She was born of two worlds and two complexions. Her mother, unwilling or unable to be burdened by the scapegrace of her multiracial offspring, abandoned her at the age of 6. We find Harriet Adams living with the Samuel Boyles family in Milford nearly twenty years later. She is an indentured servant, and has lived a life of ignominy and abuse since the fateful day she was left to fend for herself.
She has reached her majority and earned her freedom. She begins her sojourn into the world, determined to earn a living by virtue of her wits and innovation. Her dreams are thwarted by the first pangs of love and she weds a fugitive slave named Thomas Wilson. Thomas finds the call of the sea to be greater than that of domesticity and abandons his wife and their young son. Plagued by ill health, Harriet places young George Mason in foster care.
While working as a dressmaker in Boston, Wilson strikes upon a seemingly infallible plan. She contrives to write an autobiographical novel as a means of income for she and her son. In the preface to the novel she entreats the reader to sympathize with her plight as a victim of circumstance.
Her novel is daringly entitled, “Our 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.” The abolitionist movement is not quite in full swing and the northern crusaders are somewhat reluctant to admit their own racist tendencies. Her experimental little gem of a novel is destined for the dust of the library’s topmost shelves.
Henry Louis Gates discovered a copy of the book over a 100 years from the date of its publication. Harriet Adams Wilson ascended the throne as rightful heir to the crown of “First African-American Woman Novelist” and “Pioneer of the American Fictional Narrative Form.”
Harriet Wilson’s novel is an intimate, metaphorical reconstruction of both image and identity. She appeals to her audience through sentiment and pleads her case with a painful expose of the facts. She uses her words to resurrect herself from the ashes to which she was consigned. The consistent marginalization, exploitation and abuse experienced by the self-modeled heroine Alfrado serve as a foundation for her tremendous inner strength.
Alfrado’s gradual self-awakening becomes the catalyst for her conversion. It enables her to emphasize the changes in her condition as reflections of the metamorphosis of her inner self: her hopelessness is transformed into self-reliance, and her oppression leads to a refinement of her soul by storm and fire. This refinement by storm and fire is a long and arduous process. In its initial stages Alfrado believes the color of her skin to be a reflection of her sad fate, her evil soul and her impossible position. In a conversation with one of the elder Belmont sons she reveals the following conversation: “Who made your mother?” (Alfrado) “God.” (James) “Did the same God that made her make me?” “Yes.” “Well, then, I don’t like him.” “Why not?” “Because he made her white and me black. Why didn’t he make us both white?” (Wilson) Alfrado has considered her situation an unjust one perpetrated by God himself, and so her questions leave her pain unabsolved.
The severity of Alfrado’s persecution, and the absence of a family in which to find consolation, contributes directly to the strength of her conversion. She begins to develop a sense of herself as a child of God, loved all the more because of her suffering. She begins to envision an alternative life for herself. As a result of this envisioning she grasps the reins of power and uses her oppression as a means of alleviating itself. She develops her own role in self-deliverance, and realizes that God has given her the resolve to do so. “She was sent for wood, and not returning as soon as Mrs. B. calculated, she followed her, and, snatching from the pile a stick, raised it over her. “Stop!” shouted Frado, “strike me, and I’ll never work a mite more for you,” and, throwing down what she had gathered, stood like one who feels the stirring of free and independent thoughts. By this unexpected demonstration, her mistress, in amazement, dropped her weapon, desisting from her purpose of chastisement.” (Wilson)
Alfrado’s liberation, its connection to moral sanctity and her self-affirmation all represent the life of her creator, Harriet Adams Wilson. As well as being an autobiographical novel, Our Nig becomes an experiment in social discourse concerning the existence of racism in the antebellum North.
The plot itself, the author’s intentions in constructing it, and Alfrado’s transfiguration reflect the sacralization of African American motherhood. This sacralization forms the nucleus of both the heroine and the author’s self-affirmation. Its realization is their conversion experience. Alfrado’s frustration at her mother’s abandonment she attributes to discrimination, just as she attributes her inability to find suitable employment, not endangering to her health, to discrimination. Wilson, in her portrayal of Alfrado, is relating her own story of realized selfhood, and her attempts to preserve its sanctity are embodied in her social and religious standing as a mother.
Harriet Wilson, speaking as Alfrado, has much to teach us. She inspires us to command the helm of our own destiny, rather than surrendering helplessly to it and being borne under. She is an illustration of the soul refined by hardship, and offers proof that hope and faith can coexist with despair and misery. She is especially poignant in her struggle to those of us who have been judged by the cover of our book rather than the wisdom to be read within its pages. I encourage all of you to take a trip to your local library and become better acquainted with Alfrado/Harriet Wilson.