[Editor’s Note: This is the final episode in a three-part audio series on the book, “Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet Wilson. Listen to the first part.]
Reading works of literature considered rebellious and “outside the canon” of the time period can provide immense cultural insight. In the third and final part of this series, APU’s Dr. Jaclyn Fowler talks to professor and author Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about the semi-autobiographical book “Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet Wilson published in 1859, but only uncovered in 1996. Learn what this book reveals about sexuality, religion, race, enslavement and more.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar. I’m Jackie Fowler and we are here for part three of three conversations about Harriet Wilson’s novel, “Our Nig”, a story written in 1859 by an African American woman. And so, I want to introduce our star of the day, Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, from the English and literature department at APU. Welcome to you Dr. Fisch-Ferguson.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thanks Jackie. I appreciate being back to wrap up the rest of “Our Nig”.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Now, for all of you who have been following along, there is a link in the transcript for the project Gutenberg PDF of “Our Nig”, and it is free. So, you can download this on your computer and read it. It’s only about a hundred pages. So, I think you’ll enjoy this. If you’ve enjoyed our conversations, it would be worth a read. So, tell us what you’re going to read today. Dr. Fisch-Ferguson.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, wrapping things up kind of, but keeping people interested. I’m going to read through chapter 12, which is the last chapter. Obviously a ton of stuff has happened between chapter six and chapter 12. And I’m going to give you just the quickest of rundowns that Frado has continued to move upward and find her freedoms, find more of her voice. It comes to a head with the Bellmonts and she finally in chapter 12 is ready to begin her own life and do her own things. So, I deliberately am not going to spoil chapters seven through 11, but they are definitely worth the read. It’s a real quick read. It’s a compelling read. So, if you enjoy what you’re hearing, spoil yourself just a little bit and read through either the PDF or the book.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, this is chapter 12 from “Our Nig”, by Harriet Wilson.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Chapter 12, the winding up of the matter. Nothing new under the sun. Solomon.
“A few years ago, within the compass of my narrative, there appeared often in some of our new England villages, professed fugitives from slavery, who recounted their personal experience in homely phrase and awkward, the indignation of non-slave holders against brother Pro. Such a one appeared in the new home of Frado, and as people of color were rare there, was it strange she should attract her dark brother, that he should inquire her out, succeed in seeing her, feel a strange sensation in his heart toward her, that he should toy with her shining curls, feel proud to provoke her, to smile and expose the ivory concealed by thin ruby lips, that her sparkling eye should fascinate, that he should propose, that they should marry? A short acquaintance was indeed an objection, but she saw him often and thought she knew him. He never spoke of his enslavement to her when alone, but she felt like her own oppression, it was painful to disturb oftener than was needful.”
“He was a fine straight negro whose back showed no marks of the lash erected as it had never been crouched beneath a burden. There was a silent sympathy that Frado felt attracted her and she opened her heart to the presence of love, that arbitrary inexorable tyrant. She removed to Singleton her former residence, and there was married. Here was Frado’s first feelings of trust and repose on the human arm. She realized for the first time the relief of looking to another for comfortable support. Occasionally he would leave her to lecture. Those tours were prolonged often to weeks. Of course, he had little spare money. Frado was again, feeling her self-dependence and was at last compelled to resort alone to that.”
“Samuel was kind to her when at home, but made no provision for his absence, which was at last unprecedented. He left her to her fate, embarked at sea with the disclosure that he had never seen the south and that his illiterate harangues were for humbugs and hungry abolitionists. Once more alone, yet not alone, a still newer companionship would force itself upon her. No one wanted her with such prospects. Herself was burden enough, who would have an additional one? The horrors of her condition nearly prostrated her. And she was again, thrown upon the public for sustenance, then followed the birth of her child. The long absent Samuel unexpectedly returned and rescued her from charity. Recovering from her expected illness, she once more commenced toil for herself and child in a room obtained of a poor woman, but with better fortune. One so well-known would not be wholly neglected. Kind friends watched her when Samuel was from home, prevented her from suffering, and when the cold weather pinched the warmly clad, a kind friend took them in and thus prevented them.”
