Black History Month, day 16

At the time of its rediscovery in 1981, Our Nig was the earliest known novel written and published by a black woman in the United States. I learned about it at a lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that I attended with my parents not long after that–I think it took place at my high school auditorium. Gates was a young scholar at Yale at that time, and told the audience about how he had come across it in an antiquarian bookstore and, based upon the title, put it on his “Racist Literature” shelf. It wasn’t until later that he opened it and began reading, and realized that the narrator was a black woman whose agenda was fervently opposed to slavery. So was the author, research revealed: Harriet E. Adams Wilson.

At the time that Gates did his research, he wondered why the book didn’t receive more attention at the time of its publication. It was published by a Boston firm in 1859; Boston was the center of a great deal of abolitionist activity; it was known to be by a free black woman (though she remained anonymous at that time). Yet judging from its reception, it was barely known to her contemporaries. How could that be?

Eric Gardner, doing further research ten years after Gates republished the book, proposed an answer that I’m afraid is probably correct: the abolitionists did know all about Wilson’s novel, and did very little to publicize it because it indicted Northern abolitionists.

Many abolitionists may not even have recognized Our Nig as having an anti-slavery message simply because the story takes place in the North, where most abolitionists were not prepared to recognize “slavery’s shadows.”

Furthermore, he writes, it is “far from flattering to Northerners or abolitionists.” He makes the case that Our Nig is the opposite of most slave narratives, and other sympathetic works, of the time, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that the North is not “portrayed as a magical land where the protagonist will eventually realize the promise of freedom.”

My parents owned the book (they must have bought it after the lecture) and I am pretty sure I read it at that time, but I don’t remember the plot at all. It sounds extremely relevant to our own troubled times, when many white liberals will go so far for racial justice and no farther. Another one for the reading list!

 

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