BY CYRENE RENEE
I am a lover of history. Preferably American history. To further narrow it down, black history. While reading Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” a book I will review later, I learned about the first black African American novelist in North America. Her name is Harriet E. Wilson. Her book “Our Nig” or “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” was published anonymously in Boston Massachusetts in 1859. I was extremely excited to read this book. I was intrigued to read what the first black writer had to say in the time of slavery. I must say, it was a hard read. Not hard in a sense that I couldn’t understand it. Hard in a way that I could. It was easy for me to digest and thus internalize each page, not as a work of fiction, but as a truth that is seldom revealed.
I could simply write a review of the book itself. It isn’t a very long book, but it didn’t need to be. Ms. Wilson most definitely got her point across in the 151 pages. For me, it wasn’t about the wording, or the constant use of the term “nigger” as others have pointed out. From my point of view in 1859, slavery was still very much a real entity in this country and it was the accepted, in most cases the expected language of the time. My focus was on the audience. I have stated often about my own writings that I write not only for myself, but for the reader. Who was her intended audience? This could be the reason for the anonymous publication. It clearly was not for the Southern white nor the “progressive” Northern white person or aristocrat. Could the first black novel have been written for the free black? I could imagine the controversy. The book didn’t go far in either circle or heavy in popularity and I can see why. “Our Nig” is based on her life’s experience as a free black, mixed mulatto girl born of a white mother and black father. She was later abandoned by her mother after her father’s death and left in an abusive home with a neighbor. This would state her abusers to include her own mother didn’t own slaves themselves. In theory, we would assume today that they would have treated her with respect and kindness. In her indentured servitude, that wasn’t the case at all.
For those who took the chance to read this book in the 1859, I could only think of the misguided horror of discovering this was not a sugar-coated tale, but a testament. Sitting around a small table, sipping tea in their delicately decorated parlor while whispering shuns and administering gasps. Racism was real. Racism is real. For some, this could have been the equivalent to looking into a very tall mirror, fully exposed while inherently bare. Perhaps if Mrs. Bellmont was kinder to the little negro child, allowing her to go to church and given adequate care, the book may have gotten more recognition. There was also a possibility of praise if Harriett had changed the story of her fate for the sake of their egos and pride. However, Frado or “Nig” as she was called in the Bellmont household, didn’t have the comforts of home afforded to her. In fact, she was beaten, tormented regularly and forced to do chores unfit for any one person. How brave it was for her to be so candid? Did her own memories haunt her in way that made her sit down and place it all in a binding book? I can only think of the fear. I know the anxiety of publishing my books, facing public scrutiny and critique. What if I was an author in 1859 and not 2017? Would I have been so brave to bask in such shuttering honesty? I hope so.
Frado’s savior was not anyone person, but the companionship of her dog, Fido. Although James, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Bellmont did attempt to treat her with some form of dignity. His untimely death left her once again alone in a cold, stark, white world. While Mr. Bellmont had bouts of decency toward the child, he too turned chose a blind eye to the maltreatment of Nig and left his wife to her own regard. As I read through the chapters, there was sense of relief when she was given a solace, even if it was from an animal. In the wake of small examples of humaneness, like the conversations with Aunt Abby, she was taught to turn the other cheek and pray for those who hate you. This allowing her tormentors an escape from their wrongdoings. The responsibly of forgiveness was placed on a child instead of the correction of her abusers. The subject of religion, specifically Christianity, plays a large role in her quest for love and acceptance. She is introduced to a concept of heaven which she yearns for. However, she is also told that heaven is not a place for niggers. Frado expressed very real moments and posed very real questions. Why was she being treated in such a way simply because of the color of her skin? Why was she considered inferior because of her complexion? It is a question that some white people in 1859 did not want to answer. It was a question in 1859 that all black people would have at some point, be it slave or free I assume. The small fits of rage alone in her unhealthy environment were very real moments. They were written from a space of personal experience. This actualization could have infuriated some readers. Harriet clearly didn’t care.
“She passed into various towns of the state she lived in, then into Massachusetts. Strange were some of her adventures. Watched by kidnappers, maltreated by profession abolitionists, who didn’t want Slaves at the South, nor niggers in their houses, North. Faugh! To lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next; awful!”
Harriett E. Wilson, “Our Nig”
“Our Nig” is a great example of writing for the sake of your own sanity beyond the consequences. It is an example of the hope of connecting with another person on this abundant planet. It is an example of creating from a place desperation. In that regard, I can relate. When the fear of your vulnerability outweighs by the need to breathe. The breath lies in truth. Thank you, Harriet, for bravery and audacity. Thank you for not conforming to your comfort zone. There have been countless authors to have placed pen to paper sharing stories and dreams. I am fortunately one of them. Thank you for being the first.