Two Stories of Oppression in “Our Nig”

As the first African-American woman novelist, Harriet Wilson wrote in the shadow of two intersecting oppressions: racism and sexism. In the title page of her roman à clef Our Nig, she offers an alternative title: “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There.” There is so much to explore in this description; one possibility pertaining to the phrase “two-story” refers to the two stories of oppression Wilson, and in turn, Frado, experience. The term intersectional theory – “the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities, specifically black women” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. Intersectional theory describes what Wilson experienced and responded to through Frado’s story. Since Wilson lived before the theory of intersectional feminism, she responded creatively with her own term “two-story.” In Our Nig, Wilson addresses both the story of sexism and the story of racism she experiences, and how they intersect.

our nig

Even before the novel begins, Wilson defends her position as an African-American writer. In the preface, she almost apologizes for attempting to write: “I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren…not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite.” She calls herself their sister, but must fight to prove to them that her voice is worthy of speaking. Frado’s experience of being silenced mirrors that of Wilson: “Girls made straw bonnets – that it was easy and profitable. But how could she, black, feeble, and poor, find anyone to teach her.” Although racism is much more apparent throughout the text than sexism, Wilson consciously emphasizes “she,” recognizing that finding someone to teach a black man and someone to teach a black woman are extremely different tasks. Wilson and Frado experience the same racism as any African American men, but are silenced in ways that men were not.

Despite the humble approach to addressing stories of oppression in her preface, Wilson makes no attempt to hide the fact that woman experience racism differently. The abuse, seduction, and silence Frado experiences at the hands of the Bellmonts points to the explicit mass rape of black woman. “Excited by so much indulgence of a dangerous passion, she seemed left to unrestrained malice; and snatching a towel, stuffed the mouth of the sufferer, and beat her cruelly.” Not only is Frado physically abused, but she is both physically and systematically silenced, which engulfs her into a form of slavery that victimizes African American women even in the free north. Rape is a shadow of slavery that African American men did not face, or at least not at the epidemic scale of African American women. Wilson titled her autobiographical novel “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” but the text itself argues that Frado has autonomy of neither her body nor her voice.

Frado’s two stories of oppression in Our Nig are reminiscent of Sojourner Truth, who lived at the same time as Wilson and recognized the intersection of racism and sexism. Truth cried out, begging for womanism: “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” The question “ain’t I a woman?” echoes throughout Our Nig as Frado is denied the most basic human right: her voice. Wilson chronicles the struggle of not being man enough to be an African American writer and not white enough to be treated as a woman. This is where the shadow of two stories of oppression – racism and sexism – intersect.

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