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1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig”

September 5, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

In May 1981, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was browsing the shelves in University Place Bookshop — a New York City store (no longer in operation) that specialized in African and African-American literature — when he came across an 1859 book with the startling and unnerving title Our Nig. At first Gates assumed the book was an early example of white-authored racist plantation literature (a genre later made famous by Gone with the Wind) but it turned out to be something quite different.

Our Nig, published 150 years ago today on September 5, 1859, was written by a black woman named Harriet Wilson (1825 – 1900), and the book is now commonly regarded as the first novel by an African-American author to be published in North America.

That somewhat qualified "first" requires some explanation: Prior to this time, most of the books published by black authors were slave narratives, that is, memoirs written by former slaves who had escaped bondage. The most famous of these are the first two of the three autobiographies written by Frederick Douglas and published in the United States in 1845 and 1855. Some volumes of poetry by black authors had also been published prior to 1859. But Our Nig is a novel — albeit an autobiographical novel — and the earliest novels written by African-American authors had been published not in America but in England. (The first of these was by William Wells Brown, an ex-slave whose 1853 novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter is about a daughter of Thomas Jefferson.) It can be said that Harriet Wilson was the first black woman to publish a novel, but only with the qualification "in English." (Also in 1859 the novel Ursula by Maria Firmina dos Reis was published in Brazil.)

Prior to Henry Louis Gates' rediscovery of Our Nig, the novel and its author had fallen through the cracks of history and scholarship, completely unmentioned in major surveys of African-American literature. Copies are rare: Only 42 copies of the original edition are now known to exist. (Boggis, 18-19)

Our Nig is not about slavery in the Deep South but about the plight of a "free black" child in the state of New Hampshire. Yet the title page (in all its 19th-century splendor) provided only the barest of hints of the origin of this book and its author:

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.”

Although the author remained pseudonymous on the title page of the novel, the next page indicated that the book was registered for copyright by "Mrs. H. E. Wilson." and a short Preface on the page that followed is signed "H. E. W." This was enough information to initiate an astonishing level of detective work by Henry Louis Gates and his students at Yale that identifed a black woman named Harriet E. Wilson née Adams as the author of this novel.

By the time Our Nig was republished in facsimile in 1983 (with an introduction and notes by Professor Gates), initial research had concluded that Harriet Wilson was born in Milford, New Hamshire in 1827 or 1828. She had disappeared from public records (and was presumed to have died) around 1860.

In the quarter century since, a considerable amount of additional information has been unearthed, as a comparison of Gates' 1983 edition with the 2009 "150th-Anniversary Edition" by Penguin reveals. Harriet Wilson's death certificate has been found as well as her burial site — she actually died in 1900 at the age of 75 — and many of the real people fictionalized in Our Nig have been identified.

Our Nig is the story of a spirited mixed-race girl named Frado (short for Alfrado), who is abandoned by her mother at the age of six to become a child indentured servant to a white farming family for the next 12 years, where she is victimized by the sadistic "she-devil" head of the household, Mrs. Bellmont.

Beyond that story, Our Nig is a rare glimpse into the lives of black people in antebellum New England. It is as powerful an indictment of racism as the more common slave narratives of this period, and in a sense it is more shocking, because the novel takes place in Milford, New Hampshire (fictionalized as "Singleton"), which was a "hotbed of abolitionism" (Ellis, p. 53) in the years leading up to the Civil War. It is this sub-text — the persistent cruelty of racism far away from the horrors of the South among the supposedly more enlightened North — that gives Our Nig its special compelling power.

Read over that peculiar sub-title again. Several scholars have seen the "Two-Story" part as also indicating two stories in the novel: The personal story of Frado and the sociological story of New England racism. Or perhaps, as R. J. Ellis hypothesizes,

Curiously enough, although the novel is written entirely in third person, the titles of the first three chapters are in first person: "Mag Smith, My Mother" tells of a poor white woman, orphaned, disconnected, lonely, and a black man named Jim who has both pity and love for her. He proposes marriage:

They marry, have two children, and enjoy a few years of happiness. But as the title of the second chapter ("My Father's Death") indicates, Jim dies of consumption, and Mag decides that she cannot afford to continue raising two children.

In the third chapter, "A New Home for Me," Frado is abandoned at the age of six at the Bellmont's home, and two of the Bellmont children discuss what to do with her:

After this point, there are no more first-person chapter titles — and only one other use of first-person at the beginning of the last chapter after Frado has left the Bellmonts. She has become the Bellmont's property, to be over-worked and abused. It becomes very clear to the reader that the crude name of "our nig" is not some bizarre term of affection, but a claim of ownership, and as ugly and hateful then as it would be today. Harriet Wilson's use of this term as the title of her novel — and repeating the same term in quotation marks as the author on the title page — was a brilliant tactic of defiance and re-appropriation of her life story. Gates describes this "audacious act of titling" like this:

The mention of "three years" in the dialogue between Jack and Mary alludes to the age of ten being the normal age for child indentured servants to begin work. But Frado is put to work right away.

In general, the male Bellmonts, and some of the women also, are kind to Frado. The daughter Mary is cruel, but the real villain of the novel is Mrs. Bellmont herself, who often uses a "rawhide" for whipping, and sometimes "propping her mouth open with a piece of wood, shut her up in a dark room, without any supper." (p. 35) Propping a mouth open was a common way to prevent screams from being heard when slaves were whipped in private.

The overwork and beatings take a severe toll on Frado's health.

