[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part audio series on the book, “Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” by Harriet Wilson. Listen to the first part.]
Reading works of literature considered rebellious and “outside the canon” of the time period can provide immense cultural insight. In the second part of this audio series, APU’s Dr. Jaclyn Fowler talks to professor and author Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about the semi-autobiographical 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.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar. I’m Dr. Jackie Fowler. And today we have part two of three with our special guest, Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson from the English and literature department at APU. She is also an extraordinary writer. Today, we will be Intalking about the middle section of “Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson, a book that was written in 1859 by a black woman. Jennifer, welcome.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you, Jackie. Thank you for having me back again. It’s absolutely my pleasure to go ahead and read through this middle section and have conversation with you after.
Dr. Jackie Fowler “:” So, Jennifer, why don’t we start with you telling us which chapter you’re going to read today and then go ahead and start to read.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson “:” Okay. Today, I’m going to cover chapter six. There are 12 chapters total in this book. I figured let’s flash forward ahead. As you recall, in chapter one, we were focusing on Mag, the mother and then a whole bunch has transpired and people are going to have to go read the book, but we’re going to start in on chapter six, which follows Mag’s daughter Frado, who is now 14 at the time. Chapter six, varieties.
“Harder life’s early steps, and but that youth is buoyant confident and strong in hope, men would behold its threshold and despair. The sorrow of Frado was very great for her pet and Mr. Bellmont by great exertion obtained it again much to the relief of the child. To be thus deprived of all her sources of pleasure was a sure way to exalt their worth and Fido became in her estimation, a more valuable presence than the human beings that surrounded her.”
“James had now been married a number of years and frequent requests for a visit from the family were at last accepted. And Mrs. Bellmont made great preparations for a fall sojourn in Baltimore. Mary was installed housekeeper and named merely, for Nig also known as Frado was the only moving power in the household. Although suffering from their joint severity, she felt safer than to be thrown wholly upon an ardent passionate unrestrained young lady, whom she had always hated and felt it hard to be obliged to obey.”
“The trials she must meet. Were Jack or Jane at home, she would have some refuge. Only one remained, good Aunt Abby was still in the house. She saw the fast-receding coach, which conveyed her master and mistress with regret and begged for one favor only, that James would send for her when they returned, a hope she had confidently cherished for all these five years. She was now able to do all the washing, ironing, baking and the common et cetera of household duties.”
“But though 14, Mary left it all for her to do. Though she affected great responsibility, she would show herself in the kitchen long enough to relieve herself of some command, better withheld or insist upon some compliance to her wishes in some department, which she had very imperfectly acquainted with. Very much less than the person she was addressing. And so impetuous until her orders were obeyed that to escape this turmoil Nig would often go contrary to her own knowledge to gain a respite. Nig was taken sick. What could be done? The work. Certainly, but not by Miss Mary. So, Nig would work while she could remain erect, then sink down upon the floor, a chair till she could rarely rally for a fresh effort. Mary would look in upon her, chide her for her laziness, threatened to tell her mother when she came home and so forth.”
“’Nig.’ Screamed Mary, one of her sickest days, ‘Come here and sweep these threads from the carpet.’ She attempted to drag her weary limbs along using the broom as a support. Impatient of delay, she called again, but with a different request, ‘Bring me some wood, you lazy Jade, quick.’ Nig rested the broom against the wall and started on the fresh behest. Too long gone, fleshed with anger, she rose and greeted her with, ‘What are you gone for so long for, bring it in quick, I say.’ ‘I am coming as quick as I can.’ She replied entering the door. Sassy, imputed, ‘Nigga, you, this is how you answer me?’ And taking a large carving knife from the table, she hurled it in her rage at the defenseless girl. Dodging quickly and fastened in the ceiling, a few inches from where she stood, there rushed on Mary’s mental vision, a picture of bloodshed in which she was the perpetrator and the sad consequences of what was so nearly an actual occurrence.”
