Although lost to the reading public for over a century, Harriet Wilson's
autobiography, Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), is of dual
importance within the American literary tradition. Not only does it echo the conventions of
eighteenth and nineteenth-century slave and captivity narratives like those written by Frederick
Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but its sentimentalism typifies the style of much
of nineteenth-century American popular fiction, particularly that written by women like Lydia Maria Child and
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Imbued with these diverse literary influences,
Wilson's story of an
indentured servant named Frado indicts slavery vis-a-vis the cultural
cache that nineteenth-
century sentimental fiction lent to the domestic sphere.
The story unfolds as Frado's "fallen" mother and stepfather abandon the little girl to years
of servitude within the Bellmont homestead, a "two-story White House , North." Under the
abusive command of the "she-devil" matriarch, Mrs. Bellmont, and despite the sympathetic
efforts of Mr. Bellmont, his sons, and invalid sister; Frado's daily reality becomes one of harsh
physical labor, endless menial tasks, and violent exchanges between herself and the stormy Mrs.
Bellmont. Crafting this horrific surrogate mother for her fictional alter-ego Frado, Wilson
reconfigures her audience's expectations of domestic serenity into its shockingly-realized
antithesis. Rewritten in this way, the mythic trappings of sentimental fiction lend themselves
well to exposing the realities of slavery in pre-civil war New England "Showing that Slavery's
Shadows Fall Even here."
Ironically, Wilson's own real-life maternal responsibilities and economic necessity are cited as
crucial influences behind the creation of Our Nig, a novel now recognized as the first
published in America by a black authoress. As she suggests in the Preface (and as the letters in
the Appendix similarly attest), when Wilson took her manuscript to Boston publisher George. C.
Rand and Avery in 1859, it was with the hope that any money earned from its sales would assist
her in supporting her young son:
"Deserted by kindred, disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall
aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life."
As she remained an invalid even after her own indenture ended, Wilson's poor health limited the
means by which she could support herself and her child. Perhaps she thought writing would be a
minimally taxing and potentially profitable activity to engage in. Sadly, Wilson's endeavors, and
the text's self-conscious plea for its own marketplace success among Wilson's "colored
brethern," were not enough to better her condition. In fact, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose
research has rescued Wilson and Our Nig from literary obscurity, notes that no reviews
of the novel appeared when it was initially published, despite the abolitionist fervor of pre-civil
From what little is known about Wilson's biography, one ironic certainty remains. It was
Gates's discovery of Wilson's son's death certificate and subsequent scholarly recovery work in
the 1980s that verified Wilson's race, her authorship, and the autobiographical influences in
Our Nig. Written in the hopes that a son might be taken care of, Our Nig is
recognized as a crucial African-American text only because of his early death. Striking in its
exploration of Frado's tortured life, significant in its keen insight into race and class issues,
echoing popular literary styles, and the vehicle of a unique black female voice, such recognition
is long overdue.
About This Edition