APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Literature Review: How “Our Nig” Reflects the Ongoing Struggles of Race and Inequity

[Editor’s Note: This is the first episode in a three-part audio series on the book, “Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet Wilson. After listening to the episode below, listen to the second episode.]

Podcast featuring Dr. Jaclyn Maria FowlerDepartment Chair, English and Literature and
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-FergusonFaculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education

Reading works of literature considered rebellious and “outside the canon” of the time period can provide immense cultural insight. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Jaclyn Fowler talks to professor and author Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about the semi-autographical book, “Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet Wilson published in 1853, but only uncovered in 1996. Learn what this book reveals about sexuality, religion, race, enslavement and more. 

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Dr. Jackie Fowler: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar. I’m Dr. Jackie Fowler. Today, we have a special guest with us, Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, from the Department of English and Literature. Welcome, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you, Jackie. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Today, Jennifer is going to read from a work that we consider marginalized or rebellious or just out of the canon. It’s an uncanon reading day. So, Jennifer, can you introduce the story you’ll be reading for us today?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. The work is by Harriet Wilson and she titled it, “Our Nig.” It’s semi-autobiographical in nature, but is also a work of fiction.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Now, Jennifer, I don’t know anything about Harriet Wilson. Can you tell us a little bit about her? When did she write? Who is she?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. She was a free African American woman that published this work in 1853. But, it wasn’t uncovered until 1996 by Dr. Gates who had created an anthology of works by African American women. The reason he undertook it is that the works by African American men, the novels that they had created, were pretty well known within the literature community. So, he decided to go with African American women because you’re looking at works that were continually marginalized.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Wow! So two layers of marginalization?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Jennifer, the title is a real stopper. Can you tell us something about the title?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, number one, remember it was 1853, and that vernacular was just used. So, it’s a possessive, it’s a way of claiming the main character even though she was free. Because she was free, she didn’t necessarily have the roots of slavery that pegged her into place. So, when she became an indentured servant to survive, the family very much took on that role of slave owners and in a way she did become enslaved. That’s what that title reflects.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Wow, let’s get to it. So I think you’re going to read the first chapter of “Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Right. Chapter one. Mag Smith, My Mother.

“Oh, grief beyond all other griefs, when fate first leaves the young heart lone and desolate in the wild world, without that only tie for which it loved to live and feared to die. Lorn as the hung-up lute, that hath never spoken since the sad day its master-chord was broken!”

And that’s a poem by Thomas Moore.

“Lonely Mag Smith! See her as she walks with downcast eyes and heavy heart. It was not always thus. She had a loving, trusting heart. Early deprived of parental guardianship, far removed from relatives, she was left to guide her tiny boat ‘ovr life’s surges alone and inexperienced. As she merged into womanhood, unprotected, uncherished, uncared for, there fell on her ear the music of love, awakening an intensity of emotion long dormant. It whispered of an elevation before unaspired to, of ease and plenty.

Her simple heart had never dreamed of as hers. She knew the voice of her charmer, so ravishing, so far above her. It seemed like an angel’s voice alluring her upward and onward. She thought she could ascend to him and become an equal. She surrendered to him a priceless gem, which he proudly garnered as a trophy, with those of his other victims, and left her to her fate. The world seemed full of hateful deceivers and crushing arrogance.

Conscious that the great bond of union to her former companions was severed, that the disdain of others would be insupportable, she determined to leave the few friends she possessed and seek asylum among strangers. Her offspring came unwelcome before its nativity numbered weeks. It passed from Earth ascending to a pure and better life. “God be thanked,” ejaculated Meg, as she saw its breathing cease. No one can taunt her with my ruin.

Blessed release we may all respond. How many pure, innocent children not only inherit a wicked heart of their own, claiming lifelong scrutiny and restraint, but are heirs also of parental disgrace and calumny. From which only long years of patient endurance in paths of rectitude can disencumber them?

Mag’s new home was soon contaminated by the publicity of her fall. She had a feeling of degradation oppressing her, but she resolved to be circumspect and try to regain a measure of what she had lost. Then some foul tongue would jest of her shame, and averted looks and cold greetings disheartened her. She saw she could not bury in forgetfulness her misdeed, so she resolved to leave her home and seek another place far from the one she had fled.