“’Tell anybody of this if you dare. If you tell Aunt Abby, I will certainly kill you.’ Said she terrified. She returned to her room, brushed her threads herself, was for a day or two more guarded, and so escaped deserved and merited penalty. Oh, how long the week seemed, which held Nig in subjugation to Mary, but they passed like all her sorrows and joys. Mr. and Mrs. B returned delighted with their visit, and laden with rich presence for Mary. No word of hope for Nig. James was quite unwell and would come home next spring for a visit. This thought Nig will be my time of release. I shall go back with him. From early dawn until after all were retired was she toiling, overworked, disheartened, longing for relief. Exposure from heat to cold, or the reverse often destroyed her health for short intervals. She wore no shoes until after frost and snow even appeared and bared her feet again before the last vestige of winter had disappeared.”
“These sudden changes, she was so illy guarded against nearly conquered her physical system. Any word of complaint was severely repulsed or cruelly punished. She was told she had much more than she deserved. So that manual labor was not in reality her only burden, but such an incessant torrent of scolding and boxing and threatening was enough to deter one of mature years from her remaining within the sound of strife. It is impossible to give an impression of the manifest enjoyment of Mrs. B in these kitchen scenes. It was her favorite exercise to enter the apartment noisily, decipherate orders, give a few sudden blows to quicken Nig’s pace, then return to the sitting room with such a satisfied expression, congratulating herself upon her thorough housekeeping qualities.”
“She usually rose in the morning at the ringing of the bell for breakfast. If she heard stirring before that time, Nig knew well, there was an extra amount of scolding to be born. No one now stood between her and Frado, but Aunt Abby. And if she dared to interfere in the least, she was ordered back to her own quarters. Nig would creep slightly into her room, learn what she could of her regarding the absent, and thus gain some light in the thick gloom of care and toil and sorrow in which she was immersed. The first of spring, a letter came from James, announcing declining health. He must try Northern eras a restorative. So Frado joyfully prepared for this agreeable increase of the family, this addition to her cares. He arrived feeble, lame from his disease. So changed Frado wept at his appearance, fearing he would be removed from her forever. He kindly greeted her, took her to the parlor to see his wife and child and said many things to kindle smiles on her sad face.”
“Frado felt so happy in his presence, so safe for maltreatment. He was to her, a shelter. He observed silently the ways at the house for a few days. Nig still took her meals in the same manner as the formerly, having the same allowances of food. He one day begged her not to remove the food, but to sit down to the table and eat. ‘She will mother.’ He said calmly, but imperatively. ‘I’m determined. She works hard. I’ve watched her. Now while I stay, she is going to sit here and eat such food as we eat.’ A few smirks from the mother’s black eyes were the only reply. She feared to oppose where she knew she could not prevail. So Nig standing attitude and selected diet vanished. Her clothing was yet poor and scanty. She was not blessed with Sunday attire. She was never permitted to attend church with her mistress.”
“’Religion was not meant for niggas,’ she said. When the husband and brother were absent, she would drive Mrs. B and Mary there then return, and then go for them at the close of the service, but never remain. Aunt Abby would take her to the evening meetings held in the neighborhoods which Mrs. B never attended. And impart to her lessons of truth of grace, as they walked to the place of prayer. Many of less piety would scorn to present such a doleful figure. Mrs. B had shaved her glossy ringlets and in her coarse cloth gown and ancient bonnet, she was anything but an enticing object. But Aunt Abby looked within. She saw a soul to save, an immortality of happiness to secure.”
“These evenings were eagerly anticipated by Nig. It was such a pleasant release from labor. Such perfect contrast in the melody and prayers of these good people to the harsh tones, which fell on her ears during the day. Soon, she had all their sacred songs at command and enlivened her toil by accompanying it with this melody. James encouraged his aunt in her efforts. He had found the savior. He wished to have Frado’s desolate heart gladdened, quiet, sustained by his presence. He felt sure there were elements in her heart, which transformed and purified by the gospel would make her a worthy of the esteem and friendship of the world. A kind affectionate heart, narrative writ and common sense, and the pertness she sometimes exhibited.”
