‘Twisting herself into all shapes’: blackface minstrelsy and comic performance in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2017-12-25 20:23Z by Steven

‘Twisting herself into all shapes’: blackface minstrelsy and comic performance in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig

European Journal of American Studies
9-1 | 2014 : Spring 2014

Elizabeth Boyle, Lecturer
Department of English
University of Hull, Hull, United Kingdom

Figure 1: Caroline Fox Howard as ‘Topsy’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, c. 1854.

This article argues that the practical jokes running throughout Wilson’s novel Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) are evidence of a deliberate and sophisticated comic strategy that exploits the spectacular body’s potential for subversive performance and works against the alienating conditions of social and political marginalisation experienced by African Americans in the antebellum period. Initially utilising the crude humour of minstrelsy, Wilson deliberately capitalised on her readers’ laughter in order to defamiliarise the ‘spectacle’ of blackness in both popular performance culture and indentured servitude. Using movement, costume and material props, Wilson imagines new ways to present her protagonist’s body through the minstrel stereotypes of Topsy, Jim Crow, Zip Coon and Jasper Jack. Wilson then turns the joke on her white readers, ultimately demonstrating that whiteness, like blackness, is a performative identity. Taken as a whole, Wilson’s comic strategy, with its ‘embodied insurgency’, aligns her with the period’s most politically racial African American performers.

1. Introduction

The idea for this article sprang from a seemingly simple question: why are there so many practical jokes played in Harriet Wilson’s novel, Our Nig (1859)? Although the novel—generally recognised as the first to be published in the United States by an African American—centres on the tragic story of a young, mulatto indentured servant mistreated by her Northern mistress, the narrative consistently undermines its mid-nineteenth century sentimental framework by including short comic sketches performed by the supposedly tragic protagonist, who nevertheless ‘was ever at some sly prank’, and would often ‘venture far beyond propriety’ in entertaining herself and those around her (Wilson 38). Are these comic interruptions evidence of narrative inconsistency? Or, is Wilson’s persistent inclusion of the figure of the black comic performer in fact a shrewd exploration of a powerfully resonant theatrical tradition and its manifold racial discourses? And what does it mean for a female African American author writing at the crux of the ‘slavery question’ in the run-up to the Civil War—and near the peak of blackface minstrel popularity—to delve into the complex social meanings behind popular comic performances of blackness? Why these pranks, in this manner, at this time?…

Read the entire article here.

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First African-American woman novelist revisited

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2015-07-23 02:24Z by Steven

First African-American woman novelist revisited

Harvard University Gazette
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ken Gewertz, Harvard News Office

Harriet Wilson was a survivor. Now we have proof.

Wilson wrote “Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black,” the earliest known novel by an African-American woman. It tells the story of Frado, a young biracial girl born in freedom in New Hampshire who becomes an indentured servant to a tyrannical and abusive white woman. In 1859, when the book was published, the abolitionist movement had created a vogue among Northern readers for autobiographies of escaped slaves, but Wilson’s story of a free black abused by her Northern employer did not fit the established mold, and the novel soon fell into obscurity.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, found a copy of the novel in a used bookstore in the early 1980s and was intrigued by it. Among those specialists who were aware of the book, many doubted whether it was really the work of a black writer, but Gates wondered why anyone in 1859 would identify herself as black unless she were.

He started searching for evidence of Wilson’s existence and eventually succeeded in documenting her life up to 1863. The facts he uncovered closely resembled the events in the life of the novel’s protagonist. Gates, who published his findings in a 1983 edition of the novel, concluded that Wilson must have died around the time the historical trail went cold.

Now evidence has surfaced showing that Wilson survived almost another 40 years, demonstrating in other areas of endeavor the resilience and creativity that allowed her to try her hand at writing.

P. Gabrielle Foreman, associate professor of English and American Studies at Occidental College in California, and Reginald Pitts, a historical researcher and genealogical consultant, spoke Friday (March 18) about information they have uncovered about the latter half of Wilson’s life. The event was sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and the Department of African and African American Studies. Foreman and Pitts have incorporated their research into an introduction to a new edition of Wilson’s novel (Penguin Classics, 2005)…

Read the entire article here.

