|Author||Harriet E. Wilson|
|Publisher||Geo. C. Rand & Avery|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-486-44661-5 (2005 paperback edition)|
Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is an autobiographical slave narrative by Harriet E. Wilson. It was published in 1859 and rediscovered in 1982 by professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. It is considered the first novel published by an African-American woman on the North American continent.
Our Nig opens up with the story of Mag Smith. In the past, Mag was seduced and left with a child out of wedlock. After the child dies, Mag moves away to a place where no one knows her. In this new town, she meets a black man named Jim, who falls for her. She resists him at first, but she soon realizes that her efforts are futile. Jim and Mag eventually marry and they have two children: Frado and a son.
Later on, Jim grows ill and dies. Mag is once again left by herself, only this time, she has two children to care for. Mag marries Seth, one of Jim’s business partners, and he takes the family under his wing. Eventually, Mag and Seth realize that they cannot care for both of the children and he suggests they send Frado to live with the Bellmonts. Mag refuses at first, but reluctantly agrees with Seth, and the decision is made to send Frado to live with them. Frado is then dropped off at the house under the guise that Mag will be back to pick her up later in the day.
After a few days, the Bellmonts, along with Frado, come to the realization that Mag never intended on returning. We receive descriptions that Mr. Bellmont is kind and humane, and that Mrs. Bellmont is the complete opposite. The Bellmonts also have four children; two boys and two girls. The family decides whether or not to keep Frado, and if they do, where she should sleep. Frado is sent to live in a separate part of the house that she will soon outgrow. The following day, Mrs. Bellmont calls for Frado early in the morning and puts her to work washing dishes, preparing food, etc.
Life with the Bellmonts
Mr. Bellmont is humble towards Frado. Jack is accepting Frado since her skin complexion is not very dark. Mary is against Frado's presence and wants her to go the County House instead. Mrs. Bellmont is not happy with Frado's existence in the house but manages to find ways to make her useful by serving as a perfect work girl. Frado lives in a new room unfinished chamber over the kitchen. A year passed and Frado accepted that she is part of the Bellmont family. Jack buys Frado a dog named Fido, who becomes her friend and eases her loneliness.
Later on, Frado is allowed to attend school with Mary. One afternoon on their way home, Mary tries to force Frado into the water but falls into it instead. Later that day, Mary runs home to tell her mother that Frado pushed her into the stream. Frado receives a good whipping from Mrs. Bellmont and Jack futilely tries to defend Frado.
Nig runs away and Mr. Bellmont, Jack and James search for her. She asks James that if God made him, Aunt Abby, and Mrs. Bellmont white, then she dislikes God for making her black.
The first day of spring a letter arrives from James about his declining health. Jack comes to visit the family. Mrs. Bellmont beat Frado senseless and mentioned if she ever exposes her to James she would “cut her tongue out”.
By November James' health starts to deteriorate further. Mary leaves home to nurse her brother, Jake. James requests Frado to stay by his bed side until further notice. Mrs. Bellmont discovers Frado reading the bible. Mrs. Bellmont speaks to her husband about Frado going to the evening meetings.
In the following spring, James passes away.
Illness and Sorrow
After James’ death, Frado once again conflicts with her unfitness to be in Heaven, and seeks Aunt Abbey’s aid. Aunt Abbey teaches Frado about God and the Bible, invites her to a church meeting, and encourages her to believe in Him and seek the passage of Heaven.
When Mr. Bellmont grows concerned for Frado’s health from her beatings, Frado one day takes his advice. Before Mrs. Bellmont would strike her down with a stick for taking too long to bring firewood, Frado threatens to stop working for her if she did. Mrs. Bellmont unexpectedly relents. From there after, she whips her less frequently.
News arrives that Mary dies from illness. Frado considers escaping, but realizes the lack of choices in which to take. She decides to wait until her contract was over at the age of eighteen. Overtime, Jane leaves the house, and Jack moves back in, introducing his family to his wife, whom Mrs. Bellmont verbally abused due to the fact that she was poor.
