By the time Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig (1859) and introduced Frado to the fictional world, many mulattas, with “glossy ringlets” and “creamy” skin, had graced the pages of American fiction. Frado joined William Wells Brown's Clotel and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eliza Harris, anticipated Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy, Nella Larsen's Helga Crane, and Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford, and initiated a pattern in African American women's writing that wasn't challenged until Ann Petry's brown-skinned Lutie Johnson emerged in 1946. Yet Wilson creates an isolated rather than an alienated mulatta character. Moreover, unlike the vast majority of such characters, Frado's mother is white, and maternal abandonment rather than paternal legitimation is at issue. Indeed, through Frado's eyes, we see the most scathing critique of white mothers offered by an African American woman writer in the nineteenth century.
Abandoned when she is six, Frado is forced to work in New Hampshire as a virtual slave for the Bellmont family, who call her “our nig.” Although Mrs. Bellmont's brutal treatment cannot break the spunky girl's spirit, it does ruin her health. When Frado leaves, the abuse she has endured has taken its toll and the eighteen year old can no longer work. After an unsuccessful marriage, she writes Our Nig to raise money to support herself and her son. We now know that Wilson's son died five months after the novel's publication. While Wilson's tale seems tragic, she successfully creates a spirited, if abused, protagonist who struggles with her captors, her identity as an isolated black child, and her readers’ expectations.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., introduction to Our Nig, 1994.
P. Gabrielle Foreman