This Week in History: First Novel by an African American Published in the States

boston-view-1841-havell
The city probably didn’t look this rosy and idyllic to black people… Credit: Robert Havell

In this week, over 150 years ago, the first novel by a person of colour was published in America.

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was an autobiographical novel by Harriet E. Wilson. Published in 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts, it tells the story of a young black girl called Frado who’s abandoned by her mother at the age of six and becomes an ‘indentured servant’ to a white family. Eventually, after she turns 18, Frado is allowed to leave and travels through the city looking for work.

For those wondering what an indentured servant is, it’s essentially a fancy word for a slave. These servants are usually paid nothing and are bound by a contract to serve until they’ve reached adulthood. Wilson and her protagonist may have been born free, but even in the North they were forced into what was pretty much slavery and treated as second class citizens. This is reasoned to be behind the book’s poor sales – Wilson refused to give the North an easy ride and wrote harshly about the terrible treatment of free black people there.

The book was rediscovered in the early 1980s by famed American professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr, who published it again for a new generation.

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