Why Hasn’t Harriet Wilson, the First Black Female Novelist, Been Given Her Due?

Her wider appeal may have been jeopardized because she wrote characters that broke commonly-held stereotypes of White Northerners and Southerners

Nikki Hall
ZORA
Published in
8 min readNov 1, 2019

--

Illustration: Ojima Abalaka

TThe lack of widespread acknowledgement or recognition for Harriet E. Wilson, the first African American novelist and author of Our Nig (1859), comes as a surprise. A New Englander, Wilson reclaimed in her work the domestic, maternal, and liberating space of 19th century women’s fiction. She constructed a fiction which in turn dismantles Frenchman of Letters Phillipe Vilain’s “autofiction” definition with its requisite of the first-person.

Wilson’s lucid, third person literary subversion distinguished her from contemporaries. Surrounding the Our Nig blueprint were the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, the freewoman autobiography of Nancy Prince, and the Gothic bildungsroman of Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. But Our Nig is Harriet Wilson, as author and as enigmatic character.

Once described as “the earnest and eloquent colored trance medium,” Wilson (née Adams, née Green), was born in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825, to Margaret Smith of Irish descent, and Joshua Green, of African descent. With uneven records — her death certificate confirmed her as “African” (being previously documented as White, “mulatta” and Native American), and her career paths encompassed a haircare entrepreneur, spiritualist medium, school founder and public speaker — we already are questioning who was Harriet Wilson. In his 1993 essay “This Attempt of Their Sister,” African Americanist Dr. Eric Gardner concluded, “Remarriage, death, relocation, and name- or identity-changes are all possible reasons for her complete disappearance from state and national vital records.” Here is a woman devoid of genealogical roots, but this is understandable considering the precariousness and scant record-keeping of African American genealogy records prior to the Civil War. It was 81 years after her death in 1900 when Wilson finally became recognized as a woman with an identity.

SSerendipitously, renowned scholar of African American literary history, Dr…

--

--