THE DISTINCTION between slavery and freedom was both a wide cavern and a thin line in antebellum America. No one knew this better than the antebellum free blacks, especially those in the northern states. These free residents of the free states knew slavery and they knew freedom. Many of them had been slaves in the South and others had friends and relatives still in bondage. Because they cherished freedom, their own limited liberty-- circumscribed by law and custom--seemed all the more degrading. Their great leaders, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and Harriet Tubman, spoke forcefully of the meaning of liberty and the necessity of smashing freedom's fetters, North and South. These eloquent appeals for full freedom for all Americans are now rightly celebrated as an essential part of our national history, incorporated into grade school texts and TV specials. But the lives of the mass of free blacks--totaling nearly a quarter of a million in 1860--are less well known. These men and women, mostly day laborers and house servants, edited no newspapers and addressed no great convocations. Their struggle against the same blatant racism is now only coming to the top of the scholarly agenda, and as it does, a new understanding of black life in freedom is beginning to emerge.
It is an axiom of historical study that as a subject becomes open to investigation, new sources appear and old ones, long thought irrelevant, gain visibility and meaning. During the last generation, the rediscovery of primary sources--the slave narratives and the Works Progress Administration transcripts, for example--transformed the study of slave life by providing the slave's or former slave's perspective on chattel bondage. Now, it appears to be the free blacks' turn. The republication of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), the first novel published by a black person--man or woman, marks an important advance in historical understanding of northern free blacks. It is also a literary event of some significance.
Harriet Wilson's tale provides rich insight into the lives of black women in 19th-century New England. Living isolated in small towns, surrounded by a sea of whites, the experience of these black women differed greatly from that of their southern sisters. Yet, if they enjoyed legal freedom in a land famous for its militant opposition to slavery, northern black women had no reprieve from the none-too-subtle condescension of white employers certain of their racial superiority. Moreover, if the demands of house service differed little North and South, at least slave women could return each night to the comforts of the larger black community. In short, freedom's sharp edge blurs perceptibly as one turns from the North-South dichotomy to the reality of free black life.
In Our Nig, Harriet Wilson, herself a domestic servant, takes the measure of freedom in the free states and finds it wanting. She does so cautiously, because she is chary of undermining the efforts of northern abolitionists or giving succor to southern apologists for slavery. Her semi-autobiographical story of Alfrado or Frado, daughter of an impoverished white servant and an aspiring black laborer (perhaps the most common interracial match in the North), nonetheless spares nothing in its condemnation of northern racism. Abandoned by her mother following the death of her father, Frado is apprenticed to a respectable white family whose matriarch, one Mrs. Bellmont, pales little in comparison with Harriet Beecher Stowe's great villain. Mrs. Bellmont and her hellish daughter work Frado until the young servant was broken in health and spirit. They then release her into the world, where Frado sinks under the weight of her crippling experiences.
Despite its lurid sadism, Our Nig is more than an indictment of white racial brutality. While Frado is abused by her mistress, the men of the household--father and sons--provide friendship and protection; indeed, Wilson's account is laced with an undercurrent of unspoken interracial sexuality rarely found in antebellum fiction. To complicate the story further, the protective shield of white manhood is counterposed to the chicanery and deception of a smooth-talking black itinerant who ensures Frado's ruination, marrying, impregnating, and abandoning the friendless young woman and their child. In short, while Wilson places the stock characters of America's interracial drama on stage like so many set pieces, she also adds to the array new characters and thereby provides a more subtle, complex story than most sentimental novels of the day. In many ways, Our Nig is more complicated than any black novel before Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900). Indeed, the questions raised in Our Nig about the relation of black men and women in the 19th century and the antebellum black perspective on interracial marriage have hardly been addressed since the novel's publication.
In a fine introduction, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Yale University's Black Periodical Fiction Project, puts Wilson's work into a literary context. With some splendid historical detective work, he provides the connection between the story of Frado and the story of her creator. Alone in the world, Wilson picked up her pen only to provide for herself and her young son. She failed, and her son died soon after she found a publisher for her manuscript. But in failure, Harriet Wilson had accomplished much, providing important insights into black life in the antebellum North and, perhaps most important, on turning blacks from the objects of American history to the makers of that history. It is a considerable achievement and a challenge for others to do the same.