“At last Samuel’s business became very engrossing. And after long desertion, news reached his family that he had become a victim of yellow fever in New Orleans. So much toil as was necessary to sustain Frado was more than she could endure. And soon as her babe could be nourished without his mother, she left him in charge of a Mrs. Capon and procured an agency hoping to recruit her health and gain an easier livelihood for herself and her child. This afforded her better maintenance than she had yet found. She passed into the new various towns of the state she lived, then into Massachusetts. Strange were some of her adventures, watched by kidnappers maltreated by professed abolitionists who didn’t want slaves in the south nor niggers in their houses North. Faugh, to lodge one, to eat with one, to admit one through the front door, to sit next to one, awful.”
“Traps slightly laid by the vicious to ensnare her, she resolutely avoided. In one of her tours, providence favored her with a friend who pitying her cheerless lot, kindly provided her with a valuable recipe from which she might herself manufacture a useful article for her maintenance. This proved a more agreeable and easier way of sustenance. And thus, to the present time, may you see her busily employed in preparing her merchandise.”
“Then sallying forth to encounter many frowns, but some kind faces, friends and purchases. Nothing turned her from her steadfast purpose of elevating herself. Proposing on God, she has thus far journeyed securely, still an invalid. She asked for your sympathy gentle reader, refuse not because some part of her history is unknown saved by the Omniscient God. Enough has been unrolled to demand your sympathy and aid.”
“Do you ask the destiny of those connected with her early history? A few years only have elapsed since Mr. and Mrs. B passed into another world. As age increased, Mrs. B became more irritable so that no one, even her own children could remain with her. And she was accompanied by her husband to the home of Lewis, where, after agony in death unspeakable, she passed away. Only a few months since, Aunt Abby entered heaven. Jack and his wife rest in heaven, disturbed by no intruders and Susan and her child are yet with the living. Jane has silver locks in place of auburn tresses, but she has the early love of Henry still, and has never regretted her exchange of lovers. Frado has passed from their memories, as Joseph from the butlers, but she will never cease to track them till beyond mortal vision.” End of chapter 12.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: And this is our third conversation of three about Harriet Wilson’s novel, “Our Nig”. So, Jennifer, tell us a little bit about what we just heard in chapter 12.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, chapter 12 is just a real quick wrap-up of what happened after Frado left the Bellmont house. So, there was a big kerfuffle maybe we call it, in chapter 11 that saw really into the climax of the story and how Frado asserted herself. So, chapter 12 is kind of coming through to wrap everything up nice and neatly. It sees her falling into a romance that she thought was going to be a great thing. And she thought it was going to be good. And then her guy decided he was going to go lecture about the ails of slavery and abandoned her, much mirroring the story of her mother. She had a child, and she was sickly, and she had to rebound from that and had to rely on the kindness of others, which as she went through it, she recognized it wasn’t a kindness, that the people that professed to be abolitionists and they wanted things to happen differently, were good at speaking it, but not good at providing it.
And I think part of that is not just Frado was recognized as being African American, but even more so that she was mixed. And again, this weaves its way through the story where mulatto peoples were supposed to have been seen as slightly better than African or enslaved peoples. But at the same time, then people also have to acknowledge that this meant there was a union of a white person and a black person, and now here’s this offspring and now we have to deal with it. So, we can’t categorize you one or the other really because you are both. And so, she learned that despite not having slavery in the north, there were still many problems of acceptance. And so, she went through this journey of almost being homeless, almost dying, having a child, as soon as her child was a little older, she continued the cycle of abandonment and went off to reclaim that self- dependence and then became an entrepreneur.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting that America has been wrapped up in a kind of puritanical innocence left over from England. And so often in early literature and even into today’s literature, we see a reticence to recognize sexual relations, but I think you hit on something really important. It’s awkward enough to consider sexual relations in a novel, but to consider it between a black person and a white person in 1859, took it to another level of awkward.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think it presses upon people who have been raised to think you’re only supposed to be with people who look like you, who sound like you, who are in your class. Find all the isms that people can create categories, and thereby systematically tell people when they’re good enough to be accepted. And conversation that comes up in my household with my oldest, who is trying to figure out their way in the world is all these boxes. And I finally had to say, do you really just want to check a box, or do you want to live? Do you want to be, you can change who you are every day, every hour of every day, as long as you treat people well.