Other members of the household are more sympathetic to Frado, and try to introduce her to schooling and religious services, despite Mrs. Bellmont's belief that "prayer was for whites, not for blacks." (p. 94) One of the more humorous moments comes when Mrs. Bellmont believes her treatment of Frado has been exposed:

Our Nig disappeared from public consciousness soon after it was published, and it's not hard to see why. The novel is — we might say today — off-message. In progressive circles in New England, the need to abolish slavery was a given, but no abolitionist wanted to hear about racism in the North. Abolitionists had a variety of ideological motives: Some wanted to end slavery solely because it allowed the South unfair economic advantage over the North; others thought slavery was an evil but nonetheless did not wish for any assimilation with people of color. Frado's plight was not relevant to their cause.

Even from the perspective of black abolitionists and their white sympathizers, Our Nig was sending a message that could easily be used against them. Following the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, many novels — both for and against abolition — tried to imitate it. By 1861 (the first year of the Civil War), at least 18 "negative pastiches" of Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published. (Gates, Figures in Black, p. 134) The gist of these novels was that slavery provided paternalistic protection of blacks, whereas blacks were left to fend for themselves in the crueler North. A novel like Our Nig played right into this perverse ideology.

Even the opening chapter of Our Nig was problematic: The novel begins by portraying a happy mixed marriage! Almost no one in either the North or South wanted to read about anything like that!

Harriet Wilson was obviously aware of potential problems, for in the brief Preface to the novel she wrote:

It's hard to imagine what she left out! (One of the essays in Harriet Wilson's New England, Cassandra Jackson's "Beyond the Page: Rape and the Failure of Genre," finds suggestions of sexual abuse in the novel.)

In the penultimate chapter of Our Nig, Frado is counting the days until she turns 18, whe her indenture will be over and she can legally leave the Bellmonts, but she then spends several years recovering from the brutal treatment she had received there. The last chapter of Our Nig seems rushed, and it's assumed that Harriet Wilson was trying to get the book finished quickly. Some passages are tantalizing glimpses of what more the book could have been had she spent more time with it:

The "kidnappers" mentioned here are bounty hunters ready to snatch escaped slaves and bring them back to the South under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). But the chapter begins with a description of the man Frado was to marry:

Harriet Wilson has dropped a couple hints here — the word "professed" in the first sentence, the absence of the scars of slavery on her husband's back or in his spine — and soon he leaves her:

It was probably that sentence more than any other passage that condemned Our Nig to near oblivion. The testimony of escaped slaves to the brutality of slavery was one of the most powerful weapons in the abolitionist's arsenal, and the mere suggestion that some of these men may have been imposters was simply intolerable.

In the last chapter of Our Nig, the author speaks of Frado's son. It is really to "aid me in maintaining myself and child" (as the Preface states) that Harriet Wilson wrote this book, so it's sad to learn that her son George Mason Wilson died of "fever" in Milford early in 1860 at the age of seven.

The last chapter also mentions that "Providence favored her with a friend who, pitying her cheerless lot, kindly provided her with a valuable recipe, from which she might herself manufacture a useful article for her maintenance." It is known that this "recipe" was a lotion for darkening gray hair, and that Harriet Wilson advertised and sold this product beginning in the late 1850s while she was writing her novel. There exist antique glass bottles imprinted with her name, and period advertisements for "Mrs. Wilson's Hair Regenerator" and "Mrs. Wilson's Cocoa-Nut Oil Hair Dressing." In the 1860's Harriet Wilson got involved with the Spiritualist movement in which she was known for decades as a trance speaker and "the colored medium."

By the time Our Nig was published in 1859, Rebecca Hutchinson Hayward — the real-life woman fictionalized as "Mrs. Bellmont" — had been dead for almost nine years. But notice the maiden name of Hutchinson: This is the same Hutchinson family that produced the famous Milford-based Hutchinson Family Singers, who were known to perform concerts with songs supporting the abolition of slavery around the same time that Harriet Wilson was a teenager! It's even possible that Rebecca Hutchinson Hayward considered herself to be an abolitionist, even as she whipped the black child in her household.

In Our Nig, Harriet Wilson reminds us that — despite the unmitigated evil of slavery — the history of the battle against slavery and the attitudes of the North was more complicated than we have cared to believe, and certainly not free of racism. The novel has also reminded historians that a black culture went very deep in antebellum New England life, but that it had been largely erased from memory as the people turned their focus to the plight of slaves in the South.

In an attempt to correct these deficiences, the Harriet Wilson Project was begun. A statue of Harriet Wilson was erected in Milford, New Hampshire in 2006 — unfortunately pretty much guesswork because no known photographs exist of the woman — holding a copy of her amazing revelatory book, and accompanied by the son she couldn't save.

Sources

Boggis, JerriAnne et. al., eds, Harriet Wilson's New England: Race, Writing, and Region (University of New Hampshire Press, 2007).

Ellis, R. J., Harriet Wilson's Our Nig: A Cultural Biography of a "Two-Story" African American Novel (Rodopi Press, 2003).

Gates, Henry Louis, Interview on Wired for Books, May 27, 1983, www.wiredforbooks.org/henrylouisgates.

Gates, Henry Louis, Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (Oxford University Press, 1987).

Wilson, Harriet E., Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, with an introduction and notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Vintage Books, 1983).

Wilson, Harriet E., Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts with an introduction by P.Gabrielle Foreman (Penguin Books, 2009).

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)

1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)


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