Alas, how fearful are we to first be extending a helping hand to those who stagger in the mires of infamy, to speak the first words of hope and warning to those emerging into the sunlight of morality? Who can tell what numbers, advancing just far enough to hear a cold welcome and join in the reserved converse of professional reformers, disappointed, disheartened, have chosen to dwell in unclean places rather than encounter these holier-than-thou of the great brotherhood of man?

Such was Mag’s experience. And disdaining to ask favor or friendship from a sneering world, she resolved to shut herself up in a hovel she had often passed in her better days, and which she knew to be untenanted. She vowed to ask no favors of familiar faces, to die neglected and forgotten before she would be dependent on any. Removed from the village, she was seldom seen, except as upon your introduction, gentle reader, with downcast visage, returning her work to her employer, and thus providing herself with the means of subsistence.

In two years, many hands had craved the same avocation, foreigners who cheapened toil and clamored for a livelihood competed with her, and she could not thus sustain herself. She was now above no drudgery. Occasionally, old acquaintances called to be favored of a help of some kind, which she was glad to bestow for the sake of money it would bring her. But the association with them was such a painful reminder of bygones. She returned to her hut morose and revengeful, refusing all offers of a better home than she possessed. Thus, she lived for years hugging her wrongs, but making no effort to escape. She had never known plenty, scarcely competency, but the present was beyond comparison with those innocent years where the coronet of virtue was hers.

Every year, her melancholy increased, her means diminished. At last, no one seemed to notice her, save a kindhearted African who often called to inquire after her health and to see if she needed any fuel, he having the responsibility of furnishing that article and she in return mending or making garments.

“How much you earned this week, Mag,” asked he one Saturday evening. “Little enough, Jim. Two or three days without any dinner. I washed for the Reeds and did a small job for Mrs. Belmont, that’s all. I shall starve soon unless I can get more to do. Folks seem as afraid to come here as if they expected to get some awful disease. I don’t believe there is a person in the world but would be glad to have me dead and out of the way.” “No, no, Mag! Don’t talk so. You shan’t starve so as long as I have barrels to hoop. Peter Green boards me cheap. I’ll help you if nobody else will.”

A tear stood in Mag’s faded eye. “I’m glad,” she said with a softer tone than before, “if there is one who isn’t glad to see me suffer. Oddly, all Singleton wants me to see me punished, and feel if they could tell when I’ve been punished long enough. It’s a long day ahead. They’ll set it, I reckon.”

After the usual supply of fuel was prepared, Jim returned home full of pity for Mag. He said about devising measures for her relief. “By golly!” He said to himself one day, for he had become so absorbed in Mag’s interest that he’d fallen into the habit of musing aloud. “By golly! I wish she’d marry me.” “Who?” Shouted Peter Greene, suddenly starting from an unobserved corner of the rude shop. “Where you come from, you sly nigger!” Exclaimed Jim. “Come, tell me. Who is it?” Said Peter, “Mag Smith, you want to marry?” “Get out, Peter. And when you come in this shop again, let a nigger know. Don’t steal in like a thief.”

Pity and love know little severance. One attends the other. Jim acknowledged the presence of the former, and his efforts in Mag’s behalf told of a finer principle. This sudden expedience which he had unintentionally disclosed roused his thinking and inventive powers to study upon the best method of introducing the subject to Mag.

He belted his barrels with many a scheme revolving in his mind, none of quite which satisfied him, or seemed, on the whole, expedient. He thought of the pleasing contrast between her fair face and his own dark skin, the smooth, straight hair, which he had once, in expression of pity, kindly stroked down her now wrinkled but once fair brow. There was a tempest gathering in his heart, and at last, to ease his pent-up of passion, he exclaimed out loud, “By golly!” Recollecting his former exposure, he glanced around to see if Peter was in hearing again.

Satisfied on this point, he continued, “She’d be as much a price to me as she’d fall short of coming up into the mark with white folks. I don’t care for past things. I’ve done things before now I ashamed of. She’s good enough for me anyhow.” One more glance around the premises to make sure Peter was away.