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Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States, Women on 2015-07-23 02:13Z by Steven

Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

Penguin Press
2009 (First published in 1859)
176 pages
Paperback ISBN: 9780143105763
Ebook ISBN: 9781440649141

Harriet E. Wilson (1825-1900)

Introduction and Notes by:

P. Gabrielle Foreman, Ned B. Allen Professor of English
University of Delaware

Reginald Pitts

For the 150th anniversary of its first publication, a new edition of the pioneering African-American classic, reflecting groundbreaking discoveries about its author’s life

First published in 1859, Our Nig is an autobiographical narrative that stands as one of the most important accounts of the life of a black woman in the antebellum North. In the story of Frado, a spirited black girl who is abused and overworked as the indentured servant to a New England family, Harriet E. Wilson tells a heartbreaking story about the resilience of the human spirit. This edition incorporates new research showing that Wilson was not only a pioneering African-American literary figure but also an entrepreneur in the black women’s hair care market fifty years before Madame C. J. Walker’s hair care empire made her the country’s first woman millionaire.

Read the book at Project Gutenberg here.

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Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2012-01-03 22:58Z by Steven

Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

St. Mary’s College of Maryland
English 400.01
Fall 2008

Christine Wooley, Assistant Professor of English
This course will consider representations of passing (and thus also miscegenation) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture. While passing has often been depicted-and dismissed-as an act of racial betrayal, more recent criticism has suggested that we view these depictions of racial transgression and deception in more complicated ways. In this class, we will analyze various narratives centered around passing and miscegenation as sites through which we can better examine-and understand-the construction of racial identities in particular historical and political contexts. We will ask whether or not narratives about passing and miscegenation challenge the stability of racial categories. Likewise, we will pay close attention to how such narratives also engage issues of class, ethnicity, and gender. Syllabus may include works by authors such as Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Frances Harper, William Dean Howells, Pauline Hopkins, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. In addition, this class will also draw on a selection of historical and legal documents, current critical works on race, and films such as The Jazz Singer and Imitation of Life.

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Nation, miscegenation, and the myth of the mulatta/o monster 1859-1886

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2011-08-05 22:19Z by Steven

Nation, miscegenation, and the myth of the mulatta/o monster 1859-1886

Universite de Montreal (Canada)
261 pages
Publication Number: AAT NR60321
ISBN: 9780494603215

Jessica Alexandra Maeve Murphy

These presentee a la Faculte des etudes superieures En vue de l’obtention du grade de Philosophiae Doctor (Ph.D.) en etudes anglaises

“Nation, Miscegenation, and The Myth of the Mulatta/o Monster, 1859-1886” examines how Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Robert Louis Stevenson use the trope of the mulatta/o monster only to subvert it by showing readers that the real monster is white, hegemonic culture. More specifically, it deals with how Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Octoroon, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depict the interracial body as a gothic house, one which is a microcosm for an increasingly hybrid and un-homely nation. The four texts under consideration in my thesis all explore what it means to be black and female (or dark and feminized) in the United States and Britain where to be white, male, and affluent is to have virtually limitless power over the bodies of women, particularly black ones.

Drawing upon Nancy Stepan’s notion of “proper places,” this dissertation looks at how interracial individuals challenged existing hierarchies in the mid-to-late nineteenth century by defying racial, gender, and class norms nationally and transatlantically. While many scientists of the period believed that mixed-race people were infertile and headed for extinction, the proliferation of such individuals attests to the fact that the number of racially hybrid people was increasing, not decreasing. For many Victorians and their American counterparts, the rise in this population as well as the shifting roles of black and white women, black men, and the working class compelled them to label these groups. It also heightened their concern with degeneration and their need to polarize black/white, female/male, and rich/poor. Yet, as this project shows, while such binaries are necessarily porous, England and the United States both made use of them to establish and define their national identities vis-à-vis one another. Whereas American writers like Jacobs and Wilson relied on such constructs to shame their country and to shape its future, British ones like Braddon used them to allege national superiority or, like Robert Louis Stevenson, later on in the nineteenth century, to reveal the changing face of the nation.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Making and Unmaking Monsters in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig
  • Chapter 2: Sexual Propriety and Racial Transgression in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Chapter 3: The Transatlantic Gaze in M. E. Braddon’s The Octoroon
  • Chapter 4: Mr. Hyde as Hybrid in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekvll and Mr. Hyde
  • Notes
  • Works Cited

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-11-03 22:31Z by Steven

Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region

University of New Hampshire Press
University Press of New England
272 pp. 18 B&W illus., 4 appendixes 6 x 9″
Paper ISBN: 978-1-58465-642-5
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-58465-641-8

