Gates notes that it is Harriet Wilson's child's death certificate that
enabled scholars to determine her race and her authorship of the text. George Mason Wilson
died from fever in February 1860 when he was just seven years old.
The audience that Wilson addresses in the preface is both the
abolitionist audience similar to that addressed in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a
Slave Girl and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In a unique move,
Wilson addresses "my colored brethren" in the following paragraph. This dual audience is
intended to provide economic support for the author, and to understand her textual exposure of
slavery's cruel existence in the form of indentured servitude in the supposedly free, pre-Civil
Motherhood is a key concern for Wilson in the text. This first chapter
operates outside the main plot line that tells of Frado's time at the Bellmont household. Instead,
it focuses on the story of Frado's mother Mag Smith who is a fallen, white woman who marries a
black man to free herself from poverty and ill health. Both Frado's birth mother, and her
"surrogate" mother, Mrs. Bellmont, are pictured as far from nuturing and maternal. The idea of
motherhood is even more intriguing considering it is Wilson's own maternal responsibilities that
compel her to write the text so that her young son may eat.
Jim's comments---his consciousness that "black" is a negative thing-- set
up the multifaceted racial dynamics that Wilson threads throughout the text. Issues of blackness
and identity are particularly important for Frado who experiences racial prejudice and hatred
made manifest through violence and servitude.
Wilson will employ direct reader address throughout the text. Harriet
Jacobs employs a similar narrative mode in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Consumption was the leading cause of death in the United States
and Great Britain in the nineteenth-century.
Wilson's initial description of Frado is interesting for a number of
reasons. In her youth, Frado is described as full of vitality and spirit. Once Frado is bound to
serve Mrs. Bellmont, her body becomes increasingly feeble as it is ruined by the ceaseless
tyranny of harsh physical labor and abuse. Frado's exuberance is strikingly similar to
descriptions of Eva in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. While Eva does not become an
invalid because of physical labor, she dies an early death quite typical of the "beautiful death"
common in nineteenth-century sentimental fictions and culture. Finally, Frado literally
embodies the complexities of nineteenth-century issues of racial identity as signified by her
"Home" is another important thematic concern throughout the text.
Oftentimes in nineteenth-century sentimental novels, home is pictured as a place of security and
domestic bliss set apart from the labor-intensive reality of the growing industrial world. For
Frado, the Bellmont home is far from blissful. Not only is she physically abused by Mrs.
Bellmont and Mary, but she is responsible for a number of chores involving harsh physical labor.
Note the ways in which Wilson continually subverts the expected serenity of domestic space in
her portrayal of life in the Bellmont household.
See Diane Price Herndl's Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness
American Fiction and Culture 1840-1910. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993 for a
of the figure of the invalid woman in nineteenth-century literature and culture.
Wilson stridently uses the epithet "our nig" in a number of ways. While
the name demeans Frado, it is also the name that Wilson ironically empowers in an unexpected
way as it becomes the name of the author of the text. In a sense, Wilson subverts the expected
use of the term, and masters it with the authority of authorship.
These tight quarters are not unlike the "loophole of retreat" that Harriet
Jacobs' hides out in for several years to escape Doctor Flint.
The abusive exchanges between Frado and the Bellmont women are often
meted out in the terms of who ultimately gains the power of speaking as occurs here. See
Cynthia J. Davis's "Speaking the Body's Pain: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig." African
American Review 27 (1993): 391-404.
The kitchen, an archetypal domestic space, is a place of terror in the
Note the similarity in the dog's name and Frado's.
John's comment invites an understanding of the
that Wilson describes in the
text on gendered terms--violence is solely an experience of exchange
between women. The men here, including Mr. Bellmont and his sons
and even Mag's husband, are characterized as quite passive.
The brothers' call to Frado invites yet another connection between her and
the dog, perhaps quite purposeful on Wilson's part.
The following verbal exchange---or question-answer session--between
Frado and James is rendered like a catechism. The exchange resonates with several of the key
themes that Wilson constructs throughout the text such as motherhood, religious salvation, and
Wilson employs the image of an internal storm to suggest the tyranny of
the Bellmont household.
Nig's sickness is perhaps modeled after Wilson's own, which necessitates
the text's very existence. Wilson implies in the Preface that writing is one of the few physical
labors that she can endure in her invalid state.
Nineteenth-century medical writings by proslavery southern
and northern doctors alike were engaged in justifying slavery on the basis of biological
Blacks were said to be immune to certain diseases, climate conditions, and to actually benefit
physical labor unsuitable for the imagined, fragile constitution of whites. That Frado grows
increasingly feeble from the labor forced upon her, works against such racist cultural
that were quite prevalent when Our Nig was written.
Just as Mrs. Bellmont forbids Frado from
skin from the sun,
so she cuts her hair in an attempt to mark her as distinctly different from the Bellmont women.
Frado's dark skin and androgynous hairstyle set her outside from
mainstream ideas of beauty.
See Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977 for her discussion of the nineteenth-century cultural
with the beautiful death, and images of heaven as the ideal domestic space, the true home that all
good Christians will one day reside in.
Douglas excerpts Congregationalist minister George Cheever's vision of
the kind of blissful future existence that Frado wonders if blacks can attain. In The Powers of
World to Come (1853), he writes that heaven "is not the dim incomprehensible universality of
omnipresence merely, but a place for our abode. . .and with as intimate a home circle, as the
dearest fireside on this earth can have, nay incomparably more intimate and personal and
local in our Father's House in Heaven" (Douglas 222).
See Miriam Bailin's The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of
Being Ill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994 for a discussion of the role of sickroom and
bed scenes in nineteenth-century literature. Although Bailin focuses primarily on British novels,
her assertion of the sickroom as a liminal space is intriguing. Note how Mrs. Bellmont's reign of
terror does not pervade James's sick room.
When Frado's parents gave her up to the Bellmonts, their agreement
was for a specified amount of time in which Frado would work as an indentured servant. Now a
young woman, Frado's indentured status is over.
Shelter, retreat, sanctuary for the destitute (not the mentally ill).
Narrative voice shifts in this moment and the third-person narration of
Frado's fictional story merges with a seemingly autobiographical account
of Harriet Wilson's own
struggles which are further delineated in the appendix to follow.
The appendix is composed of three letters of attestation that provide some of the minimal biographical information about Harriet Wilson. Such letters of reference were often found in African American narratives in the nineteenth century. White support was necessary for African American writers, particularly former slaves, to gain credibility even within the eyes of an abolitionist audience.