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

‘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?…

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