Our Nig, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black book in UCLA's Library Special Collections.

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

First published anonymously in 1859, Our Nig is an autobiographical novel by Harriet E. Wilson. It is one of the first novels ever published by an African-American woman in the United States. Although the book was ignored and forgotten for about 120 years and was then rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the 1980s, it created a significant stamp on American literature, as well as being observed as a response to the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The book was first ignored and was not successful in its time of publication because it was received as a critique on the North and how poor people were kept as “indentured servants”, as well as displaying the bad treatment of black people by whites. It is not known why the book was ignored by many abolitionists at the time, and although a black audience was intended to read the book, most of the book owners of the original publications were white-middle class young adults.

Most of the novel has now been proven to be a narrative paralleling the life of the author, Harriet Wilson. The book is a mixture of fiction and autobiography and it transports us to what life was like for a mulatto girl in the 19th century who was abandoned by her mother to a white, middle-class family in the North. In this story, we witness a protagonist who fights against all odds, despite her circumstances as a “free black” in the North. With no one’s help but just herself, Frado then tries to better her circumstances, by defending herself and trying to improve her life.

The portrayal of the Bellmonts family, the family that Frado’s mother abandoned and left her with, ranges in personalities with the mother, Mrs. Bellmont being cruel and punishing on Frado, and Mr. Bellmont being kind and welcoming to Frado. The ruthlessness of Mrs. Bellmont causes physical harm to Frado, and that abuse provides emphasis on Wilson’s point and opinion that although blacks were free in the North, they were being mistreated just the same as in the South, which was pro-slavery.

In the end, this novel tells the story of a person who suffered and struggled to survive in a country where they we treated less than, and the book is written to inspire sympathy and calls for aid for the misdoings that were done to Frado. But throughout the hardships, Frado does not lose her hope to improve her life. In this story, we experience the double narrative of Frado’s and the author, Harriet Wilson’s life, and their journey of struggle and willingness to survive in the 19th century.


Speaking the Body's Pain: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig: The article is based on how the book Our Nig highlights the abuse of the free blacks in the North, and it is then reflective on how their abuse was similar, if not the same as the slaves in the South.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Henry Louis Gates Jr. was who rediscovered the novel, as well as finding out who had written it, because when originally published, the book was anonymously written.

"This Attempt of Their Sister": Harriet Wilson's Our Nig from Printer to Reader: This article speaks on how the novel was first ignored by abolitionists in the North because of the book's critique on it.

Our Nig Summary: General overview of the plot of the book.

This spotlight exhibit by Alex Carrillo as part of Dr. Johanna Drucker's "History of the Book and Literacy Technologies" seminar in Winter 2018 in the Information Studies Department at UCLA.

For documentation on this project, personnel, technical information, see Documentation. For contact email: drucker AT gseis.ucla.edu.