A Look At The Story Our Nig

A Look At The Story Our Nig

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Harriet E. Wilson’s novel Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. follows the life of Frado, a young mulatto girl in the household of a white family residing in New England. She is abandoned to this family at the age of six because her mother could not afford to care for her and resented her and the hardships to which her birth had contributed. The mistress of the household to which Frado is left is a cruel and spiteful woman, especially towards blacks. From this tale the reader is shown that racism and, in some degrees, slavery, was prevalent even in areas that professed abolitionism and equal rights.
When Frado is left in the care of the Bellmont residence as a young girl, she has no idea of the tribulations that will try her for most of her life. From the very beginning, neither Mrs. Bellmont, the main antagonist, nor her equally cruel daughter, Mary, show any hint of compassion for young Frado. Mary would have the girl ejected from the house, saying "I do n’t want a nigger ‘round me, do you, mother?" (Wilson 26). The early use of the word "nigger" sets the tone for how Frado will be viewed and treated for the majority of the story. The very morning after her arrival, Frado is put to work feeding and caring for animals, cooking, and other chores unbefitting a six year old. Frado is told from the start that if she does not do her chores correctly, she will be whipped and beaten. Barely into the story we are introduced to severe amount of oppression Frado will have to endure simply because of the color of her skin. She is even given the degrading nickname of "Nig." Being a strong-willed girl, even at such a young age, she endures it as well as she can, mostly because she knows nothing else she can do. Her mind is unable to get around any reason that she should be treated this way simply because she is black. When she is unable to find any reason for such treatment, she retreats to sorrow and despair. She finds blame in the only place she can think of: God. In a conversation with James, one of the Bellmont’s sons who had returned home after some years away, Frado confides in him that she doesn’t like God.

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When asked why not, she replies simply, “Because he made [Mrs. Bellmont] white, and me black. Why didn’t he make us both white?” (Wilson 51). Still, she doesn’t understand the nature of some people.
This story tells us some disturbing things about people. Even in New England where slavery is illegal and blacks are supposed to be treated so much better, this poor girl is treated as a slave. Even more disturbing is the fact that Mrs. Bellmont hates the girl and treats her as a slave, yet professes to be a Christian. In modern times, most people can see the plain contradiction shown here. To Mrs. Bellmont, however, there is no contradiction whatsoever. She even tells Frado, “Religion was not meant for niggers” (Wilson 68). Such blatant ignorance and hatred is enough to prey upon the psyche of virtually any reader, and one can only imagine how it would feel to be in Frado’s shoes. Also curious is the character of Mr. Bellmont. From his actions we can tell that he does not approve of Frado being beaten and yelled at, however, we rarely see him do anything to stop it. One must wonder if he’s truly that apathetic, or if he doesn’t realize just what is going on. It’s safe to say that it isn’t out of any fear of his wife, for when he finds Frado beaten and with a wooden wedge jammed between her teeth, we’re told that he finds his wife and goes ballistic. He is obviously not too ignorant of the events taking place in his own home as he at one point tells Frado not to let herself be beaten when she doesn’t deserve it and at another time tells Mrs. Bellmont at the dinner table quite fiercely that she is not to lay a hand on Frado when and if she returns to the house. Perhaps he just approves of occasional beatings, and only when they are deserved. That’s a better attitude that his wife, but it’s still far from any sort of decency.
Fortunately, the Bellmont family is not comprised completely of cruel racists like Mrs. Bellmont and Mary. One of the sons, Jack, befriends Frado from the beginning. He argues with his sister Mary and with his mother about the treatment of Frado. Jane, another of the Bellmont children despises the way Frado is treated, but says and does nothing out of fear of Mrs. Bellmont. Mr. Bellmont’s sister, Abby, is in a similar boat. It is James that does the most to defy Mrs. Bellmont and to try to elevate Frado. It is he that demands that she be allowed to sit at the table with the family and eat the same food, saying to his mother, “Now, while I stay, she is going to sit down here, and eat such food as we eat” (Wilson, 68). This declaration is comforting, as it shows us very clearly that the entire family isn’t made up of hateful racists.
The beatings and mistreatment of her youth follow Frado into adulthood. After reaching the age of eighteen she leaves the Bellmont household to provide for herself. She works for a Mrs. Moore, but her health declines and she must return to the Bellmont home to recover, much to the disdain of Mrs. Bellmont, who falls right back into her cruel tactics. Frado left, became quite ill once again, but was this time refused entry into the Bellmont home by the mistress of the house. This sickness that seems ubiquitous with Frado is likely because of not only the beatings she endured but because of the poor conditions in which she was forced to work for so many years. Through most of her days “she wore no shoes until after frost, and snow even, appeared…” (Wilson 66). Whether it was pneumonia, or bronchitis, or any other number of ailments that followed Frado we do not know, but it is safe to conclude that they are, at least in part, a result of such mistreatment.
Wilson portrays both sides of the battle of racism, and all in one family. She shows an ironical and stereotypical view of such racism. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his introduction to the novel asserts that Wilson, by writing under the pseudonym ‘Our Nig,’ transforms “herself into a subject” (Gates li). Gates says that by doing this she is able to alter her torturers into the stereotypical objects that they are in the novel. By using as her pseudonym the nickname given to Frado by the Bellmonts, Wilson reverses the effect of the term, much like African Americans today use the word “nigger” as a term of familiarity amongst each other. While most of her characters are on one side of the fence or the other, Mr. Bellmont seems to straddle it. As has been pointed out, he clearly doesn’t approve of Frado’s treatment and he occasionally puts his foot down on the subject, but as Barbara A. White points out in her afterword, he usually “leaves the house to avoid confrontation and thus gives Mrs. Bellmont tacit permission to administer a beating” (White xxxii). White asserts that when Mr. Bellmont tells Frado to try and avoid a beating if she was sure she didn’t deserve it, he makes it apparent that he thinks she sometimes does deserve a whipping. This shade of gray in the black and white household Wilson creates gives a sort of depth and tying bond that seems to keep the family from pulling apart at the seams.
Harriet E. Wilson shows us the horrors of racism and the hypocrisy of some people who would have everyone believe that they’re compassionate and virtuous. By telling her story of growing up in what was supposed to be the tolerant portion of the country, she makes it known that such ignorance and hatred can reach far beyond its bounds and into regions thought to be safe and more pure. That she was able to write the book is a testimony to her strong will and perseverance. So many would have broken under the circumstances in which she grew up. It is an oddity and a shame that she did not receive the recognition for these admirable qualities, much less for her writing, when she was alive.

Works Cited
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.
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