Harriet Wilson was a groundbreaking African-American writer, whose work Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was among the first novels published by African Americans. Wilson was born Harriet E. Adams in 1825 to an Irish mother and an African-American father in New Hampshire. After the death of her father, Wilson was abandoned by her mother and left as an orphan. She eventually found work with a local family, and for her labor, they housed and fed the young child. At the age of 18, she left the family and began work in various jobs.
Wilson married and gave birth to a child in 1852. Soon thereafter, her husband abandoned the family and later died. As a single parent, Wilson was forced to work at labour camps, known as "poor farms." Wilson would later move to Boston and marry for a second time. Our Nig first appeared in 1859, published anonymously by a firm in Boston. Wilson would not publish another work in her lifetime, and worked various jobs before her death in 1900.
Our Nig was did not receive attention upon its original publication. The novel, which tells the story of an African-American single mother as she struggles in a racist society, was based upon Wilson's own life experiences. Published before the abolition of slavery, the work was critical of Caucasian Americans in both the North and South for their inhumane treatment of African-Americans. Due to this critical approach, the novel was not advertised and therefore slipped from the public consciousness. Interest emerged again over a century later, when scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., cited Our Nig as the first book to be published by an African American. As such, the novel received considerable commercial and scholarly attention. This claim has since come under some scrutiny with the discovery of earlier works written by African Americans; however, the legacy of Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black as a landmark novel in the history of African-American literature remains.