The next Saturday brought Jim to the hovel again. The cold was coming fast to tarry its appointment with the time. Mag was nearly despairing of meeting its rigor. “How’s the wood, Mag?” Ask Jim. “All gone, and no more to be cut, anyhow,” was the reply. “Too bad!” Jim said. His truthful reply would’ve been, I’m glad. “Anything to eat in the house?” Continued he. “No,” Mag replied. “Too bad!” Again, orally, with the same inward gratulation as before.

“Well, Mag,” said Jim, after a short pause, “You’s down low enough. I don’t see, but I’ve got to take care of you. Supposing we marry?” Mag raised her eyes full of amazement and uttered a sonorous, “What?” Jim felt abashed for a moment. He knew well what her objections.

“You’s had trial of white folk anyhow. They run off and left you, and now none of them come near you to see if you’s dead or alive. I’s black outside, I know, but I’s got a white heart inside. Which would you rather have, a black heart in white skin, or a white heart in a black one?”

“Oh, dear!” Sighed Mag. “No one on Earth cares for me.” “I do,” interrupted Jim. “I can do but two things,” said she, “beg my living or get it from you.” “Take me, Mag. I can give you a better home than this and not let you suffer so.”

He prevailed, they married. You can philosophize, gentle reader, upon the impropriety of such unions, and preach dozens of sermons on the evils of amalgamation. Want is a more powerful philosopher and preacher. Poor Mag. She has sundered another bond which has held her to her fellows. She has descended another step down in the ladder of infamy.”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: And that is chapter one of “Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson, read by Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. We’re going to talk a little bit about “Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson, published in 1859. Jennifer, this is an interesting story. It’s filled with ideas that, for the time, were really controversial and usually unspoken.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. Most people tend to read when a race is unspoken, they default to their race. So, one of the reasons I love this story is even though Harriet is coined as the first African American female novel writer, she’s actually multiracial. Her mother was from Ireland, her father was from Africa. So, when we go out and talk about how amazing this book is, people have to understand it’s the first multiracial book. They also have to tip into the fact that little sneaky part at the end where the book talks about the evils of amalgamation.

Mag was the mother who is white, Jim was the African father who was Black. Then in the following chapters, it follows their child. So that little bit of eye-opening, when you talk about her pale skin and her straight hair, it’s not that she was a mixed-race person that passed, she actually was white. And when they talk about her falling into those steps of infamy, it’s because she had hit the rung low enough that she had to marry an African to survive.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: I mean, at the time, interracial marriage was against the law. In fact, it wasn’t until Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that the Supreme Court said that interracial marriage was acceptable. So, how did the readers of this time take the theme of the book?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: They actually did not believe it was written by a person of color. Because of the language, because of the pacing, because of the flow, they naturally assumed it had been written by a white person, not understanding the background of the author herself and where she was raised and the speech pattern she developed from having a white mother.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: That’s interesting. It’s also interesting what you say about the vocabulary. The vocabulary is very educated. I think you began by telling us that she was an indentured servant. So it seems to be at odds with the presumed education that would allow her to write in such a way.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. So, when the author was younger, her father left and her mother passed, and the only way she could support herself was to become an indentured servant. And for a mixed race woman that was born into freedom, what a heartbreaking choice to have to make. Am I going to feed myself or am I going to go serve these people and enslave myself to them so I can survive? The story is partially autobiographical, so you get to feel some of the pain that she had in making this choice. Now we jumped right into chapter one and we skipped over the preface.