When Frado turns eighteen, she is arranged to make clothes for the Moores family. Due to her ailing health, she slowly becomes unable to work. She moves to a shelter where two elderly women take care of her for two years. For a while, she is nursed again by Mrs. Moore, but after her husband leaves, Frado is forced again to find work. She eventually is employed by a poor woman in Massachusetts who instructs her on making bonnets.
Though growing feebler and declining in health, Frado makes substantial wages.Despite three years of failing health,a few years later Frado moves to Singleton where she marries a fugitive slave named Samuel whose back wasn't as bruised as hers. He constantly leaves her to go "lecture". These lectures left Frado home for weeks at a time with little money. Once again Frado is left to depend on her self especially during the birth of her child.
During Samuel's absence Frado becomes sick one last time leaving she and her child to find shelter in the home of a poor woman where she later recovers. Over time in New Orleans her husband becomes sick with yellow fever which leaves her to depend on herself permanently. Now that Frado is on her own she has to find work by traveling through the different towns of Massachusetts. She goes through a few hardships but later in the book we see a busy Frado preparing her merchandise for costumers.
In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Bellmont, Aunt Abbey, Jack and his wife have all died. Jane and Henry, Susan and her child are all old. No one remembers Frado. The last line of the book ends with "but she will never cease to track them till beyond mortal vision". Even though everyone may have forgotten about Frado, she still remembers them.
List of characters
- Mr. Bellmont - The patriarch of the Bellmont family. He is a kind and humble man who would not grudge hospitality to the poorest wanderer, nor fail to sympathize with any sufferer, however humble. Although his intentions towards Frado are good, he does not exercise his ability as the patriarch to stop the cruel abuse against the child.
- Mrs. Bellmont - The matriarch of the Bellmont family. She is a tyrannical and capricious woman who never shows any mercy towards Frado. Mrs. Bellmont also influences her daughter Mary to physically and verbally abuse Frado.
- Mag Smith - The mother of Frado. She is a white, poverty-stricken woman, shunned by society. She finds love and happiness with a black man by the name of Jim. The couple produces two children. However, after Jim dies, Mag abandons her responsibility as a mother and runs off with another black man leaving Frado with the Bellmonts.
- Jim - Jim falls ill and eventually dies of consumption, leaving Mag alone again with the responsibility of raising two children.
- Seth Shipley - Once a partner in Jim’s business, Seth marries Mag and they abandon her 6-year-old child, Fredo at the Belmonts.
- Frado - The protagonist of the novel. She endures endless abuse and torture at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary. However, she wins the love and affection of the other members of the family.
- Mary Bellmont - Most active daughter in the household and novel. She abuses Frado both physically and mentally, and participates in her demise where health is concerned.
- Jack Bellmont - One of the two sons belonging to the Bellmont household. He displays kindness towards Frado and deems her "handsome and bright."
- James Bellmont - A son of the Bellmont’s, a fine young man who sees Frado as an object of affection, and more.
- Fido - A dog bought by Jack for Frado, Fido is a source of pleasure and friendship during Frado’s times of suffering.
John Ernest in Economies of Identity: Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig argues that Wilson's book was marginalized by a white audience because it appealed directly to a "colored audience." The distribution of Our Nig: Sketches in the Life of a Free Black was limited, and not appreciated by northern abolitionists due to the novel's call for awareness of the abuse and "shadow of slavery" that existed even in the Northern United States. Ernest asserts that Wilson risked undermining the paradigm that African American narratives portrayed of the "New England ideal."
Robin Bernstei in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from slavery to Civil Rights argued that the novel responds critically to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and to other works of abolitionist fiction that anxiously debate whether black children who die may become angels.