I think we’re so busy categorizing things to help our brains make sense of what we don’t know, we forget that sometimes living in experience is a better way to interact and to integrate or share culture or share different experiences. No matter who you are, you are the only one that has your experience. That’s it, just you. So, trying to categorize people to make them make sense through your lived experience, doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: And yet in this novel, there’s a cyclical nature of experiences. So, we see Frado repeating Mag’s life, including marrying Samuel, who she thinks it might be a good thing to have someone to rely on, except she can’t.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. The bigger difference being is Mags had, she had reached the end. She was destitute. He’s better than death. Where Frado, at least from the beginning, it was more of a companionship and more of somebody to lean on. I would also say too, my own interpretation, of course, is Samuel felt comfortable enough to go out and lecture because she was a powerhouse. She had gone through enough that she was self-dependent. Now, illness aside, you can’t necessarily decide that if your body says you’re going to be weak and sick, that you can say no and carry on. So, she did have physical afflictions, but her spirit was very strong, and it had to be, it had to be so she could survive and still be a person instead of being broken and completely destitute.
But in the end, he did leave and left her to then cycle back. And a lot of times when we do talk about abuses or patterns of behavior, it is cyclical within families. What you have grown up with is what you know and even sometimes though you know, it may not be the best, it worked for my mom, so I turned out okay, so it’s going to work for my kid and they’ll maybe turn out okay and then maybe my grand kid. So easy to be on the outside looking in saying, well, that was a bad mistake, but when you’re in the situation, the options are different.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting that Samuel’s experiences were being raised as a slave. And so that understanding of Frado that he would take care of her when he went on his lectures was probably nowhere in his understanding of roles.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: No, her understanding came from Mr. Bellmont. Her understanding came from James and even from Jack. And so, Samuel being a slave, her understanding is, but you’re my husband and you’ll help take care of things. But even still, the unspoken was Samuel held someplace of maybe not power as we think of it, but someplace of regard, because he didn’t have flesh marks on his back. And that’s pretty telling when the slave owner culture was, we will beat you into submission every time you don’t work hard enough, work fast enough, we’re going to remind you through pain and through torture that you need to do so. So, the absence of the mark on his back also shows that, okay, you had a little more regard. The fact that he was articulate enough to go off and do these lectures and gather a crowd for his lectures also shows that he had some little modicum of presence and privilege.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: You know, and while we don’t actually hear much about it, there is a structure behind Samuel and his lectures. There are the white, Northern liberals who are putting him out on the circuit who think nothing of his wife and child who remain at home while he’s out lecturing. It’s almost as if in their zeal to end slavery, they use up Samuel in this case.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, absolutely. And it’s again, coming from this place of, and I hate the terminology, but we have this good fine Negro here that talks well, and if you’ve heard my lectures before about being called articulate, oh, he can speak, and people aren’t intimidated by him and he speaks well. So, people will want to listen to him. And so that furthers their agenda. They can go home at night after having promoted Samuel and his talks and feel good about themselves and go to sleep and think the world’s going to be a better place, instead of recognizing their own cycle of when you let one person speak for all experiences, you are not getting a well-rounded picture. When you pigeonhole the enslaved experience on one person, because he lectures well, you diminish everything else that other people have been through because maybe they’re not as articulate. Maybe they have more disfigurement, maybe they don’t present as well. But when you are putting people out there, you’re looking for a presence, you’re not looking for an authentic story.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Without applying their own framework to his family, his extended family, they treat him as another anyway.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. He is good to set their agenda, but that’s all he is. He isn’t multifaceted. He isn’t a brother, a son, a father, a husband. He is Samuel the agenda. And so, they make him a very 2D caricature of what he should have been. And it also takes away from creating a healthy family life that he’d never had in the first place.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: There’s an interesting couple of lines where we see this clearly from Frado’s viewpoint. And it’s quote, “watched by kidnappers, maltreated by professed abolitionists, who didn’t want slaves at the south nor niggers in their own houses north, Faugh, to lodge one, to eat with one, to admit one through the front door to sit next to one, awful.”
