Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is an autobiographical novel by Harriet E. Wilson. It was published in 1859 and rediscovered in 1982 by professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is considered the first novel published by an African-American woman on the North American continent.
Our Nig opens with the story of Mag Smith. She has been seduced and left with a child born out-of-wedlock. After the child dies, Mag moves away to a place where no one knows her. In this new town, she meets a black man named Jim who falls in love with her. She resists him at first, but soon realizes that her efforts are futile. Jim and Mag marry and they have two children, a daughter Frado and a son.
Jim becomes sick and dies leaving Mag to provide for their children. She marries Seth, one of Jim’s business partners, and he takes the family under his wing. Eventually, Mag and Seth realize that they cannot care for both of the children. He suggests they send her daughter Frado to live with the Bellmonts[who?]. Mag refuses at first but eventually, reluctantly agrees. Frado is dropped off at the house under the pretence that Mag will be back to pick her up later in the day.
After a few days the Bellmonts, and Frado, realize Mag never intended to return. Mr. Bellmont is portrayed as kind and humane but Mrs. Bellmont is the complete opposite. The Bellmonts have four children, two boys and two girls. The family debates whether or not to keep Frado, and if they do, where she will sleep. Frado is sent to live in a separate part of the house that she will soon outgrow. The following day, Mrs. Bellmont calls for Frado early in the morning and puts her to work in the kitchen, washing dishes, preparing food, etc.
Life with the Bellmonts
Mr. Bellmont is humble towards Frado. Jack accepts Frado since her skin is not very dark. His sister Mary resents Frado being there and wants her to go to the County Home instead. Mrs. Bellmont is not happy with Frado living with them but puts her to work doing household chores. Frado now lives in a new room, an unfinished chamber over the kitchen. As a year passes, Frado accepts that she is part of the Bellmont family. Jack buys Frado a dog named Fido, who becomes her friend and eases her loneliness.
Frado is allowed to attend school with Mary. One afternoon on their way home, Mary tries to force Frado into a stream but falls in instead. Mary runs home to tell her mother that Frado pushed her into the water. Frado receives a whipping from Mrs. Bellmont while Jack tries to defend the girl.
Frado runs away; Mr. Bellmont, Jack and James search for her. After she is found she tells James that if God made him, Aunt Abby and Mrs. Bellmont white, then she dislikes God for making her black.
James has moved away. On the first day of spring a letter arrives from him about his declining health. He returns to visit the family. Mrs. Bellmont beats Frado senseless and says if she tells James, Mrs. Bellmont will “cut her tongue out”.
By November, James’ health starts to deteriorate further. Mary leaves home to nurse her brother Jake. James requests that Frado stay by his bed side until further notice. Mrs. Bellmont discovers Frado reading the Bible and speaks to her husband about Frado going to the evening meetings.
James dies the following spring.
Illness and sorrow
After James’ death, Frado suffers conflict, feeling she is unworthy to be in Heaven. She seeks the aid of Aunt Abby (Mr. Belmont’s sister). She teaches Frado about God and the Bible, invites her to a church meeting, and encourages her to believe in God and seek the passage of Heaven.
Mr. Bellmont grows concerned for Frado’s health from her beatings by Mrs. Belmont, and advises Frado to resist. Before Mrs. Bellmont strikes her for taking too long to bring firewood, Frado threatens to stop working for her if she does. Mrs. Bellmont unexpectedly relents. From there after, she whips the girl less frequently.
News arrives that Mary Bellmont has died of illness. Frado considers escaping, but realizes her lack of choices. She decides to wait until her indenture contract is over at the age of eighteen. Over time, Jane Bellmont leaves the house. Jack moves in with his wife, whom Mrs. Bellmont verbally abuses because of her poverty.
When Frado turns eighteen, arrangements are made for her to sew for the Moore family. Due to her ailing health, she slowly becomes unable to work. She moves to a shelter where two elderly women take care of her for two years. For a while, she is nursed by Mrs. Moore, but after her husband leaves, Frado is forced to find work. She eventually is employed by a poor woman in Massachusetts who instructs her on making bonnets.
Though growing feebler and declining in health, Frado makes substantial wages. Despite three years of failing health, a few years later Frado moves to Singleton. She marries a fugitive slave named Samuel but finds that her back has been more seriously marked by beatings than his. He constantly leaves her to go “lecture” on the abolitionist circuit. During his travels, Frado is at home with little money. She must depend on herself alone, especially during the birth of her child.
During Samuel’s absence, Frado becomes sick again. She takes her child and finds shelter in the home of a poor woman, where she later recovers. In New Orleans, her husband dies of yellow fever. Forced to find work, Frado travels through the different towns of Massachusetts. She goes through a few hardships but later in the book, a busy Frado preparing her merchandise for costumers.
In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Bellmont, Aunt Abbey, Jack and his wife have all died. Jane and Henry, Susan and her child all have become old. No one remembers Frado. The last line of the book ends with “but she will never cease to track them till beyond mortal vision”. Even though the families she worked for may have forgotten about Frado, she still remembers them.
List of characters
- Mr. Bellmont – The patriarch of the Bellmont family. He is a kind and humble man who would not grudge hospitality to the poorest wanderer, nor fail to sympathize with any sufferer, however humble. Although his intentions towards Frado are good, he does not exercise his ability as the patriarch to stop the cruel abuse against the child.
- Mrs. Bellmont – The matriarch of the Bellmont family. She is a tyrannical and capricious woman who never shows any mercy towards Frado. Mrs. Bellmont also influences her daughter Mary to physically and verbally abuse Frado.
- Mag Smith – The mother of Frado. She is a poverty-stricken white woman, shunned by society. She finds love and happiness with a black man by the name of Jim. The couple produces two children. However, after Jim dies, Mag abandons her responsibility as a mother and runs off with another black man leaving Frado with the Bellmonts.
- Jim – Jim is Mag’s lover and Frado’s father. He falls ill and eventually dies of consumption, leaving Mag alone again with the responsibility of raising two children.
- Seth Shipley – Once a partner in Jim’s business, Seth marries Mag and they abandon her 6-year-old child Frado at the Belmonts.
- Frado – The protagonist of the novel. She endures endless abuse and torture at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary. However, she wins the love and affection of the other members of the family.
- Mary Bellmont – Most active daughter in the household and novel. She abuses Frado both physically and mentally.
- Jack Bellmont – One of the two sons belonging to the Bellmont household. He displays kindness towards Frado and deems her “handsome and bright.”
- James Bellmont – A son of the Bellmont’s, James is a fine young man who sees Frado as an object of affection, and more.
- Fido – A dog bought by Jack for Frado, Fido is a source of pleasure and friendship during Frado’s times of suffering.
Our Nig did not sell well because rather than criticizing slavery in the South, it indicts the economy of the north, specifically: the practice of keeping poor people as indentured servants, and the poor treatment of blacks by whites. Critic David Dowling, in “Other and More Terrible Evils: Anticapitalist Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig and Proslavery Propaganda”, states that the northern abolitionists did not publicize her book because it criticized the North.
Listen to Henry Louis Gates discuss the books fascinating history here…