Our Nig: Or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black

Competition for "first novel"

The scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rediscovered Our Nig in 1982 and documented it as the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States. His discovery and the novel gained national attention.

In 2006, William L. Andrews, an English literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University, brought to light Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865), first published in serial form in the Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the AME Church. Publishing it in book form in 2006, they maintained that The Curse of Caste should be considered the first "truly imagined" novel by an African American to be published in the U.S. They argued that Our Nig was more autobiography than fiction.[3][4]

Gates responded that numerous other novels and other works of fiction of the period were in some part based on real-life events and were in that sense autobiographical, but they were still considered novels.[3] Examples include Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall; Louisa May Alcott's Little Women; and Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797).[3]

The first known novel by an African American is William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), published in the United Kingdom, where he was living at the time.[3] The critic Sven Birkerts argued that the unfinished state of The Curse of Caste (Collins died before completing it) and its poor literary quality should disqualify it as the first building block of African-American literature. He contended the works by Wilson and Brown were more fully realized.[4]

Eric Gardner thought that Our Nig did not receive critical acclaim from abolitionists when first published because it did not conform to the contemporary genre of slave narratives. He thinks the abolitionists may have refrained from promoting Our Nig because the novel recounts "slavery's shadow" in the North, where free blacks suffered as indentured servants and from racism. It fails to offer the promise of freedom, and it features a protagonist who is assertive toward a white woman.[5]

In her article, “Dwelling in the House of Oppression: The Spatial, Racial, and Textual Dynamics of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig,” Lois Leveen argues that, although the novel is about a free black in the north, the “free black” is still oppressed. The “white house” of the novel represents, as Leveen puts it, “The model home for American society is built according to the spatial imperatives of slavery.” Frado is a “free black”, but she is treated as a lower-class person and is often abused as a slave would be. Leveen argues that Wilson was expressing her view that even the “free blacks” were not really free in a racist society.


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