March 15, 2012

Birth of Wilson: the same God

Harriet E. Wilson was not particularly prolific as a writer, but her 1859 book Our Nig is considered the first novel by an African American woman. She was born Harriet Adams in Milford, New Hampshire on March 15, 1825 (the town boasts a statue of her, dedicated in 2006). In addition to her book, the major accomplishment in her life was the production of hair care products purported to restore gray hairs to their original color. Perhaps most interestingly, she celebrated her birthday in 1876 with a seance.

As the spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light reported, "Hattie E. Wilson (trance lecturer)" hosted a group of friends to celebrate her birthday at her home in Boston. The event included refreshments, several speeches, songs, and an original poem presented by a fellow spiritualist. By the 1860s, Wilson had come to be known as "the colored medium" and was available for seances and readings. The newspaper reported her lecturing on the topic throughout New England, including the towns of Lynn, Stoughton, Stoneham, and Worcester, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut. One report counts an audience of 2,500 at one of these gatherings. The 1860s saw a significant shift towards spiritualism, largely due to the Civil War. In the case of Wilson, however, the trigger was the death of her son George at seven years old.

Faith was clearly important to Wilson. In Our Nig, the black female protagonist Frado is an indentured servant to a white family. The boys in the family befriend her, including James, who converses with her in chapter four. In the section, James tells Frado to be a good girl, but she says she is whipped regardless because she is untrusted due to her race. "Who made me so?" she asks in desperation:

"God," answered James.
"Did God make you?"
"Who made Aunt Abby?"
"Who made your mother?"
"Did the same God that made her make me?"
"Well, then, I don't like him."
"Why not?"
"Because he made her white, and me black. Why didn't he make us BOTH white?"
"I don't know; try to go to sleep, and you will feel better in the morning," was all the reply he could make to her knotty queries. It was a long time before she fell asleep; and a number of days before James felt in a mood to visit and entertain old associates and friends.

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