“He felt if restrained properly might become useful in originating a self-reliance, which would be of service to her in after years. Yet, it was not possible to compass all this while she remained where she was. He wished to be cautious about pressing too closely her claims on his mother, as it would increase the burdened one, he so anxiously wished to relieve. He cheered her on with hope of returning with his family when he had recovered sufficiently. Nig seemed awakened to new hopes and aspirations and a realized longing for the future hither to unknown. To complete Nig’s enjoyment, Jack arrived unexpectedly. His greeting was as hardy to herself as to any of the family. ‘Where are your curls at, Fray?’ Asked Jack after the usual salutation. ‘Your mother cut them off.’ ‘Thought you were getting handsome, did she? Same old story, it is. Knocks and bumps. Better times are coming. Never fear, Nig.’ How different this appellative sounded from him. He said it in such a tone with such a roguish look.”
“She laughed and replied that he had better take her west for a housekeeper. Jack was pleased with James’ innovation of table discipline and would often tear in the dining room to see Nig in her new place at the family table. As he was thus sitting one day, after the family had finished dinner, Frado seated herself in her mistress’s chair and was just reaching for a clean dessert plate, which was on the table, when her mistress entered. ‘Put that plate down. You shall not have a clean one. Eat from mine,’ continued she. Nig hesitated. To eat after James, his wife or Jack would’ve been pleasant, but to be commanded to do what was disagreeable by her mistress because it was disagreeable was trying.”
“Quickly looking about, she took the plate, called Fido to wash it, which he did to the best of his ability, then wiping her knife and fork on the cloth, she proceeded to eat her dinner. Nig never looked toward her mistress during the process. She had Jack near, she did not fear her now. Insulted, full of rage, Mrs. Bellmont rushed to her husband and commanded him to notice this insult, to whip that child. And if he would not do it, James ought.”
“James came to hear the kitchen version of the affair. Jack was boiling over with laughter. He related all the circumstances to James and pulling a bright silver half dollar from his pocket, he threw it at Nig saying, “Fair, take that, it was worth paying for.” James saw his mother, told her, ‘He would not excuse or pallet Nig’s impudence, but she should not be whipped or punished at all. You have not treated her mother, so as to gain her love. She is only exhibiting your remissions in this matter.’ She only smothered her resentment until a convenient opportunity offered. The first time she was left alone with Nig, she gave her a thorough beating to bring up arrearages and threatened, if she ever exposed her to James, she would cut her tongue out. James found her upon his return sobbing, but fearful of revenge, she dared not answer his queries. He guessed their cause and longed for returning health to take her under his protection.” End chapter six.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: That was chapter six of “Our Nig”, by Harriet E Wilson, read by Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. And I’m Jackie Fowler.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: We will have a conversation about chapter six of “Our Nig”, by Harriet E. Wilson, with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson of the English and literature department. So welcome back, Dr. Fisch-Ferguson.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you. My pleasure to be here.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, one of the things I’d like you to fill in for us is, in our first conversation about this groundbreaking novel, we talked about Mag and her about to marry Jim. And so, could you fill us in on her life and Jim’s life until this point in chapter six?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Sure. So, some quick notes, Mag had lost everything and was on the verge of dying from not having food, not having shelter, and consented to marry Jim, who is an African. So that set up at the end of chapter one. So, chapters two through five, pretty much cover their very, very brief married life. So, whereas Mag considered it, her absolute last choice to marry this man so he would clothe her and feed her, Jim very much saw it as Mag being this bright shining star. He had gained himself a white wife, which at the time was this penultimate offering of, look, I’m good enough to have found a white woman to marry. And so, it was kind of this duality of she saw him as better than death, and he held her up as this pinnacle of goodness and everything was well. Well, Mag dies after having a couple of kids, and then Jim dies and leaves their daughter, Frado all alone.