But in the preface, the author clearly states that even though the family that she served for was in the North, the lady of the house had very Southern ideals about place. If she spoke up too much, she was beaten. If she didn’t speak enough, she was beaten. If she didn’t do the proper wash, she was beaten. So, it wasn’t a situation where it’s like, oh, they’re taking her in and they’re saving her. No, they took her in to benefit themselves more than her. But the other side of that is she was able to learn being around their children that were being taught. So, she did pick up some education.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting. Early on, there’s a line that stood out to me. She thought she could ascend to him and become an equal. It may be too much reading into this, but knowing her background as a child of a mixed marriage, it’s interesting that’s the line that she would write. She surrendered to him a priceless gem, and right before that, she thought she could ascend to him and become an equal.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Remember that she’s actually talking about her mother in this case with the chapter one. The mother was a poor woman who had come over from Ireland and had hoped to marry up, but she didn’t. She gave away her virtue and got pregnant and the baby died and then everybody in society is looking at her. So, she literally had to leave the home that she had made and go elsewhere to escape the stigma.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting though that as the author she’d be so sensitive to that and still write a line like that.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think at the time though, she also understood what the hardship was, where the hopes were. I think sometimes when you are in an impossible situation, all you want to do is move upward, have better, do more, and sometimes not recognizing the actual cost of what this upward momentum might look like.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: I’m going to stay on language for a little bit because there’s an interesting interplay of words here. Sometimes it’s almost sexual in nature. For instance, “God be thanked,” ejaculated Mag. And right after that, we hear of contamination and degradation. Then also there’s this need to be spiritual in the language that she chooses to write in. And I think it’s a kind of interesting contrast in styles.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, I think at the time, sexuality and religion absolutely went hand in hand. They’re both methods of controlling people. It’s a way to look at keeping somebody shackled, for lack of a better term, through a religion that is punitive, through a religion that says, “You have to do good on this Earth to reap eternal rewards. So, don’t expect any rewards on Earth, you have to wait for it.” And it’s that same delay in sexuality. You have a buildup and then you have to wait for it.

And I think it’s probably also showing her very wry sense of humor, where she’s talking about this woman giving up her virginity to this guy and then all these good, high-moral folks looking down on her and then not offering help. It’s not like it’s a new concept of people selling their bodies to make a living or make money to get food. And then, the people that are very fanatically religious tend to look down on them, that they’re lesser than, but at the same time don’t bother to help.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: That’s interesting because I was thinking as you were reading that there is a connection between what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1850, he wrote “The Scarlet Letter” and that idea of the puritanical religious sect outcasting a woman who was impregnated by one of the pastors. And this book, there is some kind of connection. Do you think it’s a theme that’s dominant in the time that the author lived?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think it’s a theme that’s dominant even now. Look at the state of our world and look at what our world is asking people to give up and trying to control. The reason it shows up in literature time and again is it’s not been fixed. You can’t tell someone what to do with their body and then deny them any help because they disagree with you. Unfortunately, people intermix some very lofty ideas about what religion is and what it’s supposed to do, and it gives them the comfort to behave abominably.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It is indeed pretty relevant to what we’ve been going through in the last few weeks with the leak of the Alito draft of the ruling on Roe v. Wade. You can trace this lineage, do you think, from Hawthorne through Harriet’s work to the present?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. And it’s not just religion and sexuality. It’s always going to also include gender, race and culture, language patterns, education. It’s a whole big ball of people trying to set themselves up as better than, but ignoring the implications that religion says you need to reach back and help people.

So, it sets up all these implications for people to feel religiously superior and moral. But then, people choose to ignore the part of religion that also says that they’re supposed to take care of their friends and family and those in need.

And it sets up this very bizarre dichotomy where people want to be seen as good religious people, but they refuse to act like good religious people. I think our literature all the way through history up until just now continually points out that hypocrisy of, you aren’t actually doing what your religion says you should be doing.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting that Harriet Wilson is writing at a time when some of the slave narratives are becoming popular and they write about how religion is used to keep African slaves in line.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Yeah. When you take people from all over a huge continent that do not have the same cultural upbringing and do not have the same language and do not have the same traditions, the one unifying force that you can give people is, okay, we can go into this religion and we’re allowed to sing, we’re allowed to express ourselves, we’re allowed to communicate. So, then that shared new religion comes in and not only becomes a method for them to be expressive, but it also becomes a method for which they can start to take control of their lives again. Then this is where you come into underground railroad and making these plans to escape the torture and enslavement that is their daily life.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Although Harriet Wilson is not a slave as we know slaves, she’s an indentured servant and is treated very similarly. Talk about the communication and the ability through religion for slaves, for people like Harriet Wilson who’s not a slave, but indentured, talk about how that religion allows them to express themselves while at the same time the way the religion is being used is to oppress them and keep them oppressed.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. So, again, when you look at the traditional religions in the South, Christianity is very, very dominant. When you go through and you study the Bible, it’s a fairly punitive religion. So, you have a whole bunch of rules that most people can’t attain, you have a whole bunch of articles put in place that tell you how you should behave. And through those, the old Negro spiritual started coming out that sounded like what the Bible said it should sound like, but definitely had encoded messages.

