Reading Guide

Our Nig

Our Nig


Editor/introduction:
Editor/introduction:
Notes by:
Notes by:

INTRODUCTION

Forgotten for almost 120 years, rediscovered in the 1980s, and now republished with significant new information about the life of its author, Our Nig is a hallmark of American literature. The first novel written by an African American woman, Harriet “Hattie” Wilson, this is the poignant story of Frado, a precocious and determined child who is given away to servitude at the age of six. After the death of her black father, she is abandoned by her destitute white mother to the Bellmont family of Singleton, New Hampshire. Indentured to them in hapless servitude, Frado endures a childhood of deprivation and isolation as an African American child—not quite a slave but certainly not free—in an antebellum New England town.

Much of the book has now been verified as paralleling the real life biography of Harriet Wilson. The book cunningly blends the genres of autobiography, fiction, and the nineteenth-century slave narrative, yet Our Nig is also a classic American tale of an individual struggling against all odds. Without the supportive bonds of family or capital, young Frado bravely seeks to improve her situation, in spite of her mistress’s wishes, through a spirited defense of her own rights and a program of dedicated self-improvement.

Harriet Wilson’s portrait of the Bellmonts, the family to which Frado is indentured, describes personalities ranging from the capricious and cruel to the seemingly gentle and kind. Though Wilson indicts the actions of much of the family, whose sense of ownership she captures in the title, she also portrays complex characters who offer Frado sympathy and friendship, if not much else. But Frado’s well being is subject to the capriciousness of Mrs. Bellmont, who is prone to violent physical and verbal outbursts and who rules her family through fear. It is the abuse meted upon Frado by this woman and the inaction of the family and larger community that mark the substance of Wilson’s then-controversial claim that blacks might be as mistreated in the free North as they were in the slaveholding South.

Playing with the metaphor of color, Wilson asks each of us to challenge our assumptions about surfaces; as Frado’s father heartbreakingly says when courting her mother, “Which you rather have, a black heart in a white skin, or a white heart in a black one?” Abuse based on race in the North was often overlooked by the very people who spoke out against the treatment of slaves in the South. Our Nig dramatically exposes such hypocrisy among those who claimed moral superiority and reveals the pervasiveness of racism throughout the antebellum United States. Wilson’s narrative deliberately complicates the racial landscape of the United States before the Civil War, and forces readers—both then and now—to examine their sometimes hidden prejudice.

“Enough has been unrolled to demand your sympathy and aid,” Wilson writes at the end of her tale, and it is true that Frado inspires both sympathy and anger at the injustice done to her. But this is also a moving coming of age story about the tenacity of one young woman, who seeks to balance realism and hope as she searches for integrity in an impossible situation. Our Nig, as a double story about the fictitious Frado and the very real Harriet Wilson, is a parable of struggle and the strength of the human spirit.

ABOUT HARRIET E. WILSON

Harriet “Hattie” E. Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825. Her parents were probably Joshua Green, an African American employed at a cooperage, and Mag Smith, a poor white washerwoman. Her father died when she was five or six, and soon thereafter her mother abandoned her to the home of a local family, the Haywards. Wilson worked as an indentured servant for the Haywards until the mid-1840s, at which time she left and sought employment as a servant in other local households. In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, with whom she had a son, George Mason Wilson, in 1852. Thomas Wilson died in 1853, and Harriet was forced to leave her son with foster parents. George died before his eighth birthday, after years in and out of poor houses while Wilson struggled to make a living. In 1859 Wilson published Our Nig, her indictment of indentured servitude and hidden racism in the North. In the following years, she became involved in the Spiritualist movement and became known as a clairvoyant and psychic healer. As “Dr. Hattie E. Wilson, the trance medium,” she traveled about the country giving lectures on topics such as the spirit world, labor reform, and race relations. She remarried, to John Gallatin Robinson, in Boston in 1870. Her work with the Spiritualist movement brought her both fame and status, and she was often given the title of Dr. She died in Quincy, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1900.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Much of Our Nig has now been proven to be autobiographical. Harriet Wilson herself was indentured to a family like the Bellmonts, and many of the major events in the book can be found in the historical record. Why do you think Wilson fictionalized her story? In what ways does this read like a novel? In what ways does it seem like testimony or autobiography?
  2. The title Our Nig is a derisive reference to the way the Bellmonts think of Frado: though she is not officially a slave, she is certainly a kind of property. How do you think the Bellmonts were able to reconcile their power over Frado with their status as citizens of the free North? Is the title also an indictment of the entire country, perhaps asking all of us to take responsibility for racism?
  3. Try to describe Frado’s personality: what words come to mind? Think of the way she overcomes other children’s derision at school, the various relationships she has with different members of the Bellmont family, or the paths that she takes as an adult. Was Frado ordinary, extraordinary, or some combination? How else do you think she might have responded to the situation she found herself in?
  4. Early in her indenture, Frado is allowed to go to school. What does this mean to her? How does this opportunity affect her later chances in life? Consider the way the Bellmonts’ view schooling, and compare it to how Frado feels about it. How does her attitude towards going to school resemble her attitude towards going to church? How do those two institutions affect her teen years and adult life?
  5. Imagine yourself in Frado’s position, first as a child and then as she grows older: she is abandoned by her family, in servitude to an unkind woman, and desperate for something better. Would you have stayed in the Bellmont’s service? What other options were there for Frado, and were any of them more desirable?
  6. Dignity is very important to Frado. Think of some examples of when she feels hers is sacrificed, and also when she seems able to salvage it. What strategies does Frado employ to maintain her sense of self worth? What new strategies does she devise over the course of the novel? How does Frado’s relationship with the Bellmonts change over time, especially as she reaches her teens?
  7. Religion becomes a major point of conflict between Frado and Mrs. Bellmont. What does Frado gain through her exposure to the church and to religion? Why do you think this upsets Mrs. Bellmont? Consider some of the questions that Frado has about religion and its capacity to relieve her suffering. How does she resolve the contradictions she finds in the moral universe she lives in? Or does she?
  8. List some of the people who act as Frado’s friends over the course of the novel. What characteristics do they have in common? How is worthiness measured in this narrative? Describe some of the ways that characters redeem themselves or demonstrate goodness to Frado. What does she give in return?
  9. Harriet Wilson writes that “Want is a more powerful philosopher and preacher” than propriety. She is referring to her mother’s decision to marry an African American man, but are there other points in the story when want dictates people’s decisions? Are there moments when propriety—religious or moral—triumphs over simple need?
  10. Slavery is the undercurrent running throughout the book. Harriet Wilson’s intent seems to be to stake her claim against the idea that abuses against African Americans were confined to the South, stating on her title page that this book set in the North will show that “slavery’s shadows fall even there.” Does the maltreatment Frado suffers surprise you? Does it change your preconceived notions about how Africans were treated in the northern and southern United States in the nineteenth century? Try to find similarities and differences in Frado’s experience and the experience of slavery.
  11. Is this a story of triumph? Of revenge? Is it a political statement? Consider what some of Harriet Wilson’s motivations might have been for writing this book. How do the testimonies given at the end affect the reading of the book? How does Our Nig resemble—or differ from—other great works of African American literature that you have read?
  12. The book ends with Frado stating that she will “never cease to track” the lives of the Bellmonts. What does she mean by this? Do you think this novel furnishes a happy ending? A realistic one? A satisfying one? Think of what you know about Harriet Wilson’s own life, as outlined in the introduction, and the forty years she lived following the publication of Our Nig. Does she escape the legacy of her servitude?
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