Black History Month: “Our Nig”

ournig.jpgOur Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There By “Our Nig.” This autobiographical novel was published in 1859 and was written by Harriet E. Wilson.

Though published in the 19th century, the novel didn’t gain wide recognition until it was rediscovered, authenticated and published by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Gates suggests in his introduction to the book that it can be read as a response, and a critique, of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The text of the book, which is available online at the University of Virginia, is introduced on that site this way:

It some respects it evokes the story Stowe’s novel chose not to narrate: the experiences and opinions of Topsy in New England. As a victim of racism and abuse at the hands of a white woman, Frado (or “Nig”) poses a direct challenge to Stowe’s valorizations of the domestic and the feminine. Although in her Preface Wilson denies any desire to “palliate slavery at the South,” her emphasis on the sufferings of a nominally “free black” in the North was a theme repeatedly developed by the white pro-slavery authors of the ANTI-TOM NOVELS that also contested Stowe’s ideological assumptions. Some of those novels were popular. This novel, on the other hand, was apparently ignored when it first appeared, and remained invisible until 1982.

“Our Nig” isn’t without controversy. Most notably, an Oct. 28, 2006, NYTimes article talks about the publication of another “rediscovered” novel that claims to be the first novel written by an African-American woman:

“The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride,” is believed by some scholars to be the first novel ever published by an African-American woman.

Julia C. Collins, a free black woman who lived in Williamsport, Pa., serialized “The Curse of Caste” in 1865 in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This month it is being published for the first time in book form by Oxford University Press.

But the republication has stirred a dispute between its editors — William L. Andrews, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University — and the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who says that “The Curse of Caste” is not, as stated on the jacket, the first novel by an African-American woman.

Mr. Gates says that honor belongs to “Our Nig” (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson, which he himself brought to light in 1982.

Moreover, the book jacket of “The Curse of Caste” proclaims that it has been “rediscovered.” Mr. Gates said that he published it in microfiche form in 1989 as part of “The Black Periodical Fiction Project.” At Mr. Gates’s request, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Kachun added a footnote to the book acknowledging this.

(In 2001, Mr. Gates also announced the discovery of “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” written sometime before the Civil War and said to be by a former slave, Hannah Crafts, though Ms. Crafts’s identity has never been established. The first known novel by any African-American is “Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter,” by William Wells Brown, in 1853.)

The dispute between the scholars centers on competing definitions of what constitutes a novel.

I bring up this dispute to show that the notion of history is not fixed. Disputes arise that force people to question assumptions or past knowledge. Just as Gates’ republication of “Our Nig” added to the notion of what constitutes the African-American literary tradition, so, too, does “The Curse of the Caste.”

This book was also part of the slave narrative course I took at the University of Pittsburgh with professor Ronald Judy.

In addition to the links above, another interesting link is the Harriet Wilson Project in New Hampshire.

Is there a book, play or essay you think is a vital part of the African-American literary tradition, especially something that has touched you personally? E-mail your idea to me at


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