Edited by

JerriAnne Boggis, Director
Harriet Wilson Project

Eve Allegra Raimon, Associate Professor of Arts and Humanities
University of Southern Maine

Barbara A. White, Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies
University of New Hampshire

Forward by

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W. E. B. Dubois Professor of the Humanities
Harvard University

This volume, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., advances efforts to correct the historical record about the racial complexity and richness characteristic of rural New England’s past.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Harriet E. Wilson, an enterprising woman of mixed racial heritage, wrote an autobiographical novel describing the abuse and servitude endured by a young black girl in the supposedly free North. Originally published in Boston in 1859 and “lost” until its 1983 republication by noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, is generally considered the first work of fiction written by an African American woman published in the United States.

With this collection, the first devoted entirely to Wilson and her novel, the editors have compiled essays that seek to understand Wilson within New England and New England as it might have appeared to Wilson and her contemporaries. The contributors include prominent historians, literary critics, psychologists, librarians, and diversity activists. Harriet Wilson’s New England joins other critical works in the emerging field known as the New Regionalism in resurrecting historically hidden ethnic communities in rural New England and exploring their erasure from public memory. It offers new literary and historical interpretations of Our Nig and responds to renewed interest in Wilson’s dramatic account of servitude and racial discrimination in the North.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword – Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Making Space for Harriet E. Wilson
    • Of Bottles and Books: Reconsidering the Readers of Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” – Eric Gardner
    • Harriet Wilson’s Mentors: The Walkers of Worcester – Barbara A. White
    • George and Timothy Blanchard: Surviving and Thriving in Nineteenth-Century Milford – Reginald H. Pitts
    • As Soon as I Saw My Sable Brother, I Felt More at Home”: Sampson Battis, Harriet Wilson, and New Hampshire Town History – David H. Watters
    • New Hampshire Forgot: African Americans in a Community by the Sea – Valerie Cunningham
    • Slavery’s Shadows: Narrative Chiaroscuro and “Our Nig” – Mary Louise Kete
    • Recovered Autobiographies and the Marketplace: “Our Nig’s” Generic Genealogies and Harriet Wilson’s Entrepreneurial Enterprise – P. Gabrielle Foreman
    • The Disorderly Girl in Harriet E. Wilson’s “Our Nig” – Lisa E. Green
    • Beyond the Page: Rape and the Failure of Genre – Cassandra Jackson
    • Miss Marsh’s Uncommon School ReformEve Allegra Raimon
    • Fairy Tales and “Our Nig”: Feminist Approaches to Teaching Harriet Wilson’s Novel – Helen Frink
    • Losing Equilibrium: Harriet E. Wilson, Frado, and Me – John Ernest
    • Discovering Harriet Wilson in My Own Backyard – William Allen
    • A Conversation with Tami Sanders – Gloria Henry
    • Not Somewhere Else, But Here – JerriAnne Boggis
  • Contributors
  • Index
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The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, Social Science, United States, Women on 2009-11-03 19:27Z by Steven

The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction

Rutgers University Press
202 pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-3481-7
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-3482-4

Eve Allegra Raimon, Professor, Arts & Humanities
University of Southern Maine

Since its inception, the United States has been intensely preoccupied with interracialism. The concept is embedded everywhere in our social and political fabric, including our sense of national identity. And yet, in both its quantitative and symbolic forms, interracialism remains an extremely elusive phenomenon, causing policy makers and census boards to wrangle over how to delineate it and, on an emblematic level, stirring intense emotions from fear to fascination. In The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited, Eve Allegra Raimon focuses on the mixed-race female slave in literature, arguing that this figure became a symbolic vehicle for explorations of race and nation-both of which were in crisis in the mid-nineteenth century. At this time, judicial, statutory, social, and scientific debates about the meaning of racial difference (and intermixture) coincided with disputes over frontier expansion, which were never merely about land acquisition but also literally about the “complexion” of that frontier. Embodying both northern and southern ideologies, the “amalgamated” mulatta, the author argues, can be viewed as quintessentially American, a precursor to contemporary motifs of “hybrid” and “mestizo” identities. Where others have focused on the gendered and racially abject position of the “tragic mulatta,” Raimon reconsiders texts by such central antislavery writers as Lydia Maria Child, William Wells Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Wilson to suggest that the figure is more usefully examined as a way of understanding the volatile and shifting interface of race and national identity in the antebellum period.

Read an excerpt here.

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