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I mean, but as long as you sound good, you can go talk for us, but then go elsewhere. Well, let’s understand you’re going to be the other. There is nothing that you can do, there is nothing you can say when people are taught to exclude. And that’s a lot of people hate to recognize about the foundations of the country, it was made on an exclusionary basis. So, when people talk about the Puritans coming over to start this new land and start these new outcroppings with people in their belief systems, they were leaving the church of England who were all about rock and roll and parties. So, the Puritans came over to set up a more repressed society, a more rule driven, a more patriarchal this is how things have to be, while church of England was over there, rocking and rolling through divorces and beheadings and all the other scandals.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, it creates this huge puritanical streak through American identity.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: That’s still here. That is 100% still here. When people start to question, well, the biggest comparison I tend to get when people ask in other countries, do they really show people being shot on television in a show? Yes. But they’re afraid to show some breasts and nipples? Yes, yes. And that is a carryover of starting up where modesty was a huge virtue that was pushed and continued to be pushed. And let’s bring it back up to 2022, where my younger was like, so we can’t wear tank tops with spaghetti straps, which as a small boy, a child, he doesn’t get spaghetti straps. And he asked me why, and I said, well, I said, if we’re going to go with the good answer, it’s there’s less material and hormonal bodies create odors. I said however, a lot of other conversations are about the very alluring and distracting nature of the female’s shoulders.
And then he said words that I will not repeat here because he was so automatically offended that somebody thought that he couldn’t concentrate at school because a girl had her shoulder out, which to me was the very correct reaction to that one. He had a hard time with the logic in his head that he was going to be so distracted by a shoulder that he couldn’t do work. And yet these are those puritanical ideas that still creep up and come through that we want to say, well, it’s not so bad, but it is because it’s not talked about. And all these things that Frado wanted to have for autonomy, the cost was giving her child away. It was losing her husband. It was dealing with abolitionists who would smile at her, but if they were going to try to eat with her, they would rather just go to bed hungry. So, she comes into this world and yet still becomes an entrepreneur and goes forward and continues to live this very fractured life that she has built based on her experiences.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: And the last time we talked, you brought it forward to 2022. And I’m going to bring it forward again too. I don’t know if you know, Reverend Al Sharpton from the National Action Network. He has a term that I find really interesting. He calls like the modern-day abolitionists I would say, he calls some latte liberals. And to me there seems to be almost a direct lineage between the abolitionists to this group that he calls latte liberals.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, I think the phrase that works best here is rules for thee but not for me. So, it’s really easy to feel pleased with yourself when you rally and you write letters and you make these ideas, that things should be equal. And then you go home and stay, in your very very safe non cultured neighborhoods maybe, where everybody looks the same, sounds the same goes to the same church, the kids go to the same private schools. So, while yes, I do believe there are plenty of people who would love to see some change, there are also plenty of people who would like to see some change as long as it doesn’t affect their way of living and not to get their hands too dirty. And I think part of that is coming back to the notion that there are good examples of certain sets of people instead of allowing people to be people.
