Harriet E. Wilson
(1825-1900), first African American woman novelist.
Rarely has an author's identity been so instrumental in the reclamation of her writing. Long thought to be white, Harriet E. Wilson and her one novel, Our Nig, had been mere footnotes to nineteenth-century American literary history, and obscure ones at that, until 1981. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and David Curtis's research came on the heels of the republication of rediscovered white women writers and the incipient attention paid to early African American women authors. When in 1984 Gates established that Wilson was indeed the first Black person to publish a novel in the United States, there was a developing historical and critical context into which to fit her work. Our Nig's republication is both a reflection of and a key contribution to the vast resurrection of writings by what Toni Morrison might call disremembered Black women.
Until the 1980s, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was widely accepted to be the first Black woman to publish a short story (1859) and a novel (1892). Yet, since Our Nig pushed back the conception of Black women's novelistic writing thirty-three years, scores of newly rediscovered writers—Emma Dunham Kelley and Amelia E. Johnson, for example—and new novels by authors only established in the last fifteen years (such as Harper's and Pauline E. Hopkins's) have been republished.
Biographical information on Harriet Adams Wilson has grown substantially since Gates's initial research. Barbara White discovered the Hayward family of Milford, New Hampshire, to be the model for the Bellmonts of Our Nig. Nehemiah Hayward, “Mr. Bellmont,” married Rebecca Hutchinson, who belonged to a wealthy and established family of Milford, New Hampshire, Harriet Wilson's birthplace. Rebecca, the “she–devil” of Our Nig, was a direct descendent of Anne Hutchinson and cousin to the famous abolitionist Hutchinson family singers. Born in 1825 in Milford, Harriet E. Adams was abandoned by her mother and left at the Haywards' home when she was six. After twelve years of indentured servitude, she left the Haywards when she was eighteen. She went to work for other families in the area, but by 1847 had become a pauper. in 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act endangered all Blacks living in the North, Adams moved to Ware, Massachusetts, seeking employment. One year later she married Thomas Wilson, an attractive lecturer who later proved to be a free man passing as a fugitive slave in order to earn his living by speaking of slavery's horrors. Thomas Wilson's abandonment of his wife and newborn son proved to be the catalyst for her to write a novel that closely reflected her own experiences. Our Nig rivals slave narratives in its description of white violence directed toward the narrators themselves.
The “commands of God” and the demands of poverty were often accepted as proper justifications for a woman's entrance into the public realm of publishing. Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed to have seen the final scenes of Uncle Tom's Cabin in a vision. Because of her confinement to bed, the result of the brutal treatment she received, Wilson was to write Our Nig in order to raise money to sustain herself and to reclaim her son; because of her physical and economic situation, he had been placed under others' care. Unfortunately, George Mason Wilson, then seven years old, died five months after the novel's publication; ironically, his death certificate established his mother's racial identity and facilitated her reintroduction to African American letters.