This seminal autobiographical novel, originally published in 1859, is believed to have been the first by an African-American woman. Harriet Wilson's compelling story describes the life of a mulatto girl who, after the death of her mother, is exploited first by a terrifying Northern family for whom she worked and then by an opportunistic husband. A classic of African-American literature, Our Nig has made an enduring contribution to understanding the lives of free blacks in the nineteenth century. A fascinating combination of slave narrative and sentimental novel, the story traces the hardships and suffering of Frado, who grows up as an indentured servant to a white family in Massachusetts and spends much of her destitute life wandering through New England. A clear and accurate account of race relations and perceptions of race in the antebellum North, Our Nig is essential reading for students of African-American history and culture.
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.