Our Nig

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The year 1859 was a year of important “firsts” for African American women's writing. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's short story “The Two Offers” appeared, and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig became the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States. Wilson addressed race relations in the North. She extended the slave narrative's attack on chattel relations below the Mason–Dixon line by offering a scathing revelation of northern racism and a forceful critique of the then–sacred realm of domesticity.

The hybrid form of Our Nig reflects the multi–pronged nature of Wilson's critiques. While a quiet debate has emerged about how to classify Our Nig, critics agree that Wilson blends aspects of sentimental fiction, autobiography, and slave narratives. Wilson opens her tale with the seduction of “lonely Mag Smith… alone and inexperienced… as she merged into womanhood, unprotected, uncherished, uncared for.” Her language mirrors, or perhaps parodies, the conventional seduction tale–the isolated young maiden, without a loving family to guide her, falls prey to “the voice” of her ravisher who then leaves her to her fate. Yet, rather than dying, Mag marries a black man in order to survive. While the child born in her seduction narrative dies, her second child, Frado, lives; it is Frado's story that Wilson narrates.

Throughout the text Wilson makes it clear that Frado's life is based on her own. Indeed, Barbara White has corroborated almost all of the details concerning the Bellmonts, whose nonfictional name is Hayward. Wilson's title itself, Our Nig, or Sketches of a Free Black in a Two Story White House, North, Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There; by “Our Nig,” both modifies the common form of slave narrative titles (Narrative of the Life of…) and stresses its own autobiographical nature; Our Nig is written by “Our Nig.” Likewise, in her closing pages, after referring to “my narrative,” Wilson pleads for assistance from her readers, as she further establishes the autobiographical relation to the story she tells.

Wilson's ironic use of “our nig” ties the novel to the slave narrative form as well and shows that others call her this to claim her. In appended letters–themselves a standard convention of slave narratives–readers also find autobiographical confirmation. Margareta Thorn describes Wilson as “a slave, in every sense of the word.” After Frado's father dies, her mother abandons the six year old at her wealthier and ill–reputed New Hampshire neighbors'; soon christened “nig,” she is showed how her chores are “always to be done… any departure to be punished by a whipping.”

In the Bellmont house, the principal source of abuse is “Mrs. B.,” whose uncontrollable rage parallels depictions of the jealous southern mistress who beats and torments the master's illegitimate offspring. John Bellmont's ostensible affection for Frado, but virtual refusal to stand up to his (metaphorically wronged) wife, points to his symbolic status as a neglectfully benign slave father.

In the final chapters, Frado leaves the Bellmonts and then gets married. Frado's husband's actions echo Mr. Bellmont's–he is a poor protector and also abandons Frado, whose health is broken after years of over–work and beatings. Significantly, despite their legitimate marriage, like Frado herself, their boy is the son of an illegitimate partner. Thomas Wilson is a freeborn man who poses as a slave to lecture for the abolitionists; it is Wilson's need to provide for her son alone that drives her to write a metaphorical slave narrative.


Subjects: Literature.

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