire, where she worked from a young age as a servant to an abusive family. P. Gabrielle Foreman is associate professor of English and American studies at Occidental College and has received many awards and grants.Reginald Pitts is a historical researcher and genealogist with more than ...

other books by Harriet E. Wilson

Our Nig
Our Nig

Kobo ebook|Apr 10 2009

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:176 pages, 7.8 × 5.1 × 0.4 inPublished:July 28, 2009Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143105760

ISBN - 13:9780143105763

Appropriate for ages: 18 - 18

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IntroductionHenry Louis Gates, Jr., and R. J. EllisI 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:OUR NIG;OR,Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,IN A TWO-STORY WHITE HOUSE, NORTH.SHOWING THAT SLAVERY'S SHADOWS FALL EVEN THERE.BY "OUR NIG."The wording "Sketches from the Life . . . by 'Our Nig'_" of course reminds us of the subtitles of other narratives by African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass's 1845 slave narrative, which carries a subtitle informing us it was "Written by Himself," or Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, published just two years after Harriet Wilson's novel appeared. But Our Nig's subtitle also establishes that it is written not by a slave, but by a "Free Black" living in the North. The title page as well as the novel itself undermine all expectations that anything like a conventional slave narrative is on offer. Wilson does not usher in a story about a daring dash to freedom from the South to the North, along a road paved by literacy, as Frederick Douglass famously asserted. Instead Frado remains trapped by the hardships imposed by widespread Northern racism. In the preface the author tells us she is "forced" to write her book as an "experiment which shall aid me in supporting myself and my child" (3). What lies before us indeed turns out to be an experiment; a unified fiction informed by the genres of the sentimental novel, the gothic autobiography, the slave narrative, and realism.Our Nig's subtitle, by announcing that it is written by a "Free Black," in itself at once establishes the book as unusual, for very few texts had been published before this time by black authors who had not formerly been slaves. Appearing in 1859, Our Nig is predated by only a few works of fiction by black writers, including: Frederick Douglass's novella The Heroic Slave (1853); William Wells Brown's novel Clotel (1853); Frank Webb's The Garies and Their Friends (1857), and Martin R. Delany's Blake; or, The Huts of America (the first part serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine in 1859 and the remainder in the Weekly Anglo-African newspaper between 1861 and 1862). Whereas the theme of most of these works of fiction was slavery, Frank Webb depicted the lives of free African Americans in the North, just as Wilson would two years later. (Curiously enough, another black woman writer, Maria F. dos Reis, published a novel entitled Ursula in Brazil, also in 1859.)Our Nig's subtitle further surprises when it notes that, though slavery had been abolished in the North, nevertheless "Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There." Very few writers before Wilson had chosen to focus on the way that slavery could blight the lives of free African Americans in the North. The "shadows" of slavery to which Wilson refers consist, on the one hand, of anti-black racism, of which Wilson's novel is a surprisingly bold and unflinching critique. But the subtitle also refers to the shadows cast on all black people's lives by the Fugitive Slave Act. Passed in 1850 at the behest of Southern slaveholders, the act facilitated the recapture of runaway slaves in the North, although slavery had already been abolished there, state by state. The law controversially compelled Northerners, including abolitionists and free blacks, to stand by impotently as African Americans were seized by slave catchers and returned to their "owners" in the South. The act made it illegal to intervene or offer any assistance to a fugitive. It also provided Northern magistrates with a financial incentive to accept that African Americans brought before them by slave catchers were indeed escaped slaves, thus encouraging the capricious seizure of free African Americans. Such kidnappings were not rare. Slavery's long shadows thus fell on all African Americans in the North, including Frado, Harriet Wilson's protagonist. At one point near her book's end she reports that Frado is "watched by kidnappers" and adds that "traps" were "slyly laid by the vicious to ensnare her" (129). Described in the novel as "beautiful" (17), Frado would have been highly desirable prey for lascivious slave owners, since female mixed-race slaves generally commanded the highest prices in Southern slave auctions.More important than the risk of kidnap under the Fugitive Slave Act, "slavery's shadows" also alludes to the prevalence of racism in the Northern free states, such