52 Books by 52 Women: Our Nig

For a year I’m reading 52 books by women authors whose work I’ve never read before. Click here for previous installments.

Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is a book I probably would never have become aware of were it not for the 52 Books by 52 Women challenge I took on for this year. I ran across it while doing some online research to refresh my memory about female authors I’d been curious about but had never read. I’d never heard of author Harriet E. Wilson, and indeed no one knows much about her. More than half of the 1983 Random House edition I read is devoted to historical notes and speculations about the author by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

This isn't the edition I read, but that art (either by or after Kara Walker) is stunning.

This isn’t the edition I read, but that art (either by Kara Walker or a good imitation) is stunning.

Our Nig is a book of great historical significance, simply because it’s apparently the first novel published by a black woman in English, and one of the first two by a black woman in any language. Harriet Wilson was also, Gates writes, “most probably the first Afro-American to publish a novel in the United States, the fifth Afro-American to publish fiction in English…and one of the first two black women to publish a novel in any language.” (Both Our Nig and Brazilian Maria F. dos Reis’s Ursula were published in 1859.) But it’s a book so forgotten and neglected that when I found it in the San Francisco public library, I blew a thick layer of dust off of it.

It’s also a book, Gates tells us, that pissed a lot of people off in its day, including a lot of abolitionists. Because it isn’t a slave narrative, or at least not exactly. The fullest version of the title, as seen on the title page, is Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. By “OUR NIG.” The message that black people were ill-treated in the North as well as in the South was an inconvenient truth, and it didn’t help that there’s a character in the book who goes around pretending to be an escaped slave, which he never was, and giving lectures about the horrors of his made-up life down South.

It’s the story of a girl named Frado, who’s just as often called Nig, abandoned by her mother on the doorstep of a white family in Massachusetts, who take her in but treat her cruelly and work her nearly to death. And I’m not using the expression loosely; there are several occasions in the novel where she works so hard that she becomes ill and nearly dies, and by the end of the book the young woman’s health is ruined permanently.

The mother who left her was white too, by the way. Left to her own devices, Mag Smith was “ruined” and knocked up by a charming seducer and became unfit for polite society. The baby died, and she was shunned by all—all, that is, except a kindly black worker who offers to marry her, leading to further social shame. “You can philosophize, gentle reader, upon the impropriety of such unions, and preach dozens of sermons on the evils of amalgamation,” Wilson writes. “Want is a powerful philosopher and preacher. Poor Mag. She has sundered another bond which held her to her fellows. She has descended another step down the ladder of infamy.”

After she married Jim and had two kids by him, then he fell ill and died, and Mag took up with his former business partner, Seth. After struggling along for a while, they decided to give her kids away and skip town to find work elsewhere. “‘Who ’ll take the black devils?’ snarled Mag.” So they just leave six-year-old Frado with the Bellmonts, despite knowing perfectly well that the lady of the house is “a right she-devil.” And we never hear of her mother or unnamed sibling again.  The Bellmonts are actually tricked into taking Frado; Mag drops her off with them, saying she’ll be back to pick her up later, and never comes back.

Mrs. Bellmont is indeed cruel to Frado, working her hard and beating her savagely for any perceived slight, including any embarrassment caused by her own cruelty. Mrs. Belmont particularly tries to keep Frado from reading the Bible or going to church, offended by the mere suggestion that God would show any interest in a black girl. Her daughter Mary is even worse, if possible, just as abusive but with the added wrinkle of blaming her own misdeeds on Frado, whom she resents for going to school with her.

The men of the house are kinder to Frado, as well as the daughter Jane. Although he doesn’t take an active interest in Frado, Mr. Bellmont puts a stop to some of his wife’s worst abuses whenever he becomes aware of them, although she often takes her frustration at being thwarted out on Fradon when he’s not looking. Some of the sons, Jack and James, more actively try to help and protect Frado, and she keeps hoping one of them will take her away with him someday. (Not as a lover or anything like that, just as a more kindly person to work for.) The trouble is, they keep leaving, either moving away or dying, and generally have their own drama going on. Wilson has a vexing habit of not really introducing characters, so we keep hearing about yet more grown Bellmont children only when they happen to visit.

Frado also has a sometime protector in Aunt Abby, a pious woman who takes her to church, but it’s unclear (at least to a 21st-century reader) exactly who Abby is to the family. My best guess is that she’s Mr. Bellmont’s sister, because Mrs. Bellmont doesn’t seem to like her much. Wikipedia describes Aunt Abbey (sic) as “an older black woman,” but it also says, “She tells James that if God made him, Aunt Abby, and Mrs. Bellmont white, then she dislikes God for making her black.”

Believed to be autobiographical, the book is a difficult read for several reasons. One is just all the physical and psychological torment that Frado goes through, and her constant, anguished spiritual searching, not knowing whether she’s even eligible for God or Heaven. One by one, all the small comforts she gets in sympathetic presences in the household are taken away—at one point they even give her dog away.

The other reason it’s a hard read is that the prose is very dry and slightly stilted, at least to the modern reader, in addition to the aforementioned problems with keeping characters straight when they’ve never been properly introduced. Despite the heartbreaking events recounted in the novel, the functional matter-of-factness of the writing style makes it somewhat dull, making me feel hard-hearted not to be more touched by it. While it’s a fascinating read as a historical document, it’s much less engaging as a literary one.

Mostly I was taken with certain period details, such as the antiquated usage of contractions, with spaces between what would have been separate words: “do n’t,” “is n’t,” “she ’d,” et cetera. What I was especially struck by was the use of the term “people of color,” which apparently was in vogue in the 1850s and now has come back around again.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Book 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Book 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Book 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Book 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

Book 5: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Book 6: Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book 7: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Book 8: Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

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