So, before Mag had died, she had accepted to work at the Bellmont home as a house servant. Keep in mind, this was still in the north, so they were free, and they were paid a wage, but Mag had gone to work for this family, and started bringing her daughter with her to these assignments to help her clean, so she could teach her daughter how to make a living. And one of the Bellmont children, James, had decided that Frado was a great friend, and he advocated for her, which led to her being able to take lessons with the other children. And soon she gained this reputation as being a great prankster. I’m not going to spoil, if anybody wants to read about all the pranks, they’re pretty clever for a small child. But Frado and James had struck up a friendship. And after her father died, he got her this little dog, Fido, and that was her present. And that’s what the very beginning of the chapter talks about with her being in despair and everything being taken from her. Fido was not allowed to come to the house with her.
And so, she had lost everything. And that was the very opening paragraphs where James had advocated saying she has lost everything. She doesn’t have her parents anymore, she doesn’t have a home, at least let her have the dog. So that was the quick fill in, hopefully, enticing enough that people will want to go back and read through the chapters. They’re very, very richly packed. And this is a semi- autobiographical book. So, as authors know, we tend to insert ourselves into our works in various little ways. And I truly do believe Harriet Wilson proudly had a little bit of spice to her. Not just the way she writes, but how she writes about these events.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: For sure. Just before we go on, how old is Frado in this chapter?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: In chapter six she’s 14, it does mention it part way through. So, all of the household duties that she has taken on, keep in mind, she’s a 14- year-old girl, coming in and being responsible for the running of the household, the cleanliness of the household, even though the Bellmont daughter, Mary oversees her, Mary takes claim for all the work done, Frado is the one doing all of it.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So Frado is a 14-year-old, mixed-race, free child living in the north. And yet Mary, James’s sister, daughter of the Bellmont could say something like “Sassy, impudent, nigger you,” to young Frado.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely, because Frado didn’t have any other methods of living. She understands that she’s in the house by the grace of the mother, that they could cast her out on the street. What she doesn’t understand is there’s no way they would cast her out because then Mary and Mrs. Bellmont would actually have to do their own work and clean their own house, or they would have to pay to have it done. And if you’re paying someone to do the work, you can’t heap the type of abuse that they gave to Frado on someone else.
Expressly, as the chapter is written, you’ll notice that I tended to say she a lot, and it became really interwoven and confusing. Well, which she are we talking about? Are we talking about Mary? Are we talking about Frado? Are we talking about Mrs. Bellmont? And then the author also switches between Frado and Nig. So, sometimes she’s given a name and seen as a human. A lot of times she’s just called Nig because they just couldn’t be bothered.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: There’s an interesting interplay going on between the children and Mrs. Bellmont. So, Mary seems to be very much in alignment with Mrs. Bellmont in terms of how she feels about Frado, but James is different. And although, I don’t know if I trust Jack completely, he seems to be different as well. And so, I’m wondering where did it happen in the story that we see this dichotomy between the mother and the daughter, and then the two boys?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: About midway through chapter four, actually, they show how the relationship with the Bellmont children and Nig did change, but James is very much her savior. And so, you don’t have to read too far into the white savior complex. It’s right here on the page and especially with a male, but he very much does protect her and her whole hope. She wasn’t upset that he got married and moved off, she was upset that he moved up to Baltimore and left her there because he had promised you can come with me, but I have to get set up first. And then when he did get set up, he got sick. And so that was what we read toward the end of chapter six is, she was just waiting for him to get well enough that she could travel home with him, but he had to be healed first. So, now she’s waiting for a sick man to get better who may or may not get better.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, I want to address the white savior complex that we’re seeing emerging here with James. It’s interesting what he does. He puts her in pretty uncomfortable and untenable circumstances. So, for instance, in one part it says, “He one day bade her not remove the food but sit down at the table and eat. She will mother said he calmly, but imperatively, I’m determined. She works hard. I’ve watched her. Now while I stay, she’s going to sit down here and eat such food as we eat.” And I feel like maybe James thinks he’s doing the right thing. He seems like the stereotype of the northerner at this point. Unfortunately, he’s not there all the time.