So, one of the biggest pushbacks I hear time and again, is about well, black on black crime, as if that’s an excuse for then there to be white on black crime. I’m going to suggest everybody hop on over to statistics.org and check the numbers of white-onwhite crime, which are as just as high, they’re just as high. Just not talking about as loudly because that’s not what is sensationalized, it’s not what makes people okay to go to bed and go to sleep, when someone kills a 12-year-old kid that’s having an autistic meltdown.
That allows them, while black on black crime, still does not excuse the fact that a child’s life was taken, unnecessarily. And I think people find these different ways to appease themselves, so let’s push it back just a little bit where, when you have all these protests in Ferguson and they find these horrible, horrible mugshots of the young man, and while he was a thug, he was a criminal but then we go to that horrible rapist Brock Turner, whose picture they put out after he was caught raping an unconscious woman, they posted his graduation photo instead of his mugshot. I mean, it’s all about that perception.
So, when you come to latte liberals, and this can be across any culture talking about any injustice, we are not pigeonholing anybody, we’re going to let that one stand right there. There are a lot of people who would like to do minimal effort so that they can pretend that they’re working toward equality. So, when they go home and go to bed, they can feel okay about the effort that they’ve made to make the world a better place. And then they can feel rested. But again, they’re inside these very similar gated communities where they’re allowed to feel safe because there aren’t othering influences intruding on them.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Jennifer, Harriet Wilson wrote this book 163 years ago. And still, we recognize themes from that book in our society today. What needs to change?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think everybody could do with a good hard look of honesty at themselves. Sometimes that mirror is not our best friend. But honestly, in order to make change and a huge, big sweeping statement, and probably not as many actionable answers as people would like to hear, but it’s rounding back down to how do we structure ourselves? What actually is important to us. And then how do we make our communities safe? I think a lot of people are waiting for upper-level governments to swoop in and make all these changes and all of a sudden everything is going to be miraculously better. Historically, we have known this not to be true because they’re busy playing their games and their own agendas. But I do believe our changes come at a community level where we can start maybe by trying something new, accepting someone at face value, stop othering people.
Everybody is other. Nobody is exactly like you, nobody ever can be because of lived experiences, but you can take yourself out of your comfort zone and maybe introduce yourself to something different. The worst that happens is you find something new that you love, or you decide that you never want to try it again. But we live in these little cloistered areas where people are afraid and they’re driven by fear and fear is hammered into them daily by what they hear, what they see, what they’re fed, what they consume on social media. So, what we’re looking at is maybe a call to action to try do something out of your comfort zone for once, maybe interact with somebody, maybe talk to somebody new. And I’m not saying you have to go in rudely, aggressively, come after people. Check your own privilege at the door. I check my own when I have to integrate into situations where I’m maybe not comfortable enough.
So yeah, we take these steps forward. We learn new things. Hopefully we pass on some shared knowledge to those around us. And here’s the biggest clue of all, embrace difference. I always say this to people when they ask and then they’re afraid that they let me talk forever, but if you had to eat one food for the rest of your life, would you have a satisfied life? And if the answer is no, then my bigger question is then how do you expect to have a fulfilled and enriched life if everything looks the same every single day?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, Jennifer, at the end of three of three conversations about Harriet Wilson’s book, “Our Nig”, what do you think happened to Frado’s and Samuel’s child? I think what I’m going to ask here is, do you think Frado broke the cycle by giving up her child?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: The best part about Frado’s child is we’re never given a gender. It’s always the child. The very optimistic part of me says, yes, actually the child decided that not having a family was not how they wanted to raise their family. And so, they went on to create a more loving and supportive environment for them and their own children and then they adjusted that cycle. So that’s the optimistic part of my brain and that’s how I’m writing it.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: This is the everyday scholar and we’ve been listening to Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, reading chapter 12 of “Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson. And I’m Jackie Fowler. Thank you for joining us on the Everyday Scholar.