June 28, 2010

Wilson: Appeal to my colored brethren

Harriet E. Wilson died in Quincy, Massachusetts on June 28, 1900 at the age of 75. It took about 82 years after her death for her novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, to be rediscovered and re-enter the literary canon. Originally published in 1859, her preface tells readers that failing health and the need for income has inspired her to publish this semi-autobiographical work.

I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders.

The story follows Frado, a mulatto girl who is abandoned by her white mother after her black father's death. She grows up as a free black working for the Bellmonts, a white family in Massachusetts. She later marries a fugitive slave. Frado's "life of a free black" in the North is implied to be no better than that of a slave in the South. From Chapter VIII:

Frado... became a believer in a future existence—one of happiness or misery. Her doubt was, is there a heaven for the black? She knew there was one for... all good white people; but was there any for blacks?

Since its rediscovery in the 1980s and 1990s, Our Nig has been considered by many as the first novel by an African-American female (the first male is generally accepted as William Wells Brown). The trouble is that the work is not entirely fictional and, therefore, defies the typical standards of the genre of novels. Some say it doesn't count and dismiss it, others acknowledge its important fusion of sentimental novel and slave narrative. Alice Walker describes its discovery "as if we'd just discovered Phillis Wheatley—or Langston Hughes... [Wilson] represents a similar vastness of heretofore unexamined experience, a whole new layer of time and existence in American life and literature."

The image above is from the memorial to Harriet Wilson in Milford, New Hampshire which was unveiled in 2006.

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