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And this is a repetitive theme actually, where James steps in and he is the golden child of the family. So, of course his mother is going to appease him because he doesn’t visit as often. She’s not able to go up and visit him as often, so he’s not home. So, she’s going to appease him while he’s there. And that’s where his brain stops. It has not occurred to him, not yet once, in this novel that his actions give her consequences. That when he does something, she gets beat for it, or she doesn’t have food, or the repercussions that come… And I think it’s just absolutely the naivete of he was always the preferred child, so he never really had consequences heaped upon him. They were always given to other people. So, he’s been able to live in the privilege of the life of, well, I make these edicts and then good things happen, and then everybody’s happy and we move on.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, he doesn’t look over his shoulder to see the carnage left behind him. But I will say the section you pointed out is absolutely one of my favorite sections. It was kind of like a oh, snap section. So, carrying on from where James was going to have her eat and the mistress is like, well, you can eat off this dirty old plate. And she calls Fido over to wash the plate. And the absolute… I chuckled the first time I read it, I chuckle even now when I read it, that Frado would rather eat off a plate licked by a dog, than eat off a plate from her mistress that for me was, I’m old, so I can say, oh, snap moments. But it was like, oh, wow. Okay. And the insult was not missed.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: It was not missed by Mrs. Bellmont. And I’m assuming will be addressed by Mrs. Bellmont when James leaves. I’m going to stick with this idea of the white savior complex thing going on with James, and say, even in 1859, it looks like Harriet Wilson is writing it purposely for us to notice it. One of the things we talked about in our first conversation about this book is how her writing style and structure contributed to the story. She did it with religion and with sexual innuendo in that first sentence. But here, I’m wondering if she’s doing it with the white savior complex. There’s a part where, “James encouraged his aunt in her efforts. He had found the Savior. He wished to have Frado’s desolate heart glad and quieted, sustained by his presence.” And the savior in this paragraph is capitalized. It’s meant to stand out. And I’m wondering if you think Harriet Wilson intended for us to see James in such a way?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: My personal thought, which maybe not be for everyone was, not that Harriet Wilson expected the reader to miss the fact that James was trying to be the savior. I think she put it in all caps almost as a dig at James, where he didn’t recognize for him trying to step in and save her, to give her religion, to see his viewpoint of Christianity as a saving method, that part was lost on him. Not so much the reader who can read and interpret, but James as a character was so engrossed with him being right and things being good. And he just wants this poor little wild child to know the benefits of a Christian upbringing, that savior was everywhere. He was a savior. God was a savior, going to church was being a savior. I don’t think he actually can step out of the role. He doesn’t understand that his type of saving is getting her tail whooped every time he leaves.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: I think it’s interesting based on what we already know from Harriet Wilson’s style and the way she structures her writing. Even though here, he’s talking about God as the savior and Abby taking her to church so Frado’s soul would be enhanced, the idea that it’s a mistake that Harriet Wilson is putting it in the same chapter with James is kind of hard to believe based on the first few chapters that we read.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: She’s very deliberate. And I think what she comes up and she shows, so number one in a time where African-American people were not supposed to be literate and definitely were not seen as clever, she’s taking these words and she’s weaving them together to create a picture that mocks the whole notion of a white savior, but also mocks people who think they can save other and make her worthy of anything because you went to church and maybe you thought you found religion, that if I do the same, then all of a sudden my skin color is moot, and now I’m worthy of you. I see it more as very much a mockery of just this idea of anybody needing saving from someone who doesn’t even understand the reality of the situation.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Well, and she also recognizes even at 14, that the one who needs saving is Mrs. Bellmont, and maybe her daughter, Mary.