Wilson, Harriet E. Adams (c. 1827–c. 1870)
Wilson, Harriet E. Adams (c. 1827–c. 1870)
Writer whose 1859 novel was the first by an African-American published in the United States . Born around 1827 in Milford, New Hampshire; died around 1870; married Thomas Wilson, on October 6, 1851; children: George M. Wilson (died young).
Because very little documentation on her exists, the life story of Harriet E. Adams Wilson is virtually unknown. Census reports list her as a black woman. The death certificate of her son George M. Wilson shows that she was most likely born in Milford, New Hampshire, around 1827 or 1828, and a marriage record indicates that she married Thomas Wilson on October 6, 1851. This limited information is the fruit of research done by historian and critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who in the early 1980s discovered in a Manhattan bookstore a copy of Wilson's only known work, a novel published in 1859 titled 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 discovery of Our Nig restructured the chronology of black literature, for Gates also verified that Wilson's book was both the first novel by an African-American woman and the first novel by an African-American to be published in the United States. Prior to this, it was believed that the first novel written by an African-American was Clotel: or, The President's Daughter (1853) by William Wells Brown, published only in London and written by a man. It was believed that the first novel (though not the first book) by an African-American woman was Frances E.W. Harper 's Iola LeRoy, or the Shadows Uplifted, which was not published until 1892. As well, critical studies of Our Nig establish it as a cornerstone of the African-American literary canon and a significant contribution to a number of genres, including the slave narrative, the sentimental novel, fictional autobiography, and women's fiction.
Although Our Nig is presented as a fictional autobiography, historians believe that many of the situations described in the novel reflect the author's own life. The story proves that racism in the period in which Wilson sets her tale—the early to middle 1800s—was just as strong in the North as it was in the South and was especially hard on free black women. The protagonist, Alfrado, is a child when she is taken in as a servant by a white family after her mother abandons her. Both the mother and sister in this "adoptive" family are cruel to her. As an adult, Alfrado suffers from illness and marries a man who is often absent and finally dies, leaving her poverty stricken with a sickly child.
Despite its veneer of fiction, Our Nig is historical in its depictions of gender, race, and class and how a harsh society dealt with these distinctions. Most of the works of black fiction and history in the pre-Civil War era addressed the evils of slavery; little attention was given to the "free" black living in the North. As a women's novel, Our Nig shows that African-American women were subjected to both severe economic restrictions and the idealization of femininity that became almost cult-like in the 19th century. Our Nig indicates that Wilson was aware of literary styles and conventions, and, more subtly, of what types of novels appealed to the largely white readership. Unlike Clotel and Iola LeRoy, the books it most resembles, Wilson's Our Nig has a believable story line and authentic dialogue, making it a landmark in the genre of the fictionalized autobiography. Wilson also leaned heavily on the tradition of the slave narrative, although hers is a story of a free woman. Alfrado's abuse at the hands of her white family is related in episodes throughout the book, and she yearns for freedom and sees education as the only means of escaping her difficult life. She does acquire an education and achieve freedom (the twin objectives of slave narrators), but she still fails to become self-sufficient. As a sentimental novel, Wilson's story was veiled from the public scrutiny that true autobiographies—particularly slave narratives—often received, thus preserving her feminine modesty as demanded by the times while still exposing the despicable care she received at white hands. The preface to Our Nig states that Wilson wrote the book "to aid me in maintaining myself and child." That, and the information Gates unearthed, is all that is known of her. She is thought to have died around 1870.
Shockley, Ann Allen, ed. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746–1933. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1988.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California