as New Hampshire. Especially during the three decades leading up to the Civil War, Southerners, forced on the defensive by abolitionists, sought to legitimate slavery's continuation through a racist argument proposing that African Americans' color, cranium shape, facial features, and hair texture proved that they were not fully human, or instead were a different or distinct species from human beings of European descent, represented as God's chosen creation. Proslavery propaganda represented people of African descent as vastly less intelligent than white people, more prone to laziness and violence, and more likely to surrender to base impulses and appetites, especially sexual ones. The seeds of "scientific" racism sown in this way (the science was, of course, pseudo-scientific, based on prejudice and superstition, entirely unfounded in reason or fact, and drawn up to justify a profoundly exploitative economic relationship) ensured that slavery's shadows would indeed fall across the whole of the United States long after its abolition and well into the twentieth century. Even those who opposed slavery were sometimes swayed, shockingly enough, by arguments for the innate inferiority of persons of African descent. (Harriet Beecher Stowe's depiction of Miss Ophelia's reluctance to touch Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin provides one famous example among countless others.)By the time Our Nig was published, just two years before the Civil War began, the abolition movement had been gaining momentum throughout the North for several decades and had spread to popular culture. For example, the Hutchinson Family Singers, a New Hampshire troupe closely connected to Wilson's birthplace, Milford, toured throughout New England winning widespread acclaim for the songs they performed, portraying their state as freedom loving and opposed to slavery. Yet, even as the antislavery cause grew, America's leading white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, was forced to expend time and energy trying to excise individual racism from among his followers. The New Hampshire abolitionist Nathaniel Rogers even came to believe that "laws could never eradicate prejudice and racial domination" and that a more fundamental, more perfect revolution than America's War of Independence was needed. What Rogers had seen in Canaan, New Hampshire, in 1835, where an attempt to desegregate Noyes Academy was greeted with violent resistance by the local community, no doubt informed his opinion about the deep-rooted nature of racial prejudice in American society and what it might take to eradicate it, both on an institutional and a behavioral level.Our Nig therefore has good reason to allude to racism as "slavery's shadows" in the North, but it also establishes the novel's central theme: exposing the many ways in which Frado experiences anti-black racism at the hands of Northern whites and the ways in which race and class were inextricably intertwined in antebellum America, North and South. Our Nig takes up this theme in an unusual way, since its accent falls on abuse by white females (adapting Frederick Douglass's dramatic observation in his 1845 slave narrative that slavery turned many female slave owners into racists and sadists, even those initially reared in the North). Among the Bellmonts, during Frado's period of indenture, two of its females, Mary and Mrs. Bellmont, are depicted as the physically cruel ones. After she leaves them, another Northern white woman, Mrs. Hoggs, ignoring how feeble Frado has become after her years of mistreatment, reports her as a malingerer to the town's authorities. Yet, though some of the other Bellmonts have abolitionist sympathies, they do nothing to put an end to Frado's sufferings, which continue until she leaves their house. However much James Bellmont tells her that his "mother's views were by no means general" and assures her that she is not "friendless, and utterly despised" but instead "might hope for better things in the future" (76), he does nothing to intervene, and soon she is once again being "whipped with a rawhide" (77). James's brother, Jack, provides more sympathy, but no protection either.Indeed, the lack of effective counters to racism in the "free" North is another key theme of the book. In chapter 1, the narrator ruminates ironically on the supposedly "degraded" condition of Mag Smith, Frado's white mother, because of her decision to marry an African American: "You can philosophize, gentle reader, upon the impropriety of such unions, and preach dozens of sermons on the evils of amalgamation. . . . Poor Mag. She had sundered another bond which held her to her fellows. She had descended another step down the ladder of infamy" (13). Mag Smith's decision to marry a black man leads her inexorably toward a state of social death in white society, precisely because of widespread Northern prejudices against what was then, objectionably, called "amalgamation." Nevertheless, Wilson refrains from representing Frado's parents' liaison sentimentally. Instead, she reveals that the motivations for this marriage are, at best, deeply fraught and problematic, especially those of Frado's father, Jim, whose unrelenting desire to have a white lover she represents as perverse. Even if Jim's motivations are dubious, however, by sarcastically introducing the idea that "amalgamation," the nineteenth- century's term of choice for interracial sexual relations between whites and blacks, was "evil," Wilson challenges her readers to push back against a core argument of Southern apologists for slavery.