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. And the idea that out of the goodness of their heart, they let this child work for them, if you read back, I believe it is in chapter five, potentially chapter four, Mrs. Bellmont makes a whole big spiel about, yes, Frado can stay with us. I understand her parents died and she’s like seven and she’s got nothing. I will deign to let her stay with us, as long as she cleans the house, the whole house, and then spirals on top of that. So, it’s seen pretty easily and pretty clearly that Mrs. Bellmont is set up to be a villain character.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: It’s not seen that James is a villain character because he tries to do things for her. He ends up being the problem because he absolutely is the cause of her being brutalized and does nothing afterwards to stop it. He knows she gets beaten, he’s seen her beaten, he’s seen the aftermath and then doesn’t do anything. And he’s not cognizant enough to know these couple words that I say, and she’s going to act right in my presence, doesn’t carry forward. So, he ends up being more of a villain character because he is the reason, many times, that the punishments are so incredibly harsh.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: There’s realization by Jack about this. James doesn’t realize it, but Jack sure does. He says about her hair, the curls, “Thought you were getting handsome, did she, same old story is it, knocks and bumps. Better times coming, never fear, Nig.” So, in a way, Jack recognizes that while James is the golden child and thinks he’s doing everything right and living up to this stereotype of the northerner in regards to Frado, in effect, he is creating the jealousy, truly the jealousy of the mother in regards to the way James treats the young girl that she treats as a servant. Jack seems to recognize it. What’s going on with Jack?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Unfortunately, this chapter doesn’t really highlight him well, but you can see definitely his personality come out where he falls out laughing that Frado had the dog lick the plate. But he does come up and he actually brings up a really poignant conversation in just a couple of words, about Frado having her haircut. So, looking at the time where you have people in the north have to acknowledge that black people are free and maybe they’re kind of human, sort of, but Africans have these features and they’re very othered. But now you have mulatto children, which are mixed-race kids. And a lot of times they had some features that just white people didn’t have. So, not that white people don’t have curly hair, but a lot of times when you have mulatto children, they have big voluptuous curls that you don’t get unless you use a curling iron.
Or they have just nice, pretty, long silky hair. And down in the south African enslaved peoples had their hair cut because that was a tie to culture. And so, this was a way to humiliate people. This is a way to break people. This is a way to put people in their places. We were going to strip things from you. And Frado did enjoy her hair. That was something she enjoyed. And Mrs. Bellmont thought she was getting full of herself, so she chopped her hair off, a heartbreaking thing to do to anybody, but again, I say 14-year-old child because I’m old, but when I was 14, I was pretty sure I was grown and I wanted to be attractive and maybe attract a guy or two, Frado the same way.
Even though she understands she can’t marry James because he’s the son of the mistress of the household and the mistress would rather kill her than see her with her son, she still wants to be attractive. And if that’s her one feature, then of course, Mrs. Bellmont understands the weaponizing of, “I’m not going to allow you to feel good about yourself. So, I’m not just cutting your hair, I’m hacking it off. And then by the way, I’m going to beat you for being pretty.”
Dr. Jackie Fowler: And stealing her identity in the process.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: There seems to be emerging some kind of almost sexual tension between from Jack towards Frado. So, there’s a part where, “Jack was pleased with James’s innovations of table discipline and would often tarry in the dining room to see Nig in our new place at the family table.”
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Not so much sexual tension. There is Jack watching his mother get her comeuppance. Nig was always the type, Frado was always the type to push back. So, oh, you’re going to call me Nig, okay, well then, I’m going to do little things to irritate you. I’m not going to quite do things the way you want them to, not enough that I’m going to get beaten, but I’m going to rub it in your face that you’re not actually my master. You’re not actually my mistress. So, Frado does remember having parents. She does remember living in a different house. And even though she’s kind of adopted this family as hers, this is like an offshoot of her family because her mother worked for the Bellmonts, she also understands somewhere in her brain what’s happening isn’t right. And so, I think where it’s very frustrating for Mrs. Bellmont is she demands absolute obedience, even though she’s in the north and Frado was born a free person.
