Biography
| Summary of Our Nig | Questions for Discussion | Suggested Reading |
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"Oh, holy Father, by thy power,
Thus far in life I'm brought;
And now in this dark, trying hour,
O God, forsake me not" -

Harriet E. Wilson


In 1859, Harriet Wilson, a mulatto woman from New Hampshire published a novel with the stated hope of earning sufficient money simply to survive. Instead, her novel Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black, became a powerful and controversial narrative that continues to touch and unsettle readers around the world.

Because of a lack of verifiable records on people of color in America during the early years, gathering biographical information on Wilson has proven to be difficult. However, from the scholarly research work of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., UNH professor Barbara White, Occidental College associate professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, and historical researcher Reginald Pitts, the following information is known or can be surmised:
  • 1825 (March 15) - Harriet E. Adams born in Milford, NH
  • 1830 -31 - Abandoned by mother at the Nehemiah Hayward family farm
  • 1840 (June 1) - Census locates Harriet Adams at the Hayward's
  • 1850 -Harriet E. Adams appears as a 22-year-old black woman living with the Boyles on the federal census for Milford
  • 1851 (October 6) - Harriet E. Adams marries Thomas Wilson in Milford, NH
  • 1852 (May or June) - Harriet E. Wilson gives birth to son George Mason Wilson
  • 1855 – 1859 - Harriet Wilson and/or her son appears on the Reports of the Overseers of the Poor for the town of Milford
  • 1859 ( August 18) - Harriet Wilson copyrights Our Nig, with a copy deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts
  • 1859 (September 5) - Our Nig is published by George C. Rand and Avery in Boston
  • 1860 (February 16) - Wilson’s son, George Mason Wilson, dies in Milford, ages seven years, eight months
  • 1863 - Harriet Wilson appears on the Report of the Overseers of the Poor for the town of Milford
  • 1867 - Harriet Wilson listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is known in Spiritualist circles as "the colored medium"
  • 1870 (September 29) – Marries John Gallatin Robinson in Boston
  • 1870 - 1897 – Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer
  • 1900 (June 28) – “Hattie E. Wilson” dies in Quincy Hospital, Massachusetts. She is buried in the Cobb family plot in Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy, plot number 13337, "old section."

Summary of Our Nig

Generally accepted as an autobiographical novel, Wilson’s innovative work integrates two genres of the American literary tradition- the Sentimental Novel and the 19th century Slave Narrative- and stands today as the first known novel published by a black woman in English and the earliest novel published in the United States by an African American.

The novel unfolds with the six-year-old mulatto protagonist, Frado, being abandoned by her white mother and placed into indentured servitude. While in service to the Bellmont family, Frado is cruelly abused by Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary. Not even the sympathetic members of the family intervene on her behalf. Frado endures this harsh abuse for 12 years until she reaches her majority and earns her freedom at age eighteen. Weak and sickly after the years of severe abuse, Frado departs the Bellmont household and tries desperately to earn a living on her own. She eventually marries a fugitive slave named Tom, who lectures for the Abolitionist Movement. Soon after their baby son George is born, Frado is once again abandoned and again must find a way to support herself. The novel ends with the author speaking in her own voice as she appeals for support from her readers, not through donations but through the purchase of her novel.

 

Suggested Reading

  • Brink, Carol. HARPS IN THE WIND: THE STORY OF THE SINGING HUTCHINSONS. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Story of the Hutchinson Family Singers, abolitionists from Milford and relatives of “Mrs. Bellmont” of OUR NIG. Jordan, John, Asa, and Abby formed the first singing group; Jesse Jr. composed many of the songs.
  • Ernest, John.Economics of Identity: Harriet E. Wilson’s OUR NIG. PMLA, 109 (May 1994): 424-38.
    Economic themes in OUR NIG, by UNH professor.
  • Gardner, Eric. “`This Attempt of Their Sister’: Harriet Wilson’s OUR NIG from Printer to Readers.” NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY, 66 (June 1993): 226-46. On early readers of OUR NIG.
  • Gates, Jr., Henry Louis and David Ames Curtis.“ Establishing the Identity of the Author of OUR NIG,” in WILD WOMEN IN THE WHIRLWIND: AFRA-AMERICAN CULTURE AND THE CONTEMPORARY LITERARY RENAISSANCE, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Proofs of Wilson’s identity.
  • Harper, Frances E. W. IOLA LEROY, OR, SHADOWS UPLIFTED. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. Novel first published in 1892. Considered, until the rediscovery of OUR NIG, the first novel by an African American woman.
  • Jacobs, Harriet A. INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Compelling autobiography originally published in 1861 under the pseudonym “Linda Brent.”
  • WE ARE YOUR SISTERS: BLACK WOMEN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, ed. Dorothy Sterling. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Nineteenth-century American lives, told in the women’s own words. .
  • White, Barbara A. OUR NIG and the She-Devil: New Information about Harriet Wilson and the `Bellmont’ Family.” AMERICAN LITERATURE 65 (March 1993): 19-52. UNH professor identifies Milford originals of the “Bellmont” family.
  • Wilson, Harriet E. OUR NIG; OR, SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF A FREE BLACK, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Third edition. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. This is the most complete edition of the book and includes the article by White (above) as an afterword. There is also an earlier edition of OUR NIG edited by Gates and a British edition edited by R. J. Ellis (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1998)

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first edition

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Cover from 1859 First Edition Printing of Our Nig... from the Boston Public Library's Rare Book Collection

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Image from the 1859 First Edition Printing of Our Nig; Sketches from the Life Of a free Black

Questions for Discussion

  • Much has been debated over Wilson 's reason for writing her novel - economic necessity, an exposé on northern racism, an indictment on Christianity and the abolitionist movement- what do you think was Wilson 's true motivation for writing her novel? Why writing and not the lecture circuit?

  • Based on information presented in Our Nig , how do you think Northern indentured servitude differed from Southern slavery? How did the life of a free black in the North differ from the life of a slave in the South? How were poor whites and free blacks treated by New England society?

  • What are some unusual features of the gender roles in Our Nig as exemplified by the Bellmont family? How are women characters portrayed? Men? How is Mag Smith, Frado's mother, portrayed? How is the institution of motherhood generally portrayed?

  • How many incidents of abandonment occur in Our Nig ? How are they handled?

  • Why do you think Mrs. Bellmont was so cruel and abusive to Frado? To what degree did race influence Mrs. Bellmont's behavior?

  • With only three summers of schooling, how do you think Wilson was able to write Our Nig? How was Wilson able to publish her novel? What attributes did Frado/Wilson possess that allowed her to survive?

  • How does Wilson use humor and satire to tell the story? Does its use in the title help or hinder the novel?

  • What impact does the rediscovery of Our Nig have, or should have on our world today?

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