August 18, 2010

Wilson: slavery's shadows fall even there

On August 18, 1859, Harriet E. Wilson copyrighted her novel, Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Rediscovered in the 20th century, it is considered the first novel by an African-American female. Her book is also an early depiction of the laboring class and, possibly, the first to consider female farm servants. In opposition to the usual rural idyll of pastoral stories, Wilson depicts her main character, a mulatto named Alfrado (or "Frado" for short), as one of the most marginalized members of society: an African-American female servant.

Often compared with autobiographical slave narratives like those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson's book defies the category because of one simple fact: the book is not about a slave. Frado is a free woman, after all.

Frado is an indentured servant, only required to work for a predetermined amount of time after being given up by her parents. Her years with the Bellmont family, however, were awful: she was mistreated and abused. Her indentured servitude ends and she eventually marries a fugitive slave named Tom. Wilson notes, "He never spoke of his enslavement to her when alone, but she felt that, like her own oppression, it was painful to disturb oftener than was needful."

As the title page of Our Nig  announces, Wilson intended the book would show that, in the north, "slavery's shadows fall even there." Though a free woman, Frado suffers immensely because of her race.

Wilson herself had been an indentured servant. After her servitude, she suffered from poor health and had difficulty supporting herself and her young son. She wrote her novel for the potential income, as she notes in her preface. It likely was not much of a help: no contemporary reviews of the book have been found.

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