And so, there’s this pushback that says, okay, you’re giving me a place to stay. I get food, I get shoes, I mean, only when the frost comes, only in the winter. And then, hey, by the way, if I grow out of them before that, I don’t have shoes anymore. I have castoff clothes, but we both know I’m free, and eventually I can walk out of your house. So, there’s a lot of boiling tension about place and where place should be, and where people like to say she was in the north and she was free. And this family took her in and did well by her, they didn’t, and they weren’t treating her much better than slaves were being treated in the south. The difference between Frado and an enslaved person is she had more opportunities, but she’s a kid and she doesn’t have that fully explored yet to her.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, as we come to the end of chapter six, I have one more question for you here. So, this is the second of three conversations we’re going to have about this groundbreaking novel. What can we look forward to in our next conversation? Give us a hint, give us a teaser.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, so far, you’ve heard me say it, but Frado has a pretty strong backbone. She has a pretty strong sense of self. And things are going to come to a head. Things will change. I’m not going to give you too many spoilers, because I really would love for anybody listening, it’s 12 chapters, that’s all it is. You can spend the next 12 days an hour every morning with your coffee, tea or whatever you like to wake up to and read the book. But it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a satisfying read.
I think it’s eye-opening in a whole bunch of different ways, especially remembering it’s semi-autobiographical, and you are talking about a mixed-race woman writing about mixed race characters, which is near and dear to my heart. That’s how I write. She has some surprising elements come up in the final chapter, but I was satisfied with the ending. I was okay with it, I could accept it, I could work forward with it. So, a little bit more spice, a little bit more sass, maybe gasping and saying, “oh, my goodness, I didn’t see that coming”.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: So, although it’s a novel that for 1859 is pretty groundbreaking. It is a novel that’s maybe a little cliche for 2022. Though you’re saying to us, you think we should read it?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I don’t know that I think it’s out of touch with 2022, though. I mean, let’s look at how the state of the world is coming. There are plenty of mixed-race people. I mean, plenty, plenty of us out there. And yet a lot of times I couldn’t tell you how many times people have looked at me first, never spoken to me, don’t know a thing about me, and the worst insult that I get is, well, you’re so articulate. In 2022, I’m articulate. Well, thank you. I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to be articulate.
I personally enjoy having my hair braided. It’s great for me, it’s low maintenance. It’s less hassle. And yet still every now and again, I will have somebody reach for my hair. I mean, these are things that one would assume would pass out of fashion curiosity or something. But my body is still an enigma to certain people, and they feel like they have the right to come touch, come talk, come converse with me in any sort of way, which is amazing to me, which is kind of the things Frado’s still going through. It’s like, wait a second, this is a whole actual human being and yet she’s a commodity. It hasn’t gone away in 2022. What started to go away is the acceptance that this is a norm. And so, people are very shocked when they grab my hair that I grab theirs back. Oh, I didn’t realize your hair was going to be so straw-like.
Or another one, and I will say this with pride, I use a lot of lotion and I have nicely soft skin, but people like to come up and pet me because, oh, your skin looks so soft, but why are you touching me? So, I’m a commodity, right? So, I don’t have an identity other than, well, here’s this black-looking woman that I don’t know, but I’m going to go touch her hair and I’m going to praise her for having words strung together in a certain way, and then I’m going to pet her because her skin looks soft. Instead of looking at me like, wow, this is a human who probably uses a lot of lotion and takes pride in her appearance. So, the novel is not so far removed. So, for people saying, well it’s 2022 and these things shouldn’t still bother, let me know the first time that somebody comes up and pats you on the head and runs their fingers through your locks, and wants to know about your hair texture, and then we can have a different conversation
Dr. Jackie Fowler: For those of you who would like to be prepared for the third of our three conversations with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, you can get a copy of “Our Nig”, by Harriet Wilson and just read through it so that you’re prepared for our next conversation. I want to thank you Dr. Fisch-Ferguson.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thanks for having me. My pleasure as always.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: This is The Everyday Scholar and I’m Dr. Jackie Fowler. Thank you for taking your time to be with us today.