Our Nig; or, sketches from the life of a free black : in a two-story White House, North

by Harriet E. Wilson

Other authorsHenry Louis Jr Gates (Introduction)
Paperback, 1983




New York : Vintage Books, 1983.


The 1859 novel tracing the life of a mulatto foundling abused by a white family in 19th century New England.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stevil2001
Henry Louis Gates's introduction to my edition (2002, from Vintage) likes to trumpet the fact that Our Nig is the first known novel written by an African-American and published in America (the continents, not the country). I suspect, however, that if it was the seventh, we'd be much less interested
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in it. The characters, even Frado, the protagonist, are all thin caricatures (though most of them are good for a joke or two, which helps alleviate that). It does deal with some interesting notions (especially the blindness of white abolitionists in the North), but what Wilson chooses to focus on is often strangely arbitrary: we get the marital shenanigans of Frado's white relatives in excruciating detail, whereas Frado's own marriage happens in two very short pages.

Gates's critical apparatus is really focused on the autobiographical components to the novel, and though they are considerable, the fact that Wilson published a novel and not an autobiography ought to count for something, I think. The introduction spends a lot of time desperately trying to convince the reader that the Harriet E. Wilson of Boston who wrote this novel is the same of the Harriet E. Wilson of Boston who was a seamstress at the same time, which seems fairly self-evident to me, while the endnotes try to match every character to a historical figure and complain vociferously when they can't. Also annoying is the fact that endnotes are not actually indicated in the text, so the reader just has to guess there might be some referring to a specific page and check. I suspect anyone interested in Our Nig (as unlikely as that seems) would be better off with the new Penguin Classics edition.
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LibraryThing member grundlecat
Wilson's auto-biographical novel is perhaps not great literature, but does keep one's interest and reveals volumes about the society in which she lived. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in our nation's history.
LibraryThing member greeniezona
I don't know that I would have gotten around to reading this had I not seen it included on the Zora Canon, but I am glad that I did. I especially appreciate this edition with its lengthy introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and all it does to contextualize this work within both the history of
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race in America and also literary conventions.

Unsurprisingly (I would hope), this book is not a fun hang. Frado, the main character, may be a free Black person, in that she is not a slave, but she is still trapped by her poverty, lack of family, and the prevailing racism of the time. (Yes, even in the North.) Yet the very existence of the book -- quite possibly the first work of fiction published by a Black woman -- almost certainly autobiographical, but reshaped in the form of the sentimental fiction of the period (yet deviating from that form in significant ways) is remarkable. Give Wilson's stated intent in publishing -- to raise money to support herself and her child -- this book could have thrown fewer punches at her most monied possible audience -- white abolitionists, but she does not hesitate to hold up a mirror to the racism, hypocrisy, and ignorance of many (most?) white abolitionists in pre-Civil War America.

A marvel of its time, and still depressingly relevant today.
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