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONForgotten for almost 120 years, rediscovered in the 1980s, and now republished with significant new information about the life of its author, Our Nig is a hallmark of American literature. The first novel written by an African American woman, Harriet "Hattie" Wilson, this is the poignant story of Frado, a precocious and determined child who is given away to servitude at the age of six. After the death of her black father, she is abandoned by her destitute white mother to the Bellmont family of Singleton, New Hampshire. Indentured to them in hapless servitude, Frado endures a childhood of deprivation and isolation as an African American child—not quite a slave but certainly not free—in an antebellum New England town.Much of the book has now been verified as paralleling the real life biography of Harriet Wilson. The book cunningly blends the genres of autobiography, fiction, and the nineteenth-century slave narrative, yet Our Nig is also a classic American tale of an individual struggling against all odds. Without the supportive bonds of family or capital, young Frado bravely seeks to improve her situation, in spite of her mistress's wishes, through a spirited defense of her own rights and a program of dedicated self-improvement.Harriet Wilson's portrait of the Bellmonts, the family to which Frado is indentured, describes personalities ranging from the capricious and cruel to the seemingly gentle and kind. Though Wilson indicts the actions of much of the family, whose sense of ownership she captures in the title, she also portrays complex characters who offer Frado sympathy and friendship, if not much else. But Frado's well being is subject to the capriciousness of Mrs. Bellmont, who is prone to violent physical and verbal outbursts and who rules her family through fear. It is the abuse meted upon Frado by this woman and the inaction of the family and larger community that mark the substance of Wilson's then-controversial claim that blacks might be as mistreated in the free North as they were in the slaveholding South.Playing with the metaphor of color, Wilson asks each of us to challenge our assumptions about surfaces; as Frado's father heartbreakingly says when courting her mother, "Which you rather have, a black heart in a white skin, or a white heart in a black one?" Abuse based on race in the North was often overlooked by the very people who spoke out against the treatment of slaves in the South. Our Nig dramatically exposes such hypocrisy among those who claimed moral superiority and reveals the pervasiveness of racism throughout the antebellum United States. Wilson's narrative deliberately complicates the racial landscape of the United States before the Civil War, and forces readers—both then and now—to examine their sometimes hidden prejudice."Enough has been unrolled to demand your sympathy and aid," Wilson writes at the end of her tale, and it is true that Frado inspires both sympathy and anger at the injustice done to her. But this is also a moving coming of age story about the tenacity of one young woman, who seeks to balance realism and hope as she searches for integrity in an impossible situation. Our Nig, as a double story about the fictitious Frado and the very real Harriet Wilson, is a parable of struggle and the strength of the human spirit.ABOUT HARRIET E. WILSONHarriet "Hattie" E. Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825. Her parents were probably Joshua Green, an African American employed at a cooperage, and Mag Smith, a poor white washerwoman. Her father died when she was five or six, and soon thereafter her mother abandoned her to the home of a local family, the Haywards. Wilson worked as an indentured servant for the Haywards until the mid-1840s, at which time she left and sought employment as a servant in other local households. In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, with whom she had a son, George Mason Wilson, in 1852. Thomas Wilson died in 1853, and Harriet was forced to leave her son with foster parents. George died before his eighth birthday, after years in and out of poor houses while Wilson struggled to make a living. In 1859 Wilson published Our Nig, her indictment of indentured servitude and hidden racism in the North. In the following years, she became involved in the Spiritualist movement and became known as a clairvoyant and psychic healer. As "Dr. Hattie E. Wilson, the trance medium," she traveled about the country giving lectures on topics such as the spirit world, labor reform, and race relations. She remarried, to John Gallatin Robinson, in Boston in 1870. Her work with the Spiritualist movement brought her both fame and status, and she was often given the title of Dr. She died in Quincy, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1900.