on May 7, 2005
Though I currently have the 1983 edition with the introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr (whose name is in the introduction for almost every important Af-Am text in circulation, it seems), I plan on getting this latest edition.
Until recently, biographical details on Wilson were limited. Indeed, they seemed to trail off soon after the publication of her book (a death certificate for her son six months after its printing has suggested to some that her call for support went unheard). This introduciton offers new and happier information, showing that Wilson lived a long life--in part as a successful lecturer on the Spiritualist circuit.
In any edition this is a great book. Really, "great" isn't superlative enough to cover how important and interesting it is. But if you're going to buy it, get this edition.
on May 7, 2007
This book was written by a woman who was supposed to be a free Black woman. In fact she was treated like a slave, a Black wage slave. She was oppressed by a family of who were Northern Abolitionists. Yet, she was treated like a slave. Succeeding generations of whites studying the book denied her and her class the ability to write such a book: they claimed the book had to have been written by a white person and that it was a novel, not real.
Millions of Black women who have slaved in white kitchens and cleaning white homes during and since slavery have a spokesperson in Harriet E. Wilson. This book helps us understand not just to pity them, but to understanding their ability to fight back with their minds.
on September 15, 2000
The female child of a white female outcast and a black freeman, the author gives a detailed account of what it was like being raised by a white family in the pre-Civil War North of the United States (a household where she was abandoned by her mother at 3). This biography gives a general idea of what a Negro's life in the North was like -- and it was not much different from that life of a slave in the South. The mistress of the house was brutal beyond measure, but many of the other family members were reasonably kind (though not kind of enough to put a stop to the abuse), and it makes one shudder to think of what could have happened in a family who had nothing but Negro-haters in it. Still, she recounts how she got a small measure of schooling, and how she eventually became a Christian (something which the lady of the house -- a Christian herself -- opposed) and her eventual marriage. An upsetting story, it is nevertheless of much more value than "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as it was told from the point of view of the victim and not a sympathetic white.
Published in 1859, Our Nig may be the first novel by a black woman. Certainly it's the only narrative we have by a black indentured servant in the antebellum North. A skillful hybrid of autobiographical detail and novelistic conventions, the book was one of several ventures Harriet Wilson engaged in to support herself and her child after her husband deserted her.
Wilson's parents indentured her at the age of six to a New Hampshire family so they could seek work with better luck elsewhere. Unfortunately little Frado (Wilson's fictional name for herself) finds herself in the hands of a sadistic mistress and her equally sadistic daughter. The plot of Our Nig revolves around Frado's terrible experiences in this house.
The irony was that while Frado was nearly perishing from abuse and overwork, New Hampshire abolitionists were delivering rousing anti-slavery speeches nearby. They were only interested in the sufferings of fugitive slaves, not "free" black indentured servants. When Wilson's book was published, they ignored it. Only slave narratives were of use to them. The book quickly disappeared from circulation, not to be rediscovered until over hundred years later.
I found the book to be very powerful, both as an amazing story and as an exposé of prejudice in the righteous North. Wilson, who had only three years of schooling as a child, is a dramatic storyteller.
I'd recommend this Penguin Classics edition in particular. It contains chronologies, a comprehensive introduction and scholarly footnotes. I was surprised to learn that Wilson's continuing life story, after Our Nig, was as fascinating as her years of servitude. She launched a business making and selling "Hair Restorative." She became a Spiritualist, a clairvoyant physician and a trance medium.
Slave narratives are a cornerstone of American literature, and Wilson's narrative describes a life as horrific as any slave's. I'd call it a must-read for anyone interested in American literary history and black literature.
on November 5, 2011
... or discuss the central character, the "narrator", by the name given her by the New England family that exploited, abused, and humiliated her from age 9 to age 18. I CAN state that the "Our" in the name of the book is scarcely intended as inclusive in the family or the community; it's profoundly possessive. Our #@% was born free, of a white mother and a free black father, in the "free" state of New Hampshire in the year 1825. In this barely disguised autobiography of her childhood, Harriet Wilson christens herself 'Alfrado', but the respectable white family to whom her mother abandons her never calls her anything but #@%. The mother of that family -- named Bellmount in the book but corresponding in every census detail to the historical Hayward family of Milford NH -- is a sadistic nagging virago who dominates her conflict-shunning husband. Her daughter Mary, just about #@%'s age, is an indolent snotty copy of her mother. The racism of the Bellmount 'ladies", mother and daughter, is so absolute that they deny the humanity, educability, and vulnerability of the girl, whom they hold without legal sanction as an indentured animal. There isn't much 'plot' to the story. It's one beating and one humiliation after another, though the two persecutors are cautious to inflict their worst when the father and the more humane brother aren't watching. Our #@%, of course, knows nothing of any rights, has no friends or resources, and bears her de facto slavery as best she can.
The historical Harriet E. Wilson survived this hellish childhood. Her adult health was never robust, after so much beating and so little feeding, but amazingly she lived until 1902, and bore a son, who died at age seven. Our #@% was written after she'd escaped the horrors of false indenture, in the 1850s, and published in 1859. Harriet Wilson had written other things, mostly formal sentimental poems, but she hoped with her autobiography simply to earn some money to support herself and her child, to get off the welfare rolls, in short. But life can be unpredictable; at about the same time, Wilson began to make and sell a hair care product, which garners enough money to make her prosperous for a few years. The years between 1843, when #@% leaves the Bellmount home, and 1859 are treated sketchily in the last seven pages of this 72 page narrative. All the previous 65 pages are beating-by-beating accounts of her tormented youth, but mingled with #@%'s griefs is a fascinatingly realistic portrayal of the dynamics of an ordinary New England family in the decades when the sons of such families seeded the the frontier populations of the American West.
Our #@% is possibly the only extant narrative written by a free northern black woman in the era of Slavery. It was, predictably, ignored by the Northern Abolitionists who might have publicized it because they were focused almost entirely on the sins of the Slavocracy South. Educated free blacks in the North were perhaps offended by Wilson's candor, especially concerning the chief black man in her story, her short-time husband, who turned out to be a fraud and who deserted her. In any case, this book was utterly forgotten for 120 years until it was discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. -- yes that Gates! the Harvard professor profiled and abused in his own home in 2009 by cambridge police -- and published to considerable fanfare as the "first novel by an African American woman." Our #@& is not regarded as novel any more, since the events it describes have been closely correlated to the facts of Harriet Wilson's life.
Remember "Uncle Tom's Cabin", written by another Harriet -- Beecher Stowe -- and published in 1852? The best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible? Indisputably the most history-changing novel ever written in any language? The fiction that made the Secession of the Slavocracy inevitable and that stimulated much of the moral fervor that made the victory of the Free States possible? If you've never actually read it, you may be surprised to find that it's not half bad! The descriptions are written in sprightly, colorful prose. The scenes are well plotted. It's a tear-jerker that still have the power to jerk some sincere tears. Harriet Wilson did not have the literary skills of Harriet Beecher Stowe, though her sheer vocabulary is impressive for a woman whose schooling was just three partial years. But the reality she portrays -- the vicious physical and mental abuse of black people by white Americans -- is so vivid that style hardly matters.
America's racism -- race-based slavery, Jim Crow terrorism and racial cleansing, humiliating apartheid even in Northern states that had never embraced slavery and had sent their menfolk to end it by war -- is as shameful a historical fact as any other genocide in Europe, Asia, or Africa in the 19th/20th Centuries. So there are two aspects to the 'censorship' of the #@%-word on-line here: the understandable avoidance of derogatory terms, yes all the better, but the hateful truth that racism isn't extinct in America and that thus the stigmatization persists.