Cynthia J. Davis’ article Speaking the Body's Pain: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig argues and analyzes the alternative representations of a black woman that Harriet Wilson presents. Davis includes other critics’ comments and perspectives in order to come to her own conclusions. “One marker of the way in which Our Nig 'signifies' on dominant representations is the fact that, in light of the extreme sexualization of black women’s bodies, it is a white woman whom Wilson represents as sexual—Frado’s mother Mag, but not Frado herself.” Wilson presents a challenging view of a white and black woman. Although Frado is born from a white mother, she is identified by others and she identifies herself as being black, due to the fact that her father was black, and yet she is not the promiscuous black woman that society expects her to be. It is her white mother who lost her virginity, had a child out of wedlock, and then remarried twice.
Eric Gardner’s article "This Attempt of Their Sister": Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig from Printer to Readers explores why the novel initially escaped notice and wasn’t widely publicized. He argues that “of the owners of Our Nig who have been traced, more than half were children…” (238). Many white abolitionists weren’t as concerned with the issue of race as they were with the issue of slavery, and Our Nig may have seemed unflattering to Northerners and abolitionists in its content; “Wilson depicts aspects of Northern life that abolitionists would have regretted” (242). Gardner concludes with the idea that even though Wilson may have not gotten the support she wanted or even needed, Our Nig may have succeeded in aiding Wilson to reach her goal of achieving “self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction…” (246) in that she did ultimately gain a faithful group of supporters, regardless of how small they were.
Lois Leveen's article Dwelling in the House of Oppression: The Spatial, Racial, and Textual Dynamics of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, incorporates her view on the "two story house" symbolizing the ties that bind her. The space Frado is given to live in, gave her the low status of a subordinate. This shows how she starts to believe that she must fit within these spatial restrictions opposed to her. Frado knows only what she has been surrounded by and it is apparent that the Bellmont's, as well as the strong high class of that time, paralleled race with the position of that individual. She can’t break the chains of this household where such inhumane conditions are set, so breaking the chains in her mind would be equally, if not more difficult, to escape.
The physical prison which she has been doomed to live in, translates into her mental incapacity. Meaning when she leaves the house, due to all the damage and treatment instilled during her stay time spent at the "white house", she will never be truly free. Growing up, that environment is all Frado knew, it’s all the familiarity that she had to compare every other upcoming experience to. The fact that she grew up in the North, a free place, further incapacitates her. For there is no escape for her, there is no geographical positive. She has no sense of freedom because she was raised as a prisoner in a free land and was cheated out of ever claiming it. She had no choices, she had no will, she had only her thoughts and her pain to look to. You can leave the walls that held you restrained in the past but you cannot leave your mind, thoughts and memories, they hold you eternally captive.
Our Nig did not sell well because of tension between the North and the South. The northern abolitionists, who fought for freedom of the blacks, fought for a capitalist economy in the north. One of their arguments was that the capitalist economy could exist because it was working in the north without slave labor. Harriet Wilson disproves this because she shows that there is still slave treatment in the north except they were called indentured servants. David Dowling, a critic who wrote for College Literature wrote the piece "Other and More Terrible Evils: Anticapitalist Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig and Proslavery Propaganda". He states that the northern abolitionists did not publicize her book because it disproved their theory.
- African American literature
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
- The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts a preface by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describing his & its acquisition, verification and publication
- Wilson, Harriet E. (2004) . Our Nig: Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1-4000-3120-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=KeQ8tvxmlPYC&printsec=frontcover. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
- Interview with Henry Louis Gates (mp3). Gates and a literary critic discuss Our Nig, Wired for Books
- Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, Geo. C. Rand and Avery, 1859.
- Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North. Random House Publishing Group. p. 72.
- Ernest, John. "Economies of Identity: Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig." Modern Language Association. Vol. 109, No. 3. 1994. Pp 424-438. Jstor
- Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 56-60.
- Leveen, Lois. "Dwelling in the House of Oppression: The Spatial, Racial, and Textual Dynamics of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig.(Critical Essay)." African American Review. African American Review. 2001. HighBeam Research. 15 Nov. 2012 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
- Our Nig, electronic edition, University of Virginia Library
- Interview with Henry Louis Gates (mp3). Gates and a literary critic discuss Our Nig, Wired for Books
- First African American Novelist and Counter Discursive Work, Poinier Senior Thesis