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSMuch of Our Nig has now been proven to be autobiographical. Harriet Wilson herself was indentured to a family like the Bellmonts, and many of the major events in the book can be found in the historical record. Why do you think Wilson fictionalized her story? In what ways does this read like a novel? In what ways does it seem like testimony or autobiography?The title Our Nig is a derisive reference to the way the Bellmonts think of Frado: though she is not officially a slave, she is certainly a kind of property. How do you think the Bellmonts were able to reconcile their power over Frado with their status as citizens of the free North? Is the title also an indictment of the entire country, perhaps asking all of us to take responsibility for racism?Try to describe Frado's personality: what words come to mind? Think of the way she overcomes other children's derision at school, the various relationships she has with different members of the Bellmont family, or the paths that she takes as an adult. Was Frado ordinary, extraordinary, or some combination? How else do you think she might have responded to the situation she found herself in?Early in her indenture, Frado is allowed to go to school. What does this mean to her? How does this opportunity affect her later chances in life? Consider the way the Bellmonts' view schooling, and compare it to how Frado feels about it. How does her attitude towards going to school resemble her attitude towards going to church? How do those two institutions affect her teen years and adult life?Imagine yourself in Frado's position, first as a child and then as she grows older: she is abandoned by her family, in servitude to an unkind woman, and desperate for something better. Would you have stayed in the Bellmont's service? What other options were there for Frado, and were any of them more desirable?Dignity is very important to Frado. Think of some examples of when she feels hers is sacrificed, and also when she seems able to salvage it. What strategies does Frado employ to maintain her sense of self worth? What new strategies does she devise over the course of the novel? How does Frado's relationship with the Bellmonts change over time, especially as she reaches her teens?Religion becomes a major point of conflict between Frado and Mrs. Bellmont. What does Frado gain through her exposure to the church and to religion? Why do you think this upsets Mrs. Bellmont? Consider some of the questions that Frado has about religion and its capacity to relieve her suffering. How does she resolve the contradictions she finds in the moral universe she lives in? Or does she?List some of the people who act as Frado's friends over the course of the novel. What characteristics do they have in common? How is worthiness measured in this narrative? Describe some of the ways that characters redeem themselves or demonstrate goodness to Frado. What does she give in return?Harriet Wilson writes that "Want is a more powerful philosopher and preacher" than propriety. She is referring to her mother's decision to marry an African American man, but are there other points in the story when want dictates people's decisions? Are there moments when propriety—religious or moral—triumphs over simple need?Slavery is the undercurrent running throughout the book. Harriet Wilson's intent seems to be to stake her claim against the idea that abuses against African Americans were confined to the South, stating on her title page that this book set in the North will show that "slavery's shadows fall even there." Does the maltreatment Frado suffers surprise you? Does it change your preconceived notions about how Africans were treated in the northern and southern United States in the nineteenth century? Try to find similarities and differences in Frado's experience and the experience of slavery.Is this a story of triumph? Of revenge? Is it a political statement? Consider what some of Harriet Wilson's motivations might have been for writing this book. How do the testimonies given at the end affect the reading of the book? How does Our Nig resemble—or differ from—other great works of African American literature that you have read?The book ends with Frado stating that she will "never cease to track" the lives of the Bellmonts. What does she mean by this? Do you think this novel furnishes a happy ending? A realistic one? A satisfying one? Think of what you know about Harriet Wilson's own life, as outlined in the introduction, and the forty years she lived following the publication of Our Nig. Does she escape the legacy of her servitude?

Editorial Reviews

" The landmark research and skillful criticism done by Foreman and Pitts should shape discussion of Our Nig for years to come."
-African American Review