And there is amazing work out there that talks about all of the codes of the Negro spirituals and how it helped to direct people. In the same time, we also had different methods of communication that didn’t involve the church and didn’t involve religion. There was the way hair was braided, there was the way quilts were made, communication was going to be had. But where religion became a major stronghold is, it was one place they could be expressive and creative. I know there’s a ton of people out there that roll their eyes and they’re like, “Well, creative things aren’t a necessarily need. Artists, oh, they’re fine, but we don’t need them. Creativity is pretty much overrated.”

Every time I hear that, all I ask people to do, 30 days, don’t watch television, don’t listen to music, don’t read a book, don’t look at a painting. After 30 days, if you can do that, come back to me and then maybe I can agree with you that creativity is not needed. But when you’re enslaved and you have no choice and you don’t have common communication and you’re not supposed to be joyous or exuberant, yes, going into church and singing your heart out was one method of creativity that they could use.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: In the context of the conversation we’re having right now, Jennifer, there’s a line at the end of this chapter that really stands out. As we talk about people who use religion to control, in Harriet Wilson’s book, enslaved narratives straight through to today, today’s society, so using religion to control and also using religion to express joy and to express positivity and to communicate with others, I think this line is a standout. Jim asks, “Which you rather have, a black heart in a white skin or a white heart in a black one?”

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And there are so many ways to interpret. You can look at the colors, black and white, where black is often used to represent evil and white is used to represent pure. You can take it at the literal of, he knows that he is a good man, but based on people’s visual, people just won’t ever see it or believe it just like people tend to make the assumption that white people of the time were just trying to help. Again, playing back to the fact that the author herself was multiracial, so she ends up being that amalgamation, she’s that mix.

So what is she? Does she have just black skin and a good heart? Is she a mix of what goodness can look like if you split the difference? There’s a lot to dig into and play around with, and especially when Jim is pointing out to Mag, “You’re white and the white people don’t want you. They’re not helping you. They’re not giving you anything, they’re letting you starve, they’re letting you freeze. So maybe if you look at me a little bit more, you’re going to understand that I am a good person and I can help you and I want to help you.”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: And I think Mag’s response to Jim saying, “Which you rather have, a black heart in a white skin or a white heart in a black one?” Her response is, “Oh, dear!” sighed Mag, “Nobody on Earth cares for me.” In other words, Jim doesn’t even qualify as an anybody or as somebody in her opinion.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: He’s the one that’s been asking after her for weeks and making sure that she has wood so she’s not freezing and he’s still othered.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Jennifer, I find this so interesting that this woman is othering the man who’s giving her the opportunity to have a life, to have a real life. But I find it interesting in chapter two, the very first line, “Jim, proud of his treasure, a white wife, tried hard to fulfill his promises.” Now that’s an interesting thing.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, for Jim, it was the idea of stepping up. If he was good enough to procure himself a white wife, then he was one of the Africans they could trust. He obviously had some sensibilities to him. Otherwise, why would she marry him?

Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, she’s at the bottom of the ladder for white people, but still above the ladder of Black people.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. And considering also that they were both immigrants, neither of them was born there. Her rung being on equal with him was despairing to her. And despite everything he did to take care of her, she still didn’t look at him as taking care of her. She looked at him as just a method of heat and food.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting. This is another theme that goes over and over and over again through literature. For instance, one of the themes I would see in “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson, he was kind to her, but she was white so she had the power and he was hurt for it.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. And it’s still the same thing today where conversations I’ve had with people, and I have real conversations with people that make them uncomfortable sometimes. But I had a colleague who was a very nice white woman, absolutely. And that’s not how I titled her, she was just a person. But she came to me and said, “Well, my mom’s kind of racist, but I want you to meet her because I know she’d like you.” Then had a really hard time hearing back from me of, “I don’t want to meet her. I’m not going to be a token good person for her to feel okay about, ‘Well, this one is okay, but the rest of them don’t deserve my respect.’”

