A Woman in the Periphery

A Woman in the Periphery

Our Nig, Or, Sketches from the Life of A Free Black, In a Two-Story House, North Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. Harriet Wilson (1859).

Harriet Wilson begins her autobiography with a poem for her mother:

            Oh, Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate

First leaves the young hear lone and desolate

In the wide world, without that only tie

For which it loved to live or feared to die;

Lorn as the hung-up lute, that ne’er hath spoken

Since the sad day its master-chord was broken!

Moore. (page 1).

Typically, I would leave poems, or other headings out of a response, but this poem set the tone for the rest of the book. I was unsure what Our Nig was going to be like, I had read that it was a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that it compliments Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl well. There are parts to Wilson’s prose which bring to mind these other works, as well as the writings of Sojourner Truth and even seduction novels. Frado is the protagonist who is abandoned by her white mother and black step-father at the Bellmont estate at the age of seven.  The Bellmonts took Frado in as an indentured servant, and began to refer to her as “Nig”.  The story recounts the ways that Frado survived her time as the Bellmont’s servant, and the abuse that she received at their hands and the hands of northern antebellum society. Wilson emphasized the similarities between her treatment and the treatment of slaves, not just in physical labor and abuse but also in the restrictions on her behavior (not sitting down to eat) and her travels (restrictions on school or church attendance). Wilson successfully highlights the failures of indentured servitude in the U.S. After Frado turned 18 and was freed from her contract she became ill and had to rely on the community for support while she was ill and recovering. Seeking out the Bellmonts, who she believed owed her some assistance for her years of service, resulted in Frado being insulted and turned out.

Wilson’s story is a bit difficult to get through despite its brevity. The timeline is muddled, and there is no concrete way of knowing where Frado is living based on the evidence provided within the story. The only reason the audience understands that it takes place in the north is because Wilson puts it into the title. The account of Mag, Frado’s mother, is equally confusing. I thought that Mag was a free Black woman until she married Frado’s father and Wilson brought up how demeaning it was for a white woman to marry a free Black man. The book gained much more narrative power as I researched the life of Harriet Wilson. Wilson is credited as the first Black author to self-publish a book in the U.S., though this is a contentious claim. Wilson based Frado’s life on her own; Wilson’s mother was an Irish washerwoman and her father was a free Black man who worked as a Hooper. Wilson was also orphaned as a young child and forced to work as an indentured servant in a New England home. Wilson’s life was lived almost entirely in the periphery; she was a woman born of a mixed-race marriage, she was working in servitude in a time of slavery, and yet she never conformed to the expectations of her gender or race.

Statue of Harriet Wilson


Here is the transcript of an interview with Henry Louis Gates who rediscovered Our Nig in 1982 (interview was 2002): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec02-gates_07-23/

Here is a brief bio on Harriet Wilson (and the source for the image of her statue): http://www.harrietwilsonproject.net/harriet-wilson-.html

Here is the book electronically through the University of Virginia http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/ournighp.html


Quick Read: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)

Most of our blog posts and reading discussions focus on scholarly works, and books that relate directly to our research. This one however is a book that I read for fun (it can happen in Grad school). I am starting a new section on the blog, which hopefully we can update semi-regularly, called “Quick Read” that will feature books that we read outside of our usual workload. These books shouldn’t take too long to read, and we will give you our opinion on them with less in-depth analysis than our usual posts/discussions.

I picked up a copy o Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through my Kindle Unlimited subscription (not an advertisement) because it offered free audio with it, and I was supposed to not read anything until I was cleared by my doctor after a major car accident. The story is set in a dystopian America, where women are essentially divided by class and procreative ability. Atwood successfully created a fictional, yet poignant exploration of female power and empowerment, through the account of “Offred” and her placement as a Handmaid- essentially a concubine- in the home of a prominent member of the ruling party. The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of The Giver (Lois Lowry), 1984 (George Orwell), and Aeon Flux (Peter Chung). The protagonist, Offred, struggles to cope with the collapse of 1980s America, and her new position as a femme covert in the new theocracy. One cannot read this without thinking about how Atwood was influenced by Nazi Germany and the idea of an Aryan race. Perhaps most frighteningly is the relevance to modern discussions of separation of church and state, xenophobia, women’s rights, and religious freedom.

In a world where women must be covered head to toe in appropriate colors to display their rank and role in society; where women must act only to please God and the head of their household, Offred is able to find glimpses of happiness. This makes her question if her life as a femme covert is better than her life of “freedom”, responsibility, and worry that accompany modern life. I think that this is the most important part of the book for our purposes on this blog. Oftentimes as historians, or modern Americans, we look at societies that have cultural practices similar to those described in The Handmaid’s Tale and we wonder why women would stay in a world like that, a world where they cannot ow property, be allowed to read, and must by covered from the eyes of men. Atwood successfully, I think, examines some of the temptation to stay in a life like that. Though in the end Offred attempts to escape her life as Handmaid so that she can exercise control over her own body.

This was a quick (311 pages) and interesting read that I think helps expand our understanding of women’s rights and empowerment. It is no wonder that this book has resurfaced as a must-read.