Editor's Introduction

Although lost to the reading public for over a century, Harriet Wilson's fictional 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 war Boston.

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.


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