Pioneering novelist Harriet E. Wilson became the first African American novelist of either gender to publish a book in North America on this date in 1859. Although Ms. Wilson’s book, “Our Nig: Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black,” was initially released anonymously and did not catch on with readers, the book would finally get national attention for its historic feat 123 years later.
“Our Nig” was an autobiographical novel, focused on Wilson’s assessment that indentured servants in the north still dealt with the specter of racism and slavery. Born a free person, Wilson was orphaned and became an indentured servant until she was 18 years of age. The novel’s protagonist, Frado, was determined by scholars of the text to be patterned after Wilson. Frado was of mixed parentage – Irish and Black just like Wilson – and was an indentured servant from the age of 6 and 18.
At the time of the book’s release, abolitionists in the north were critical of the book because it cast a view of indentured servitude as being nothing more than a kind way to explain slavery. The book was also considered only for a Black audience and White readers never flocked to the novel. Falling out of print and nearly outside the annals of history, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered “Our Nig” and later confirmed that it was the first novel to be published in the United States by an African-American.
Wilson’s life did not end on the best of terms, marrying twice and losing her only son due to an illness when he was just 7 years old. She would marry again, becoming a lecturer in the Spiritualist movement. Wilson was noted for speaking candidly about her life and struggles, sometimes with humorous results. Largely estranged from her husband, Wilson would pass away in June of 1900 after an active life,hari and there was no evidence that she wrote again after the publishing of the book.
Wilson’s achievement as the first African-American novelist should be thought of as noteworthy, considering the injustices and oppression she faced during her time. Even with the odds against her, Harriet E. Wilson still found a way to have her story heard.
Read the full text of “Our Nig: Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black“