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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Harriet E. Wilson

For many decades, 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.”, by Mrs. H. E. Wilson, was a book consigned to a literary limbo. Known to researchers and bibliographers in African American literature, it was generally thought to be the work of a white author, perhaps even a male writer. The virtually complete lack of any contemporary reference to its publication or its existence remains a continuing mystery.

Our Nig, probably a work of fiction, is certainly the thinly disguised autobiographical account of a young girl of mixed race growing to womanhood as an indentured servant in pre-Civil War New England. Her black father dead, Alfrado, called Frado, is abandoned by her mother to the care of the large and well-to-do Bellmont family. The Bellmonts are ruled by a brutal matriarch, Frado’s constant antagonist, whose violent physical and emotional assaults against her young charge succeed in breaking her body but not her spirit. The racist Mrs. Bellmont is not Frado’s only problem, however; even the sympathetic and occasionally anti-slavery characters are of little help to her.

Still, consoled and nurtured by certain sympathetic members of the household, Frado at last serves out her time and at age eighteen is thrown upon her own limited resources to make her way in the larger world. An unfortunate marriage, the birth of a child she must support essentially on her own, and early widowhood leave Frado as narrator/protagonist to appeal to her readers to aid her cause by forwarding the sale of her account.

An intriguing mix of certain nineteenth-century literary modes and techniques, Our Nig incorporates aspects of abolitionist protest writing, sentimental fiction, and introspective autobiography. Most important, identified as the work of Harriet E. Adams Wilson, it stands as the earliest known novel published in the United States by a black writer; it has, since its reprinting, received the recognition and scholarly attention it was due as a founding and powerful text of African American literature.
Marilyn Richardson

In the Heath Anthology
Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
      Chapter IV: "A Friend for Nig" (1859)
      Chapter X: "Perplexities—Another Death" (1859)
      Chapter XII: "The Winding Up of the Matter" (1859)

Other Works

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Harriet Wilson's Our Nig
The complete hypertext edition of Wilson's book.

Perspectives in American Literature
A substantive bibliography of secondary materials.

Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, a bibliography, links, and a scan of the first page of Wilson's Our Nig.

Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
Another complete etext, this one provides frontmatter scans.

Secondary Sources

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Introduction" to 1983 edition of Our Nig

Barbara A. White, "'Our Nig' and the She-Devil: New Information About Harriet Wilson and the 'Bellmont' Family," American Literature, 1993