It never occurred to this woman that, number one, that was a racist statement, and number two, it means she also had racist ideologies. She was so embarrassed by the whole thing. But it’s that concept of good ones and bad ones and we make these blanket sweeping statements visually first before we actually even get to know people.

So, the color of your skin is this inherent barrier for people to sit down and get to know you without ever once actually stopping to think, “Huh, maybe that’s a bad idea. Maybe I don’t know enough about this person to decide whether they’re a good person or a bad person.”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Jennifer, just as you’re speaking, I’m thinking, sometimes lessons, experiences, they’re baked into our DNA. They’ve come so long from generation to generation that they get baked in. I wonder if there’s a fear for white people to have an honest conversation with a Black person, afraid that they might offend, or for a Black person to have an honest conversation with a white person because they’re afraid of offense. Then all of that is coming from, for instance, what Harriet Wilson has experienced in 1859 and before.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think a lot of the fear on both sides, every side, every person, is, “If I get to know this person, I have to challenge assumptions that I have made. If I speak to this person, I might hear things that I feel shame for.” And I think a huge idea around the world is, “If I don’t ‘other’ other people, if I see them for being the people they are, I have to challenge the assumption that everybody’s good, everybody’s bad. I have to challenge the assumption of what superiority looks like. I have to challenge systems put in place that might benefit me otherwise.”

So, there is a lot of unpacking to do. There’s never a simple answer. It’s a lot of work. We all have biases. That’s part of being human. But, I do think for people who want to be progressive, you really have to start to ask some of those hard questions of yourself first and then seek to understand other people. And also take the understanding that just because you want answers, people may not be willing to give them.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Speaking of answers, does Harriet Wilson ever get to an answer?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think she has a lot of musings. And I’ve read this story quite a few times. I don’t know if she’s getting the answer because I don’t think she’s actually asking herself the real question. I think she’s dipped her toes in the water and she’s doing amazing work in a time where people weren’t even quite sure that Black people could read and write and were literate and she put together a beautiful novel. But, I think even still, she shies away from some of those really hard questions of, “Well, what if I decided to stick it out instead of becoming an indentured servant?” And mind you at the time she was six.

You have a child making life and death decisions of, am I going to eat or am I going to be on the streets and have this freedom with no food? So it’s an impossible situation. And, I think she does poke and prod and open up a lot of avenues for conversation through the entire book. For example, she starts every single chapter with a poem. And, interestingly enough, in our time in 2022, the “Bridgerton” novels have become a real big smash hit on television. It made me giggle because the tone was so similar when she talks about her dear readers, and I’m just like, “Oh, okay.” Don’t know if Julia Quinn ever read Harriet Wilson, but just this objective third person stepping out to acknowledge, “I’m breaking that fourth wall. I’m writing to you and I know I’m writing to you.”

Back to your original question, she asks a lot of poignant questions, but I think the biggest question that overarches through this book is, can people of different races and cultures actually coexist well? I don’t think she actually answers it because she never experienced it. And while the question is there in the book, I don’t know if it was conscious for her.

I think she wrote what she knew, what she had experienced. She made a story around it because it was probably easier to step out and make it not a memoir, but make it a tale. But, you and I both know as writers, we put ourselves in our works. Writing is a reflection tool. I think she just didn’t know she had a question to answer like that even as she tried to understand herself in her life.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: That was Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. She read today “Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson. I want to thank you all for being part of this broadcast. Thank you.

[Listen to the second episode of this three-part audio series.]

Jaclyn Maria Fowler is an adventurer, a lover of culture and language, a traveler, and a writer. To pay for her obsessions, she works as Chair of the English Department and is a full professor at the University. Dr. Fowler earned a Doctorate in Education from Penn State and an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She is the author of the novel "It is Myself that I Remake" and of the creative nonfiction book "No One Radiates Love Alone."

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